They played with a steady precision, as if they had been together years instead of weeks. One of their youngest players hit the biggest shot. They defended with surprising passion.
They played the , the defending Eastern Conference champions, down to the final seconds, losing only when Ray Allen — the author of countless memorable playoff moments — got the ball and a little open space at the arc.
Allen, the ’s career 3-point leader, took a pass from Paul Pierce and sent the ball through the net with 11.6 seconds left, sending TD Garden into a happy frenzy. missed a deep 3-pointer over Pierce seconds later, and the Celtics danced away with an 87-85 victory to open this first-round series.
As the buzzer sounded, Allen spiked the ball and was mobbed by teammates.
The Knicks were left to ponder a grand missed opportunity after leading for most of the second half and blowing a 3-point lead in the final minute. They might have also lost their point guard, as Chauncey Billups limped away with a strained left knee and is questionable for Game 2.
“Anytime you lose with a few seconds left, it’s never a good feeling,” said Amar’e Stoudemire, who celebrated the Knicks’ first playoff game in seven years with 28 points and 11 rebounds. “But we did play extremely hard. We did a great job defensively for most of the game. We just didn’t get the win.”
They came close. Toney Douglas, in the first playoff game of his career, made a 3-pointer that gave the Knicks an 85-82 lead with 37.8 seconds left. A celebration broke out on the Knicks’ bench.
Seconds later, it was the Celtics bouncing around the court after threw down an alley-oop dunk on a soaring inbounds pass from Rajon Rondo, cutting the lead to 85-84.
Then the Knicks fell apart. Anthony was called for an offensive foul for elbowing Pierce while battling for position. The ball went back to the Celtics with 21 seconds left. Moments later, Allen fired his 3-point shot.
The Knicks had spent all of their timeouts, leaving Anthony to improvise in transition after Allen scored. He took a shot from about 26 feet, but it was well contested and hit the front of the rim.
Anthony was acquired to be the Knicks’ offensive backbone and closer. But he was erratic in his first playoff game as a Knick, going 5 for 18 from the field, 1 for 11 after halftime. He finished with 15 points, 5 fouls, 5 turnovers and an aggravated expression.
Billups (10 points) was the only other Knick in double figures. He said his knee “buckled” on a late drive to the basket, and he sat out the final 1:12. Asked if he would play Tuesday night, Billups said: “I really don’t have a clue. I’m in a lot of pain right now.”
It was of little comfort to know that the Celtics of Allen, Pierce and Garnett have done this many times before. But the Knicks left with the confidence that they can play at the Celtics’ level, in their style, in a low-scoring, defensive-oriented game, and have the chance to win.
“I thought we should have won tonight,” Coach said, “so yes we can. But it puts more pressure on things that aren’t our strong suit.”
Allen had 24 points for the Celtics, who had all of their starters in double figures. Pierce finished with 18 points, and Garnett with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
The Knicks stunned the Celtics by taking a 12-point lead early in the third, then quickly gave it back. Boston opened the fourth quarter with a 7-0 burst, and Jeff Green’s 16-footer gave the Celtics their first lead of the second half, 66-64. Stoudemire responded with 8 straight points for the Knicks, giving them a 72-70 lead with 5:55 to play.
Stoudemire flexed every muscle and showed off every move down the stretch. He sliced between O’Neal and Garnett for a tough reverse layup, then powered past Garnett and dunked over O’Neal for an 82-78 lead. He never got another chance to score.
The Celtics’ size advantage proved to be just as great a problem as the Knicks feared, with Boston grabbing 15 offensive rebounds (for 19 second-chance points) and winning the overall rebounding margin, 44-34.
Boston opened the series without its preferred O’Neal (Shaquille), but got some great work from its spare O’Neal (Jermaine), who had 12 points, 4 rebounds and 4 blocks.
O’Neal did his best work during the Celtics’ third-quarter surge, as they worked their way back from a 12-point deficit. He scored 6 points, blocked Anthony twice and kept alive numerous possessions.
“We won the game because of ,” Coach said. “That’s it. Forget his offense. His defense, his presence, his shot-blocking, his rebounding, his toughness.”
As the game got tighter, the Knicks’ shot selection became poorer, with Anthony and Billups attempting a series of tightly guarded, rushed shots in the second half.
Somewhere in the three-day gap between the regular season and Game 1, the Knicks found a defensive conscience. They thoroughly frustrated the Celtics in the first half, forcing two shot-clock violations and 10 turnovers while taking a 51-39 lead.