“We showed something today,” said then, declaring the “a new beginning for us.”
It sort of looked that way at the time. The Knicks had just acquired Tyson Chandler, adding defensive heft to their offensive prowess. The Celtics were stale and aging, and their franchise star, Paul Pierce, was already hurt. Visions of an Atlantic Division title danced in the Knicks’ heads.
That was 113 days and a dozen crises ago.
The Knicks have since been through injuries, losing streaks, internal dissension, a coaching change and one delirious bout of Linsanity. At 31-29, they are clinging to one of the last two .
The Celtics — who will make their final visit to the Garden on Tuesday — have overcome the doubts and the creaky limbs and reclaimed their place as one of the East’s elite teams. At 36-25, they are close to wrapping up a fifth straight division title.
The lesson is that opening day impressions rarely mean much in April — and even less in a compressed season that gave teams little time to adjust, heal or evolve.
The Knicks were a newly reconstructed team in December and have generally played like one all season, with injuries to three starters — Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin — creating added stress. They began without a point guard, then found a surprisingly good one (Lin), only to lose him to a knee injury.
The Celtics had concerns at center and throughout the bench, but their championship core — Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo — remained intact.
On talent and chemistry alone, the Celtics were still worthy of contender status. With their patchy roster and the awkward Anthony-Stoudemire pairing, the Knicks were not.
As the season comes to a close, both teams are about where they should be, given the circumstances.
“It’s been a roller-coaster season for us, as far as injuries, changes, guys coming in and out, coaching changes,” Anthony said Sunday. “But that’s neither here or there. We’re at where we at right now.”
Both teams are surging. The Celtics are 21-8 since Feb. 22, when they bottomed out with a five-game losing streak. The Knicks are 13-5 since a six-game losing streak that led to Coach Mike D’Antoni’s resignation.
Garnett, the Celtics’ second-oldest player at 35, is having a personal renaissance. He was just named Eastern Conference player of the week, after averaging 20 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1 block last week.
Anthony, who chafed under D’Antoni, is also having a late-season revival, averaging 30.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.6 steals over the last 10 games.
Boston swept the Knicks in the playoffs last spring and will present their last true test before the playoffs.
The Knicks have struggled all season against the East’s elite, going 2-8 against the three division leaders, Miami (0-3), Chicago (1-3) and Boston (1-2). Both victories came at home. One came nearly four months ago (against Boston). The other came last week, when the Bulls missed four free throws in the final 34.1 seconds of regulation.
The Knicks played respectably in their three recent games against the Bulls and the Heat, and came away emboldened by their efforts. “We stepped up to the challenge,” said Anthony, who suggested the Knicks could “build off that momentum.”
Yet the Knicks won only one of those three games and failed to make a convincing case that they can beat the Bulls or the Heat in a first-round series.
If anything, the Knicks are proving daily that they are too dependent on Anthony’s scoring and vulnerable to even the slightest shooting slump.
by making two timely 3-pointers, one in regulation and one in overtime. on Sunday, but he missed four of his last five shots with the outcome still in doubt.
Without Lin’s playmaking and Stoudemire’s midrange game, the Knicks’ only other proven scorer is J. R. Smith, who is notoriously erratic (and shooting 41.2 percent over the last 10 games). The more Anthony and Smith shoot, the more the supporting cast — Landry Fields, Steve Novak and Iman Shumpert — fades.
Stoudemire could return this weekend, either Friday in Cleveland or Sunday in Atlanta. His presence should ease Anthony’s scoring burden and take some pressure off Chandler, who will play Tuesday despite a sore knee.
Still, without Lin, the Knicks have no one to distribute the ball and keep everyone else in rhythm. His replacement, Baron Davis, shows only rare flashes of his old self.
So when tip-off comes Tuesday night, the Knicks will be without their star power forward and without a reliable point guard, just as they were in that playoff sweep last spring. After a year of tumult, the Knicks are essentially right back where they were, running in place.