Celtics spoil Garden party for Knicks

So much for the return of playoff basketball to Madison Square Garden.

Boston’s easy-does-it 113-96 win over New York in Game 3 of its Eastern Conference first-round series Friday ended any doubts about which team will advance. The Celtics now lead 3-0, a deficit no NBA playoff team has overcome.

The first NBA playoff game at MSG in seven years  featured lots of business as usual as well as several remarkable surprises.

As expected

After beginning the game by racing to a quick 22-5 lead, the Celtics understandably took their collective feet off the gas. They already knew that they couldn’t possibly lose the game simply because they could generate wide-open shots for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on any given sequence.

At the same time, the visitors realized how easily they could confound New York’s offense. So the Celtics became somewhat careless with the ball, thereby providing the hometown Knicks faithful with the false hope that the game might eventually be up for grabs.

Even when they were coasting on offense, Boston’s defense was quick and extremely well-coordinated. Indeed, the Celtics’ double-teaming made a spectator of Amar’e Stoudemire. And when they similarly clamped Carmelo Anthony with an extra defender, ‘Melo was forced to rely on the worst part of his game — passing the ball. Actually, doubling ‘Melo was made easy since he always started his erstwhile offensive moves from a standstill.

As a result of their diligent preparation and ability to adhere to their game plan, Boston’s defenders seemed to know precisely what the Knicks were trying to accomplish on every play. In other words, Mike Antoni (his D remains silent) was completely outcoached by Doc Rivers once again.

Kevin Garnett played defense as though he had four arms, all of them made of expandable rubber.

Boston’s weak-side screens, cross-screens and pin-downs were perfectly timed and executed. That’s why Allen had so many uncontested shots and finished with eight 3-pointers and 32 points.

Rajon Rondo’s quickness, hustle and uncanny court awareness enabled him to easily dissect New York’s porous defense. His sublime stat line: 15 points, 20 assists, 11 rebounds.

Pierce took the ball wherever he pleased and shot jumper after jumper with nary a hand in his grill. No wonder he missed just five shots en route to 38 points.

The veteran, championship-hardened Celtics made the Knicks pay dearly whenever Pierce, Allen or Garnett were doubled. On every such sequence they inevitably found the open man. Incredibly, throughout the entire 48 minutes none of the Celtics forced a single shot.

The unexpected

Despite having their backs to the wall, the Knicks played with a surprising lack of intensity.

Even though Allen is one of the best long-distance dialers in league history, the Knicks repeatedly failed to tag him. Nor did their bigs make serious attempts to hinder Allen as he freely cut over and around weak-side screens.

The Knicks played defense as though the players were total strangers and each spoke a different language. Their confusion was particularly evident on off-the-ball screens, where two defenders often made half-hearted attempts to track the cutter while leaving the screener all alone in the shadow of the basket.

Stoudemire (seven points, three rebounds, 2-of-8 FG in 32 minutes) shot his mid-range jumpers as though the ball was made of lead. For sure, he hadn’t practiced in a few days and his back was stiff, so he deserves plenty of credit for playing hurt. However, as long as he was in uniform and on the court, Stoudemire forfeited the bogus comfort of having any excuses.

Landry Fields (two points in 21 minutes) continued to be intimidated by his first playoff competition. This was surprising because the rookie played with such admirable equanimity throughout the regular season.

It’s no secret that Toney Douglas is a shooting guard not so cleverly disguised as a point guard. Unlike Chauncey Billups and even Anthony Carter (who should have played more), Douglas can’t create shots for his teammates, has only a vague idea of what drive-and-kick basketball is all about, and is therefore incapable of running an offense. The surprise here was Douglas’ inability to compensate for his flaws by putting the ball through the hoop.

The Knicks’ most intense performers were Shawne Williams and Jared Jeffries, neither of whom has the talent to bear the burden of their team’s disjointed offense.

There are several possible explanations for New York’s puzzling lack of intensity.

• Boston had simply outscouted them and totally understood where and when to apply pressure at both ends of the court.

• The new Knicks’ station-to-station personnel is spectacularly unsuited to Antoni’s speed-ball gameplan. And the disconnect was increasingly evident as both the pressure and the stakes increased.

• The Knicks were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted after their heroic performances in Boston. As such, they vainly hoped that the enthusiasm of the long-suffering, hungry crowd in Madison Square Garden would be contagious.

• In the end, the Knicks knew in their heart of hearts that they didn’t have enough of what it takes to beat the Celtics.

What, then, is to be expected in Game 4?

The Knicks have nothing to lose and will be fueled by their pride in an attempt to atone for their embarrassing failure in Game 3. Look for them to play hard for 40 minutes or so, and then collapse when Boston refuses to fold.

In any case, although returning to the playoffs is a huge step for New York, the team still has a long way to go. But at least, instead of finding comfort in wistful visions of the Old Knicks of the Clyde, Captain, Pearl and Blue-Collar Dave era, given a few more roster tweaks Knicks fans can finally anticipate a possible return to glory.