Knicks-Celtics a First-Rate Drama, With Second-Guesses on the Side

Two heartbreaking defeats stand as a Rorschach test for anyone trying to get a grip on who the Knicks are and where they are going.

Those who see as a basketball messiah saw the proof in his 42-point tour de force in Game 2. Those who see only a flawed, me-first star with no conscience seized on his well-contested 26-foot jumper in the finals seconds of Game 1.

is either coaching brilliantly (allowing the undermanned Knicks to keep pace with a superior team) or terribly (costing them chances to win both games).

The , too, are bursting with glass-half-something possibilities. They are 2-0, a testament to their brilliant clutch-time play. But their struggles only reinforce concerns that the Celtics are aging, worn out and primed for a fall.

How could a Knicks team without Amar’e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups possibly stay with the defending Eastern Conference champions? How could Jeffries, Bill Walker and Roger Mason Jr. come so close to beating Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo?

seemed to wonder that himself Tuesday, saying, “I thought we were lucky to win.” When Rivers flatly pronounced, “I’m extremely happy,” it elicited chuckles from the assembled news media. He looked anything but.

In two games, the Celtics have been exactly 5 points and 24.9 seconds better than the Knicks. Rivers’s team is underachieving, despite the 2-0 lead. He has every reason for concern. And D’Antoni has every reason to feel encouraged as the series shifts to Madison Square Garden.

Stoudemire’s back should be loose by Friday night, and perhaps Billups’s left knee will be ready, too. A Knicks team at full strength, on its home court, should be bursting with confidence.

Then they just need to work on the details.

There were valid questions about D’Antoni’s decisions in Tuesday’s 96-93 defeat at TD Garden, chief among them: Why was Jeffries, the Knicks’ worst offensive player, featured on the most critical possession of the game? Anthony erred Sunday night when he chose to shoot a 26-footer over two defenders with time running down. But he made the right play late Tuesday, when the double team came and he passed to a wide-open Jeffries under the basket in the final seconds, and the Knicks trailing by 94-93.

Jeffries should have immediately attempted the layup, as he later admitted. Instead, he tried passing to Walker and lost the ball to Garnett. This might have been Jeffries’s own insecurity at work. Despite standing 6 feet 11 inches, he is a poor finisher at the rim , and an even worse free-throw shooter (42.1 percent).

Anthony cannot be faulted for hitting an open teammate near the basket. If anything, the Knicks will need more intelligent passing from Anthony if they want to win this series, or become an Eastern Conference power in the future.

The responsibility lies with Jeffries, and with D’Antoni for leaving him in the game. Jeffries had scored the go-ahead layup with 19.3 seconds left, so perhaps D’Antoni was simply showing confidence in him. But Ronny Turiaf, who is much sturdier and (and 62 percent from the line), seemed like a better choice. Turiaf might also have stood up to Garnett, who easily backed Jeffries into the paint for the winning 5-foot shot with 13.3 seconds left.

Then there was the Knicks’ apparent lack of readiness to chase down Delonte West in the backcourt after he received an inbounds pass with 4.1 seconds left. By the time a rubbery-legged Anthony reached West and fouled him, just six-tenths of a second remained.

D’Antoni had spent all of his timeouts, so the Knicks could not advance the ball and run a final play.

On the macro level, all are valid points of criticism. But they seem a little nitpicky in context. It is a near miracle that the Knicks, down two starters, with a lineup of misfits surrounding Anthony, were even in position to win the game. If D’Antoni deserves criticism for a few decisions, then he also deserves credit for the Knicks’ inspired performance under extreme duress.

The Knicks might still have pulled out the victory had Walker (0 for 11) hit a 3-point attempt with 2:03 left, or if Toney Douglas had not lost the ball to Rondo with 1:28 to go, if Landry Fields had done anything at all, or if Anthony had made just one more contested jump shot in the fourth quarter.

Anthony went 14 for 30 from the field, with 17 rebounds, 6 assists and just one turnover in 44 minutes. It was a performance for the record books, except for the loss. But it makes no more sense to blame Anthony for missing 16 shots than it does to blame D’Antoni for a few tactical decisions under the circumstances.

The Knicks’ clutch-shooting point guard was on the bench with a sore knee. Their All-Star power forward was in the locker room with a seized-up back.

Anthony needed better options when he was double-teamed. D’Antoni needed a proven backup or two to plug into the lineup.

But the Knicks sent all of their depth to Denver in February, to acquire Anthony and a 34-year-old Billups, whose injury problems can hardly be shocking given his age and mileage.

The Knicks will need another off-season to replenish a roster that is badly in need of shooters, playmakers and skilled big men.

All the Celtics need is to play like the Celtics again.

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