BOSTON — In his first postseason withthe New York Knicks two years ago Carmelo Anthony tried futilely, to single-handedly overcome the absence of fallen teammates and a superior Boston Celtics team through the power of his shooting hand. Instead, the Knicks were swept and Anthony had to hear his first round of harsh criticism for failing to deliver a postseason victory to a franchise that sacrificed so much to pry him from Denver.
Those days are distant memory for Anthony, the Knicks and the Celtics. With a more well-rounded game and a supporting cast that has proven capable of withstanding extended absences of key pieces, Anthony has been given an opportunity to exact revenge this season against the weakened and aging Celtics — and he is playing as if he is determined to send them out in similarly humiliating fashion.
Undeterred by a desperate opponent and a fired-up crowd in the first NBA game at TD Garden since the Boston Marathon bombings, Anthony scored a game-high 26 points Friday night to lead the Knicks to a 90-76 victory and a commanding three-games-to-none edge in their first-round NBA playoff series.
“It feels good to be sitting in this situation, to be sitting in the driver’s seat right now,” Anthony said.
Anthony is one victory from reaching the second round for the only the second time in 10 postseason appearances — and the first in three with the Knicks. With assistance from sixth man of the year J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton, who each scored 15 points, the Knicks are positioned to win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years.
“To be honest with you, to accomplish that would be spectacular, it would be a dream come true,” Anthony said. “I’ve never swept anybody. But we know Game 4 is win or go home for those guys – I’ve been on that side of the pole plenty of times and I know that feeling.”
New York will have a chance on Sunday to knock out Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the Celtics in the first round for the first time since they joined forces in the summer of 2007. The Knicks once again exploited their advantages in youth, athleticism and desire, while the Celtics continued to be disjointed and off-target on offense. Boston has yet to score 80 points this series, and totaled 54 points over a 48-minute stretch spanning the second half of Game 2 and the first half of Game 3.
Former Georgetown star Jeff Green led the Celtics on Friday with 21 points and Pierce had 17.
“I didn’t expect this coming in,” Pierce said. “I am surprised we are down 0-3 right now.”
The disintegration of the Celtics as a championship contender began in the offseason, when Ray Allen bolted for Miami, the team that eliminated them from the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. The challenge to remain relevant became greater when all-star point guard Rajon Rondo was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. And the greatness and competitiveness of cornerstones Pierce and Garnett are suddenly no longer enough to overcome the effects of advancing age, considerable mileage and injuries.
Before the game, the the Celtics handed out T-shirts that read “Boston Strong.” They played an inspirational video with images of city landmarks. They paid homage to the victims. They held a special ceremony after the first quarter to recognize the first responders, volunteers and police officers who risked their lives to rescue dozens of fallen runners and spectators.
An emotionally charged crowd responded with repeated chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” But any expected boost from an uplifting display of strength and solidarity was lost through a lackluster performance by the home team.
The problems began with the opening tip. Green found Pierce under the basket for a wide-open layup but Pierce rushed a shot that missed badly. Garnett hustled in for a rebound and followed with another miss of a point-blank layup.
The Celtics trailed 26-23 after Jordan Crawford made a long three-pointer with 9 minutes 19 seconds left in the second period, but the Knicks scored the next eight points, taking a 34-23 lead when Smith buried a three-pointer. They extended the lead to 44-29 with less than two minutes remaining in the half when Jason Kidd fed Anthony for an alley-oop dunk. Felton followed with a three-pointer to give the Knicks an 18-point lead and fans booed the Celtics off the court as they headed to the locker room at halftime, trailing 47-31.
The Celtics never got closer than 11 the rest of the way. When Knicks backup forward Steve Novak made a three-pointer to put his team ahead, 73-54, early in the fourth quarter, Pierce looked up at the scoreboard, cursed and angrily rubbed his nose.
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers tried to shake up his team by inserting backup guard Jason Terry into the lineup in place of forward Brandon Bass. Terry finished with 14 points but the only real influence he had on the game was in the fourth quarter, when he absorbed an elbow from Smith, who was charged with a flagrant foul-penalty two and an automatic ejection. Terry took exception to the elbow and charged after Smith before getting restrained, but even that only brought a short-lived spark to the Celtics.
“You’re down 3-0. It’s a simple message: You’ve got to win the next one,” Rivers said. “It’s simple. And that’s where it starts.”