[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Celtics are battle-tested. They’re hungry, they’re tough, they get inside the opponent’s skin in an effort to get them off their game. That’s been their calling card since Kevin Garnett arrived in Boston six years ago, and during the first half of Game 2 against the Knicks on Tuesday night they executed that strategy to perfection.
Garnett dominated a gimpy Tyson Chandler down low, the C’s got scored in transition, Jordan Crawford nailed his first shot, and Jason Terry hit three consecutive threes to put to rest any concerns about the lack of bench production in this series. Meanwhile, the Celtics limited Carmelo Anthony by loading up on the strong side defensively. Brandon Bass was surprisingly effective on the perimeter against the NBA’s leading scorer, and the help came quickly whenever Melo drove past his initial defender.
It was a classic bout for a while. The Knicks opened up a 15-11 lead before the Celts scored 9 straight. After that New York scored 12 points, including J.R. Smith’s deep three at the end of the first quarter, before the C’s went on an 11-0 run to take the lead.
This was the type of game the Celtics wanted to play, and in past years, they might have held on to their six-point halftime lead and evened the series.
Not this year though, as Garnett and Paul Pierce were virtually helpless to stop the Knicks 27-4 run that bridged the second and third quarters. Pierce was essentially the only Celtic attacking the basket, but he could not draw a whistle and ended up turning it over a game-high five times. The rest of the C’s were content to take long jump shots, or throw bad passes, and the Knicks capitalized off nearly every mistake.
Boston only managed 11 points in the third quarter. They’ve now been outscored 81-48 in the second half during this series, and their age seems to show as the games go on. The Knicks looked tougher, and more battle-tested as they pushed the Celtics out of their comfort zone and took control of the game down the stretch. At the end of the game Garnett was the one getting pushed off his spot, Pierce started to lose his cool, and the rest of the team lacked aggression when they needed to step up most.
Did the C’s give their best effort in Game 1, leaving them unable to perform at a high level for 48 minutes on Tuesday? Or are they simply an over the hill team that is dealing with too many injuries to win in the postseason? Only 14 teams have come back from a 2-0 start to win a playoff series since 1969, but this Celtics squad has been unpredictable and mercurial all season long.
Their return to the TD Garden for Game 3 should be an emotional one, and the crowd’s energy may help them turn this thing around. However, after two contests where Boston floundered down the stretch, it will take a monumental effort to regain the momentum in this best of seven series. They may still have the heart of a champion, but the body has to be willing as well.