The ’ first playoff run in seven years is on the brink of being extinguished. It could end by Sunday night. Boston boasts a 3-0 series lead, superior talent and all of the confidence after taking a 113-96 victory Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
Stoudemire carried the Knicks this far, restoring their honor after a lost decade, but he is now facing obstacles physiological and historical.
Stoudemire’s strained lower back was worse Saturday after he played 33 painful, ultimately futile minutes in Game 3. He could probably push his way through another four quarters, but the risk-reward ratio is daunting. No team has overcome a 3-0 deficit, and the banged-up Knicks are not likely to be the first.
So when he was asked if it was worth subjecting his body to another afternoon of punishment, Stoudemire demurred.
“The future here with the Knicks organization is very bright, and you don’t want to hinder that by doing too much right now on the back,” he said Saturday. “We did a phenomenal job this year so far with making the playoffs. Obviously, we wanted to have a better run in the postseason.”
Stoudemire stopped short of declaring himself out of Game 4, but he gave every indication that he was leaning that way. He said his type of injury usually required three to four weeks to heal — a point he made several times.
“It’s a strained back muscle,” he said. “So there’s a chance of straining it more, there’s a chance of overcompensating and having another injury. So there’s definitely some risks of playing with a strained back. And I’m not sure we want to take that risk right now when we have such a great future ahead of us.”
If Stoudemire is out, the Knicks will plug in Shawne Williams, turn over the offense to and hope for the best. They will again be without their starting point guard, Chauncey Billups, whose injured left knee has not improved.
Anthony nearly saved the Knicks with a 42-point explosion in Game 2, the night Stoudemire was injured. But he was feeble in Game 3, scoring 15 points while going 4 for 16 from the field. His team-leading six assists were offset by a team-high five turnovers.
The Knicks acquired Anthony for these moments, to save them from desperate situations, to score when no one else can. The ’ swarming defense has made it difficult. But whatever hopes the Knicks have of extending the series now ride on Anthony.
“It’s about us, man,” Anthony corrected. “I would love to sit and say, ‘It’s about me, I can do it all myself.’ But it’s about us. We got to go out there and fight.”
The Celtics have higher aspirations and ample motivation to close out this series. Their core of older players — Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and — could use the extra rest before the second round. The , their probable opponent, has a 3-0 lead on the .
“I don’t want to get swept,” Anthony said.
The offense has generally sputtered since Billups went out in the final minute of Game 1. Toney Douglas was so ineffective on Friday that Coach moved Anthony into the point-guard role in the second half.
The move made sense, but it might have diminished Anthony’s scoring role.
“I think that just took a lot of energy,” Anthony said.
Douglas is more of a scorer than a playmaker, and this is his first playoff experience. His backcourt mate, Landry Fields, is a rookie. They have been thoroughly and predictably outplayed by the Celtics’ veteran backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Allen.
Pierce has mostly outplayed Anthony as well, outscoring him slightly (25.3 points a game to 24), but with a far better shooting percentage (.528 to .359).
D’Antoni said that Fields would remain in the starting lineup, despite averaging just 2 points and 25 percent shooting. Douglas has been quietly dealing with a sore right shoulder. Another starter, Ronny Turiaf, is playing on two sore knees.
“It doesn’t matter what the situation is,” D’Antoni said. “We got to play with more energy, more urgency and get it done. And we can do this, we can beat these guys. We got to believe that and just try to do it Sunday.”
The Knicks were always going to be underdogs against the deeper, more seasoned Celtics. But the series might have turned in the final minute of Game 1 — when Billups injured his knee — and the minutes before Game 2, when Stoudemire hurt his back in pregame warm-ups.
Stoudemire had been spectacular in Game 1, with 28 points and 11 rebounds. As he prepared for Game 2, he recalled: “I was so ready to dominate. I was getting myself going.”
He finished his routine the way he usually does, slapping the right side of the backboard with his left hand, then dunking across his body with his right. This time, “I felt something pull in my back,” he said.
Stoudemire described the sequence a little sheepishly, realizing that one moment of pregame showmanship might have changed the series.
The Knicks lost two close games in Boston despite everything. Now they are down by 3-0, possibly down two starters and perhaps hours from their season ending.
Considering where the Knicks have been, Stoudemire considers this run a success.
“Absolutely; there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “I think the fans of New York understand that we have a chance to do something special here now. As a team, the energy around us is a winning mentality now. That’s what you have to build on.”