All signs pointed to J.R. Smith.
He was lingering along the 3-point line in front of the Celtics bench, waiting to fire his 16th shot of the night even though he had already come up empty 13 times.
There was nothing bad about the way the Celtics were playing defense.
But Smith was standing so close that Doc Rivers could have stepped out and guarded him, and the Celtics coach could tell that his team’s defense wasn’t particularly good, either.
“I thought we should have been there,” Rivers said.
No one was.
The Celtics had Carmelo Anthony double-teamed, and got to Jason Kidd fast enough to keep him from heaving up a three after Anthony swung the ball his way.
But when Kidd whipped the ball to Smith, there was no one to throw a hand in his face.
His only 3-pointer of the night barely harassed the net as it passed through.
It gave the Knicks a 5-point lead with 1:11 left, and they wouldn’t need another basket.
The 89-86 win gave New York its first win in Boston in seven years, and stretched the Celtics’ losing streak to a season-high five games.
“We couldn’t get out there,” Rivers said. “We saw where they were going. We anticipated, and we just didn’t get there in time.”
It was the kind of night where no matter how many times it felt like they were throwing rocks at the rim, the Knicks kept shooting until Smith came up with the game-clincher.
“He’s not going to stop shooting,” Rivers said. “He’s going to keep shooting and he should. He’s a good player.”
The Celtics’ execution undermined their effort. They held the Knicks to 38.6 percent shooting.
Anthony worked so hard for his 28 points, he should be able to claim the game on his taxes.
It was Anthony’s first road game since serving a one-game suspension for an on-court altercation with Kevin Garnett that led to Anthony searching for Garnett in the hallways of Madison Square Garden, then waiting for Garnett outside the team bus.
Anthony was able to get some retribution by snapping the Knicks’ 11-game regular-season losing streak at the Garden, going for 15 points in the second half, including a 21-footer that put the Knicks up, 84-76, with 5:26 remaining.
“I thought he responded well,” said Knicks coach Mike Woodson. “He took some tough shots, but again you’ve got to stay in the moment. Melo just didn’t let things get to him. He made the plays down the stretch.
“I thought Melo was solid from beginning to end, even though he didn’t shoot that well. He was still playing great in the moment.”
But Rivers said Anthony wasn’t the issue.
“If you would have told me that before the game, I would have taken it,” Rivers said.
Offense was the issue.
Rajon Rondo (23 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) rung up the triple-double he had been chasing the last two games, but the Celtics missed 15 of 18 threes and struggled to find consistent scoring in the second half.
When Anthony put up a finger roll that Garnett had no choice but to goaltend, the Knicks went up, 80-70, with 8:23 left and Rivers burned a timeout because he could see energy had been sapped from his team.
“I thought we were losing our spirit,” Rivers said. “That shouldn’t have been a timeout situation. I just had to use it. I would have loved to have that back.’’
Paul Pierce took the floor moments after news broke that he had been snubbed for the All-Star Game. He scored 19 points in the first half, and seemed to have a point to prove. Then,in the second half, he went missing.
In a clutch situation, down, 86-84, with 2:13 left, Pierce pump-faked his defender to get an open look at the elbow but dished to Avery Bradley for a corner three that didn’t go down.
If he had to choose between the two, Rivers said, “I’m taking the Paul shot. Nothing against Avery, but Paul Pierce wide open at the elbow?”
It was a shot Pierce had knocked down time and again in his career.
“He turned into Kevin Garnett for one play. You want him to shoot and he makes a pass. You can’t fault him for moving the ball,’’ said Rivers. “It’s hard for a coach to get on a guy for moving the ball.’’
After venting his frustrations this week, Rivers said the issue now is seeing his team give the effort he asked for and still fall short.
“It’s frustrating to lose when you give effort because you have to keep convincing your guys if you play that way every night you’re going to make more shots than that, and you’re going to win a lot of games,” Rivers said. “But right now, they’re sitting there thinking ‘We lost.’
“They know it. They know with that effort you’re going to win most nights.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.