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Sunday, April 17, 2011
Hey Mike, just give Amare the damn ball

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- As Chauncey Billups peg-legged it down the hallway, hobbling like a man who wouldn't be able to play a round of mini-golf in the next two weeks, never mind a round of the NBA playoffs, the quarterback embodied the state of his devastated team.

For seven-eighths of this Game 1 on the Boston Celtics' floor, the New York Knicks basked in unimagined glory. They were playing honest-to-God defense, drowning the Celtics in their own medicine, and fixing to secure their first playoff victory in 10 endless years.

From his high-priced seat, a Celtics fan named Bill Belichick appeared to be re-living that January date with the Jets. The Knicks had carried a 12-point lead into the early minutes of the third quarter, and Amare Stoudemire had mocked Glen Davis' claim that he wasn't all that difficult to guard.

Amare Stoudemire
Amare Stoudemire led the Knicks with 28 points but never got the ball when it mattered Sunday.

And then without warning, as if the Celtic ghosts conspired to rage against this attempted exorcism, Billups lost his balance, Mike D'Antoni and Carmelo Anthony lost their minds, and the Knicks lost the game and perhaps their season.

The point guard went to the basket and crash-landed in a heap, clutching his bum left knee. Hey, these kinds of things happen to aging athletes who play the game without fearing any consequences.

But D'Antoni and Anthony had no credible excuse for breakdowns of an entirely different kind. With Stoudemire completing 360s around the basket, making Kevin Garnett look a lot older than Billups, D'Antoni and Anthony failed to apply common sense to the situation.

Neither coach nor hired gun made certain that Stoudemire got the ball down the stretch. "Kevin was draped all over him and pushing him down," D'Antoni argued after the Celtics' 87-85 victory left him wearing the mask of someone who had just lost his dog.

"We tried something else. We just couldn't get him the ball, I guess. ... It wasn't the game plan -- 'OK, that's enough Amare, we'll just go away from you.' That just happens."

It happens to teams that don't know how to win playoff games.

"I'm not going to throw someone under the bus," D'Antoni said.

Of course, the Knick voted most likely to end up under the Game 1 Greyhound was Anthony, the star who had executed a hostile takeover of Stoudemire's go-to role. The same Anthony who would shoot 5-for-18 for the game, 1-for-11 in the second half. The same Anthony who spent the closing minutes missing 3-pointers, getting stripped of his dribble and committing a deadly offensive foul.

Sure, even Red Auerbach might've even agreed that the ref's whistle should have remained silent with 21 seconds left and two players merely jockeying for position in a one-point game. But Anthony did deliver a forearm shiver to Paul Pierce as he waited for a pass, and D'Antoni did ignore the obvious need to set three picks, four picks, five picks ... whatever it took to liberate Stoudemire from Garnett.

"I think we were doing everything in our power to get Amare the ball," Anthony maintained. "He had it going. He was the horse we were riding tonight. Tonight was his night, we were trying to go to him, he was producing. ... Whenever he has it going like that, that's the guy we want to go to."

The Knicks went to Stoudemire enough for the big man to make 12 of 18 shots -- six of seven in the fourth quarter -- and to finish with 28 points. But given how Stoudemire was schooling Garnett, and flying around the rim like the more explosive Phoenix force he used to be, the Knicks should have honored his effort by making his endgame touches an every-trip-down-the-floor proposition.

Instead Anthony assumed the leading role, the role he slowly but surely wrestled away from Stoudemire after the midseason trade, dooming the visiting team on a night it couldn't afford to be doomed.

"I think the matchup there at the end was whoever was open," Stoudemire said. "Coach Mike was like, 'Whoever is open, get the ball to Amare or Carmelo.' At the time, the ball was on Carmelo's side and he was open. So we feel comfortable with Carmelo shooting the ball at the end. He's been doing it his whole career, and if it came to me, it would be vice-versa."

It didn't come to Stoudemire, and D'Antoni has to take the hit for that. What a crying shame, too. This was the Knicks' big chance to humble the Celtics, turn this series into the Boston Marathon, maybe even steal the damn thing in seven games.

They held Boston to 39 points in the first half, 15 in the second quarter. Things were so grim for the Celtics, Rick Pitino was ready to call Doc Rivers with word that Kendrick Perkins was not about to walk through the TD Garden door.

Only Billups' left leg gave out again (the team said he suffered a knee strain), leaving him unsure about Game 2 and feeling "a lot of pain" in the immediate wake of Game 1. His replacement, Toney Douglas, did sink a 3-pointer with 37.8 seconds to play that only appeared to put Boston down for good.

Rivers answered with a timeout, a plan and an alley-oop dunk for Garnett off the inbounds pass, a sequence that made D'Antoni look bad. Anthony committed his silly foul, Ray Allen sank his dagger of a 3 with 11.6 seconds left, and then D'Antoni didn't look any better when he was caught without a timeout to set up the final play.

Anthony missed a 3 for the win, a three Rivers thought was going down, and the Celtics' coach pumped his fist while D'Antoni and his players staggered off the floor.

"I thought we should have won tonight," the losing coach said.

So did everyone else. But Mike D'Antoni's Knicks did more to stop Amare Stoudemire than the Celtics did, and they could very well lose their season because of it.