It wasn’t pretty, but human survival instinct rarely is. Basketball season in Boston will be extended to May.
Instead of heading home for the season the Celtics are headed back to New York for Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series on Wednesday. Oldies but Goodies Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry earned the Celtics a stay of playoff execution with a desperate and disjointed 97-90 overtime victory over the New York Knicks at TD Garden Sunday.
The Celtics finally breached the 80-point barrier in the series, but it almost wasn’t enough to stand in the way of elimination. The Green blew a 20-point third-quarter lead and nearly lost to the Knicks on a day when New York didn’t have Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith (suspended by the league for his elbow to Terry’s head in Game 3), shot 34.4 percent from the field, and needed to send out a search party to find Carmelo Anthony’s shot.
While the Celtics displayed why Celtic Pride isn’t just a hackneyed hoops expression or a figment of the faithful’s imagination, they also showed just how hard it’s going to be for them to become the first team in NBA history to succeed where 103 have failed, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
Not to be a buzzkill, but if it was an ordeal for the Celtics to beat the Knicks when Anthony shot like he was using his trademark headband as a blindfold (36 points on 10-of-35 shooting) then winning two of the next three at the Other Garden seems unlikely.
You doubt these remarkably resilient Celtics at your own peril, but if the players think this brand of basketball is going to win the series they’re more off the mark than ’Melo.
The Celtics certainly deserve to be saluted for not crumbling when they could have after the Knicks took their first lead of the game, 84-82, with 1:18 to go on a pull-up jumper by Raymond Felton, who channeled Isiah Thomas in the second half on his way to 27 points.
When it came down the stretch the Celtics, who sent the game to OT tied at 84, adhered to a simple philosophy — don’t trust anybody under 35.
Pierce (29 points), Garnett (13 points and 17 rebounds), and Terry (18 points on 7-of-10 shooting) combined to score the final 17 points of the game for the Celtics. Terry had the Celtics’ final 9 points and drilled a transition 3-pointer in OT that put them up, 91-88. They would never trail again.
“When your leaders are KG, Pierce, and myself, we have too much pride,” said Terry. “Getting swept is something that no man that’s been in this league that long wants to do. It’s disheartening. So, again it’s a Game 7-type of intensity. They don’t want to come back here, but we do.”
The Celtics avoided the guillotine, but they still were plagued by many of the same issues that put them in a 3-0 hole in the first place. They were outscored, 13-2, in second-chance points, with Garnett in foul trouble. The Celtics turned the ball over 16 times, and they had their now habitual offensively inept quarter.
Third quarter score: Felton 16, Celtics 14.
“We still have to get away from the one bad quarter,” said coach Doc Rivers. “It just seems like in all four games we’ve had that one bad quarter, and the third quarter was it.”
Early on it looked like instead of slinking away with a victory the Celtics were going to gambol back to NYC. They hit five of their first seven shots and led, 54-35, at the half, closing it out on a 12-3 run capped by Terry’s jumper with 0.1 left.
The run was fueled by Pierce, who had 8 of the 12 points. After Brandon Bass knocked down a 16-footer, Avery Bradley stole the ball from Anthony (seven turnovers), and Pierce drilled a three that brought the TD Garden crowd to a deafening din.
The Boston lead was 59-39 when Garnett left the game with 9:11 left in the third quarter, 51 seconds after he picked up his fourth personal foul setting a screen. When Garnett came back with 5:10 to go in the third the lead had been whittled to 61-50.
It was 68-65 after Felton hit a 3-pointer over Jeff Green from somewhere around Harvard Square with 0.2 seconds left in the third.
At the start of the fourth quarter in a must-win game, Rivers had Jordan Crawford and Terrence Williams on the floor. These are the choices, or rather lack of them. Rivers is coaching an injury-depleted team. There is no one else. Courtney Lee is buried so far on the bench at this point they would have to exhume him.
As much as this game was about a statement of Celtic Pride it was also about the complicated brilliance of Anthony.
Anthony is among the NBA elite. He is a scintillating individual talent, but he falls short of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, a healthy Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade, because unlike those players, when he’s not scoring he’s not contributing.
The Knicks and coach Mike Woodson did the Celtics a huge favor by continually pounding the ball into Anthony late in the fourth quarter and overtime, when he shot 4 of 14.
If the ball had gone to Felton we might be doing a parquet postmortem this morning.
Instead, the Celtics are alive — barely.
“Today we fought for another day, and we’ll do the same Wednesday,” said KG.
Nobody questions the Celtics’ fight or their mettle. But if they’re to rally from behind in the series, they had better hope their best basketball is still ahead of them.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.