NEW YORK — They crumbled, slowly at first but surely all the same, as the misses and turnovers began to pile up — and soon, the tally of errors reached a staggering level.
The Celtics were still in it, somehow, if miraculously, near the very end Saturday, but they could not scale the Everest-like mountain of mistakes that they had built.
They could only look at the box score from their 85-78 Game 1 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden and wince.
■ The seventh-seeded Celtics scored 25 points — total — in the second half, missing 20 of 27 shots.
■ They finished with 21 turnovers, which led to 20 points from the second-seeded Knicks.
■ And in the deciding fourth quarter, which the Celtics entered with a 3-point lead, Boston completed its collapse, scoring as many points as it had turnovers: 8.
The Celtics led, 70-67, going into the fourth quarter, and perhaps a few solid plays would have helped them escape with a series-opening win.
Instead, Boston turned it over and the Knicks capitalized and were able to stretch their lead. With his team ahead by 3, Carmelo Anthony, who scored a game-high 36 points, made a layup and then hit a jumper with 1:21 left.
And that was that.
There was frustration in the Celtics locker room, with a few players feeling as though they let a win slip from their grasp, especially after the team used an 11-1 run to take a 7-point lead late in the third quarter.
“We just got tired, I guess,” said Jeff Green, who scored a team-high 26 points. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to close out quarters, close out the game. We were in a great position to take over the game. Turnovers killed us. Rebounds killed us.”
As for losing that lead?
“You know, the Knicks, they’re not No. 1 for nothing,” said Kevin Garnett, who had 8 points and 9 rebounds.
“They didn’t win the division because they’re lazy or because they were a B-team. My hat goes off to them, they played really well today.”
The Celtics did a lot right. Anthony got his points, but he shot 13 of 29 from the floor.
“What more can you ask for?” Green asked.
Perhaps a little less carelessness with the ball, such as throwing terrible passes from half court into the paint or trying to save balls from going out of bounds in the opponent’s end of the court or passing it right into the hands of waiting defenders.
“We had bad turnovers,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “If we have those turnovers in any game, you probably should lose the game. And we did.”
The Celtics work on not making those kind of passes every day, Rivers said.
“We stepped backwards doing it [Saturday],” he added.
Rivers said he thought that aside from the turnovers, the spacing was “horrendous” after halftime.
“We stopped trusting each other a little bit offensively,” he said. “Each guy held the ball and tried to make their own play. I talked about it before the game. That’s not who we are, we can’t be that way and we tried to play that way in the second half.
“I really couldn’t get them out of it, either. So that was disappointing.”
Said Avery Bradley: “We just stopped moving the ball. It stuck a lot.”
How does that happen?
“You just want to win the game. You get out of the game plan sometimes.”
Emotions were high. Before the game, the Boston and New York fire department’s color guard carried flags to center court before the national anthem.
Then Paul Pierce and Anthony addressed the crowd, sending condolences to the victims of Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Garnett hit his first two shots, but it wasn’t an omen. He missed 10 of his next 12.
Rivers blamed Garnett’s performance on spacing. “We didn’t get him the ball in the right spots,” he said.
And then late in the game, Rivers said players relied too much on Pierce, who scored 21 points, with 7 assists, 6 turnovers, and 5 rebounds.
“It just seemed like we wanted Paul to win it for us,” Rivers said. “We were standing around watching him play and we can’t do that.”
Said Green: “Paul is our go-to guy but we’ve got myself, Jet, Courtney. We’ve got to continue to be aggressive. We can’t rely on Paul and KG. We’ve got to make sure we are in the game, make sure we are helping him.”
Given New York’s point total and that it shot 40.5 percent from the field, the Celtics felt good about their defensive performance.
“Overall, I’ll take that defense throughout a seven-game series,” Pierce said. “But offensively we have to be better with protecting the ball, and rebounding the ball.”
But the Celtics did little to help themselves, playing a horrible second half.
Their bench was especially awful; it scored 4 points (all by Courtney Lee, all on free throws) while New York’s scored 33.
Jason Terry missed all five of his shots and was taken advantage of on defense. Jordan Crawford didn’t score. No other Celtic played off the bench.
“We have to get something,” Rivers said of his reserves.
In all, the Celtics called their mistakes fixable.
“This is one we can learn from,” Pierce said.
And the series showed the promise of being a good one.
“It is going to be a battle,” Anthony said. “Game 2 is going to be even tougher and harder.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes.