Before we get into just how rough this weekend, and this whole series, was for the New York Knicks, let’s take a moment to talk about the Madison Square Garden fans.
So much was made out of the playoffs’ “return” to the Garden, as if the playoffs were this traveling roadshow that just was never able to make its schedule fit in a trip to 33rd and Seventh, as opposed to the logical result of seven years of horrific basketball. This series was about the Garden. As undermanned as the Knicks were heading into this series, few picked them to be swept, in large part because of Madison Square Garden. The idea was that even if the Knicks didn’t have the horses to compete, the crowd would somehow will them into a victory, by mere dint of their desperation and fervor. That didn’t happen … but boy, it was not for lack of trying.
Midway through the third quarter of the Knicks’$2 101-89 Game Four loss to the Celtics, the Knicks were down by about a million points and looked all the world like a group of tall gentlemen who were ready to take some time off. Carmelo Anthony would finally find a place in the tri-state area to live; Amar’e Stoudemire would rest his back (and his knees, and his shoulder, and any other organ that might be throbbing and/or inflamed); Jared Jeffries would spend his summer constantly dropping household items on the heads of his unsuspecting pets. Then, thanks to a Celtics transition defense that appeared ready for a nap or two itself, Anthony found himself wide open for two breakaway dunks, bringing the Knicks to within, oh, half a million points. Anthony didn’t even break expression; his was the face of a man waiting at a stoplight.
But the crowd … the crowd exploded. It took everyone on the court aback, sort of a “wait, you guys are still here?” moment all around. At that point, the Knicks couldn’t help but make a run. It didn’t work - they came within six at one point, thanks to a sudden influx of energy from Anthony Carter, the oldest man on the court, but that was it – but the moment justified the whole series anyway. The Knicks might not have been playoff-ready in this sweep, but man, was the crowd ever. The MSG crowd saw two wretched games in which their home 12 were consistently outmatched, outclassed, outhustled and outmaneuvered. And the fans still went nuts. As Ray Allen dribbled out the last 14 seconds and the score was set in stone at 101-89, the Garden stood and cheered. The papers will tomorrow will go after Anthony and Mike D’Antoni and the trade, and that’s their right, it’s certainly tough to argue with a four-game sweep. But the fans didn’t feel that way. The fans were all anyone could have hoped for.
Still: The Knicks still got trounced this weekend, and that must be accounted for. The Celtics certainly woke up and played their best basketball in a month once they hit Manhattan, but let us not kid ourselves: These last two games were just brutal. You must start and finish with the supporting cast, the ones inspiring all the D-Leaguer jokes on Twitter.
The Knicks’ supporting cast – and by that, we mean the players who will not make make more than $23 million during the 2014-25 season – has been depleted since the Carmelo trade. Everyone knows this, and understands that it will be addressed in the offseason. (Among other matters.) When the story of this series is written, it will be said that the Knicks played two terrific games in Boston but ran out of steam thanks to that supposed horrible supporting cast. But jeez, that cast was never this bad, was it?
Here’s the best way we can put it: The only real drama of the first half was the ongoing, riveting “Who will end up with more first-half field goals?” race between Glen Davis and Knicks Not Named Carmelo Anthony. With 36 seconds left in the half, Amar’e Stoudemire hit a putback – his first field goal of the game; he’d missed his first nine shots – to give the non-’Melo Knicks a 6-5 first-half victory. It wasn’t really a fair fight, though: Davis hadn’t been in the game for four minutes.
That’s to say: The Knicks’ roster might be thin, but it is not so awful that the players not named Carmelo Anthony should shoot 17.6 percent in a half. They were unusually bad the last three games. The Celtics probably had a lot to do with that. But the Other Knicks – the “Mutts,” as they were being called – didn’t much help. With a hole like that, with the Knicks down so much (again), not even the fans could make a difference, unless maybe everyone ran on the court and started fouling Kevin Garnett all at once.
So, the Knicks’ offseason officially began around 6:25 p.m. on Sunday. Unofficially, the offseason of course began long before then. Maybe it was when Stoudemire left Game Two with back spasms he would never recover from. Maybe it was when Jeffries played patty-cake with the basketball in the closing seconds of that second loss. Maybe it was when the Knicks fell behind 21-5 in Game Three. Maybe it was when the Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett. Maybe it was when Ad-Rock felt compelled to remind the fans “this series isn’t over,” even though it the game hadn’t even started yet. Maybe it was when someone installed opposite magnets on the Knicks’ baskets in the first half. Maybe it was when the fish began its inexorable evolution into what we now know as modern man. Take your pick. Whichever: The offseason is here.
The Knicks have six players they’re guaranteed to be paying next year: Anthony, Stoudemire, Renaldo Balkman, Toney Douglas, Landry Fields and Andy Rautins. Everything else will be built around that, presumably by Donnie Walsh, though that’s probably the next order of business. (Also important: Figuring out when the heck there will be a regular scheduled game played again; stupid impending lockout.) The Knicks have so much work to do. If there were any doubt about that before, a convincing sweep – a sweep! – alleviated any question. The Knicks’ first playoff series in seven years ended the way the last one did: With four losses. Many Knicks fans we know like to pretend that last series, a 4-0 loss to the Nets, didn’t happen, erasing it from the mental record books. They won’t be able to do that with this one. That night, the company line was “We want to win a championship. And we have the talent to do it.” No one after today’s loss was saying the Knicks have the talent to win a championship, which was refreshingly frank. But also scary: The Knicks have so much farther left to go. And next time, the fans won’t be nearly so forgiving.