Knicks Fall, but Not Without a Fight

Amar’e Stoudemire, sore back and all, fought to the final seconds, leading a Knicks charge that was inspiring and ultimately futile. The absorbed their best shot, watched their 23-point lead fall to 4, then steamrolled to the finish for and .

Stoudemire was valiant, playing 44 minutes and the entire second half despite a pulled muscle in his back that nearly forced him to miss the Knicks’ last stand. was assertive, scoring 32 points.

Yet in the final, decisive moments, the Celtics were — as ever — better, deeper, steadier and more efficient, outscoring the Knicks, 17-9, over the final 7 minutes 13 seconds.

As the final seconds ticked away, an orange wave crested over the Garden, 19,763 fans standing and applauding in a final show of appreciation. The Knicks’ playoff run had ended abruptly, but not without a fight — or hope for the future.

“I’m pretty sure that we gained a lot of respect from a lot of people right now,” Anthony said. “This is the first step of something great.”

The Celtics await the winner of the Miami-Philadelphia series, which leads, 3-1.

The Knicks are still waiting for their first playoff win since 2001, and their first series victory since 2000. But even a sweep could not diminish the optimism of a transformative season that began with Stoudemire’s signing last summer and swelled with Anthony’s arrival at midseason.

In the immediate aftermath, it was easy to identify their shortcomings, with the Celtics providing the perfect contrast. Boston had the better spread of talent, the experience of deep playoff runs and an championship. The Knicks were overhauled last summer, overhauled again in late February, and are missing several key pieces, most notably at shooting guard and center. Counting the playoffs, they went 14-18 after acquiring Anthony, a reflection of their transitional state.

Yet they have, in the words of Paul Pierce, “a great foundation with Amar’e and Carmelo” and, as Coach noted, “one of the best coaches in the game” in .

“They earned our respect,” said Pierce, who had a quiet day (13 points), but scored the layup that started the Celtics’ final run.

The conclusion was not surprising, given the 3-0 deficit in the series, and the battered state of the Knicks.

Chauncey Billups, their valued floor leader, missed the final three games because of a knee injury. Toney Douglas played the series with a bad right (shooting) shoulder, and Ronny Turiaf with a bad left knee.

On Saturday, Stoudemire . But his back felt significantly better Sunday morning, and he strutted buoyantly into the locker room.

“Not 100 percent, but feel good enough to play,” he said.

Stoudemire wore an elastic belt for back support and needed continual maintenance. His jumper failed him often, but he never considered sitting down.

“The only way I would sit this one out is if I couldn’t walk,” he had said.

Walking and running, Stoudemire could do. Defending and dunking proved more difficult, but he kept moving and attacking and finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, despite going 5 for 20 from the field.

Stoudemire’s relentlessness spread through the lineup. The Knicks trailed by 23 in the third quarter but started a furious rally with a makeshift lineup of Stoudemire, Anthony, Shawne Williams, Roger Mason Jr. and Anthony Carter. That group nearly brought them all the way back, cutting the deficit to 4 points with 7:33 to play.

“I liked the heart,” D’Antoni said. “I liked the heart the whole series. These guys played as hard as they could. That’s all you can ask for.”

The Knicks’ health was an unavoidable topic, but most of them focused on the more glaring differences between these teams. The Celtics have three likely Hall of Famers and have been playing together for four seasons. The Knicks were still making introductions two months ago.

Ray Allen carried the Celtics with a fantastic shooting performance in Game 3, then passed the load to Rajon Rondo (21 points, 12 assists) and (26 points, 10 rebounds) in Game 4. Boston’s bench also came alive, with Glen Davis (14 points) leading the charge.

“We just have to grow from experience,” Stoudemire said. “Camaraderie has to grow, and we have to learn each other a little bit. The off-season is very important.

This was the seventh first-round exit of Anthony’s career, and the second time he was swept. For D’Antoni and Stoudemire, it was their first sweep. Their futures here are probably secure, although D’Antoni is heading into the final year of his four-year contract.

, the team president who saved the franchise from the wreckage of the era and rebuilt the roster, remains in uncomfortable limbo. His contract expires June 30. , the Garden chairman, has until Saturday to pick up an option for next season. Or he could offer Walsh an extension before July 1.

The afternoon was appropriately tense, in the stands and on the court.

Anthony earned a flagrant foul for leveling Rondo on a drive in the first quarter. Stoudemire received a technical foul for shoving Delonte West, after West gave a hard foul to Landry Fields and stood over him. Garnett and Douglas squared off briefly in the third quarter, while Rivers barked at Garnett not to “get distracted.”

The Knicks will never know how the series might have unfolded with a sturdy Stoudemire and a healthy Billups. That, perhaps, will haunt them more than any missed jump shot or ill-timed pass.

“That’s what hurts my heart, man,” Billups said. “To really feel like, if we was 100 percent healthy, this series would look a lot different right now. And you don’t know. Nobody knows. But I just got a gut feeling that it’d be a lot different.”

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