The finish was remarkable, with game winners and near-game winners breaking the Madison Square Garden crowd out of a long hibernation.
But the Celtics didn't just win last night's contest because of Paul Pierce's step-back jumper, or because Amare Stoudemire's three-pointer came *this long* after the buzzer. The C's won because they out-executed the Knicks down the stretch. They won because when push came to shove, they showed they had been there before and knew how to behave.
With 2:57 remaining in last night's game, the Celtics Sea parted and Amare Stoudemire waltzed his way into a thunderous dunk, putting the Knicks ahead, 111-107. From then on, the Celtics made big play after big play (for the most part) to exit Madison Square Garden with a thrilling win.
The following fourth-quarter plays were not the reasons I laid in bed, wide awake and thoroughly excited, until 2:30 a.m.
But they are the reasons Pierce even got the chance to add to his clutch reputation.
2:36 remaining - Kevin Garnett caught the ball on the block, with Wilson Chandler defending him. In other words, he caught the ball in Mismatch City. Garnett slowly backed Chandler into the paint, and even into the no-charge zone.Stoudemire finally came with a double-team, but by then it was too late. Garnett turned around to the baseline, away from Amare's double, and drilled an easy six-footer. Why Garnett didn't abuse Wilson Chandler all game long, I'll never know. But he had the presence of mind to do it down the stretch, which was nice.
2:03 remaining - After Raymond Felton scored a driving lay-in to put the Knicks ahead, 113-109, the Celtics needed a bucket. Naturally, they again called KG's number. Garnett causes a ridiculous mismatch when Chandler guards him, and it's not much better when Amare tries his turn. (I'm thinking about changing Amare's last name to Stouemire -- no 'D'.)
The Celtics' play started with some screen action on the left side. When that didn't work, Ray Allen caught a swing pass at the top of the key. Garnett ducked in to the paint, receiving the ball approximately two feet from the rim. (Thus, the removal of the letter 'D' from Amare's last name.) From there, it was too easy. Landry Fields's help actually forced an initial miss, but KG rebounded it and slamed it home.
Here's the end of the play:
Notice KG's post position. It's almost impossible to stop a player if he catches the ball that close to the hoop. As my college coach used to tell me, "Do your work early." In other words, Amare blew his chance to stop KG before KG even touched the basketball.
1:41 remaining - The runner-up for "most valuable defensive contribution of the night." Amare approached KG in the face-up position, which had posed problems for KG all night (when KG actually defended him). Amare is almost unstoppable when hitting contested mid-range jumpers, and, well, he was hitting all his contested mid-range jumpers. He wouldn't hit this one, though.
Amare rose to shoot over Garnett, as he had already done (successfully) a few times. But Garnett made an adjustment. Rather than trying to bother the shot with his arm, KG crowded Amare with his lower body. Think of how Bruce Bowen used to play defense. The crowding resulted in something I thought would never happen, not last night at least: Amare actually missed.
1:29 remaining - There's a theme developing here: Kevin Garnett. Amare Stouemire tried to front KG on this play, which was smart -- playing behind him certainly didn't work out. But there was no help defense. Nate Robinson lobbed a perfect pass over Stouemire's head, and KG again caught the ball within an arm's length of the hoop. He missed the initial try (again), but got his rebound and drew a foul. He made both free throws.
1:02 remaining - Raymond Felton missed a wild shot, and fell to the floor while doing so. The Celtics rebounded the miss, and, with Felton still chilling on the floor, had numbers. Looking at a 5-on-4 semi-break, Rondo probed the Knicks defense. He dribbled into the lane, but Rondo didn't force anything. Instead, he kicked out to Paul Pierce on the wing.
Landry Fields was faced with the toughest decision of his life -- leave Paul Pierce wide open, or leave Ray Allen (in the corner) wide open. His choice? Leave Ray. Here's how it all worked out:
Notice that Felton still wasn't back on defense. THAT'S how Ray Allen gets open three-pointers late in games.
12.2 seconds remaining - Danilo Gallinari pretended like he was a bobblehead, in order to draw a foul. It worked, and his and-one tied the score at 116. Then Rondo threw an errant pass into the hands of a Knicks defender, giving New York the ball with 35 seconds left.
All of which set up the "most valuable defensive contribution of the night." Felton came off a screen, and Garnett double-teamed him. My heart sank. Uh-oh, I thought. That meant "The Best Roller Ever" was free to roll to the basket, unimpeded. And Amare did roll. But he wasn't unimpeded.
Instead, Pierce stuck his body in front of Amare, a few feet outside the no-charge zone. Amare, who probably thought he would be looking at an easy dunk, missed the seven-footer. The Celtics rebounded the ball, and the stage was finally set for Pierce's heroics.
And for this:
(Thanks to @Jose3030 for the gif.)
Also, I'm retroactively adding the 'D' back on to Amare's surname. But it doesn't stand for defense. It stands for dominance.