Absent the previous six seasons, the New York Knicks have quickly been reminded about postseason pain.
Amare Stoudemire is battling a balky back that forced him to stand at the podium for a postgame interview.
Chauncey Billups has a strained left knee that has sidelined one of the league’s top clutch performers at a time when he’s needed most.
Yet the real hurt for the Knicks comes from the realization they could have won both games in Boston, instead of bringing a 2-0 deficit into Game 3 of the series Friday night.
Though they know they should have come home with no worse than a split, the Knicks insist the only injuries they’ve sustained are physical, that they aren’t psychologically wounded by the Celtics’ fantastic finishes in Boston.
“We’re still confident. As they say, and everybody says, it doesn’t start until somebody wins on the other guy’s court,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They held service. We’ve got to go Friday and I’m sure it’s going to be a great atmosphere and Amare should be ready and that right there is going to be all out. And I think our heads are high and the locker room is good and they’re confident, and I can’t wait until Friday.”
The Knicks took Wednesday off, giving Carmelo Anthony a day to rest after nearly carrying them with a spectacular postseason performance in Game 2 on Tuesday. It’s also time for Stoudemire and Billups to recover. They hope both can be ready Friday for the first playoff game at Madison Square Garden since April 25, 2004, when the New Jersey Nets completed a first-round sweep of the Knicks.
The Celtics could make this a short series, too, if they start the games as well as they finish them. New York led in the final half-minute of both games in Boston, only to be beaten by Ray Allen’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 11 seconds left in the Celtics’ 87-85 victory in Game 1, followed by big plays by Kevin Garnett on both ends in the final 14 seconds Tuesday.
Though New York’s top three players have plenty of postseason experience, the Knicks can’t match the playoff poise of the Celtics, who have reached the NBA finals two of the last three years.
“They’re good at it. They’ve been together for a while, and they understand what they have,” D’Antoni said. “They’ve just got so many weapons that it is tough. You’ve got to watch back picks for Ray Allen. One-on-one with (Paul) Pierce. Garnett, whatever he does and they put (Rajon) Rondo in a good place. It’s tough.”
But the role players are hurting the Celtics. Boston is supposed to have a big advantage with its bench — especially with Toney Douglas forced to start Tuesday in place of Billups — yet the poor play of its reserves is forcing the aging starters to carry a heavier load when ideally they’d be able to pace themselves for what they hope is a long playoff run.
“They’re getting scored on every single time, then all of a sudden they’re frustrated with that and then they’re walking the ball up the floor and we can’t get anything in transition for them. … They will come through and hopefully it will be in Game 3,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of his reserves after practice Wednesday.
That group Friday won’t include Shaquille O’Neal, who was ruled out with his calf injury, though Rivers still expects him at some point in the postseason.
Anthony had 42 points and 17 rebounds Tuesday, but the lineup around him looked more like the Knicks’ rebuilding teams of the last two seasons than one that belonged in the playoffs. Garnett’s clinching steal on New York’s final possession came when Jared Jeffries, with poor offensive instincts, attempted a pass to Bill Walker, who missed all 11 shots. Both might have been on the bench had Stoudemire and Billups been available.
Yet the Knicks were buoyed by the performance of that overmatched group, believing the result can be different if the players on the floor are.
“That’s something that we need,” Stoudemire said after the first back spasms of his career limited him to 18 first-half minutes in Game 2. “Hopefully that confidence from tonight’s game will linger over for Friday.”
And the Knicks will surely get a boost from a celebrity-packed crowd starving for some postseason success. The Knicks haven’t won a playoff game in 10 years, and they are guaranteed only two more chances thanks to the Celtics’ late-game execution.
“They’ll be hostile, they’ll be raucous, they’ll be excited,” Allen said. “Regardless of who’s on their team, they’ll just be like, ‘We’re in the playoffs; we’re here.’ I’ve been on a team that hadn’t been in the playoffs in a long time. … You just go into it, you’re expecting hostility. You got to stick together.”
Brian Mahoney, AP Basketball Writer
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman in Waltham, Mass., contributed to this report.