BOSTON -- They pranced into an arena draped in Celtics lore, swallowed by the backdrop of the famed parquet floor and an abundance of championship banners they don't have. Craving their chance at some semblance of glory, the Knicks garnered just that for 47 minutes, playing a brand of productive, scintillating basketball deemed nonexistent since Mike D'Antoni became the head coach of their franchise.
So even in the aftermath of an unimaginable collapse, one that left the Knicks despondent following an 87-85 loss in Game 1 of their first-round series on Sunday night, we've learned they can play defense, after all, and that Kevin Garnett needs to be worried about Amare Stoudemire a helluva lot more than Stoudemire needs to be worried about him.
"I'm excited about this series," Carmelo Anthony said when Game 1 was over, essentially echoing the bravado of his coach. "We're looking forward to playing this series."
Good! Because the rest of New York should certainly feel that way.
Granted, if no one's interested in hearing a hint of such rhetoric from Anthony or Coach D'Antoni today, who can blame them? Considering that Anthony is the one who shot 1-for-11 in the second half, and D'Antoni is the one who helped stymie his team's momentum by allowing a dunk from Garnett off an inbounds play with 37.3 seconds remaining, it's totally understandable. But if someone told you the Knicks would dominate seven-eighths of this game, that they would hold an opponent below 90 points just like the Celtics' top-rated defense, someone would request a drug test -- before requesting whatever drug that individual was taking.
A Knicks team that spent a regular season surrendering nearly 106 points per game yielded just 39 points in the first half on 41 percent shooting. A team that spent practically the last month relying on the perimeter play and explosive offensive arsenal of Anthony remembered there's actually another bona fide star on this team, one named Stoudemire.
In the midst of a Knicks surge, Bill Walker came off the bench and provided much-needed support in the game's opening minutes once Anthony picked up two early fouls, and Toney Douglas did his part with a big-time 3-pointer with 37.8 seconds left, putting the Knicks up 85-82, nearly propelling them to victory. The cumulative effect was feelings of a blown opportunity, of a game that just got away. Not resignation that the Knicks are in over their heads, playing a superior foe.
"We can play with this team," Stoudemire said, matter-of-factly. "Any team. Especially when we're on our game."
If we still don't believe, maybe we should entertain the possibility.
For those who were worried about Stoudemire's legs, and how much he'd have left playing in D'Antoni's system, clearly that's a concern we should have some other time, but most definitely not today. The final stat line for Stoudemire read 28 points on 12-of-18 shooting, with 11 rebounds, an array of jump shots, accentuated with flights through the air as if he were a phoenix instead of just a former member of the Phoenix Suns.
There were twist-and-turns in midair, elbow jump shots, flying slams -- and looks of disarray from Garnett, one of the elite defenders in the game.
Stoudemire's performance was reminiscent of a time when he averaged 37.5 points in a playoff series against Tim Duncan, and, more importantly, it was validation of all the acclaim he so vehemently sought when he signed on to play on the big stage at a $100 million price tag that doesn't seem too steep right now.
Overall, the Knicks didn't just jack up shots like some And1 game at Rucker Park. They played with a purpose. They played a style of basketball that actually wins playoff games, leaving us all to hope they've learned something in Game 1 that they will carry through the rest of this series.
"Nothing that we didn't know before," D'Antoni opined, when asked what he took away from the Game 1 loss. "I think that we can compete with them, obviously, and we need to get one win here. [Game 1] we had a great opportunity. It didn't work out. I've got to give them credit. They made big shots at the end. That's why they are who they are."
The Celtics are who they are. They defend, as they did in holding the Knicks to 32 percent shooting in the second half. They've got a starting five with each individual capable of registering double digits. They play defense when it counts most.
They have the game's premier shooter in Ray Allen (18 second-half points, plus the game winner with 11.6 seconds left) and they don't fade away so easily.
The thing is, the Knicks don't fade away so easily, either. They proved as much by nearly stealing Game 1 of this series, riding Stoudemire's coattails and nearly pulling it off despite the absence of Anthony for the game's final 24 minutes.
"I was proud of our guys, of the way they competed," Anthony said when it was over.
"So was I," Chauncey Billups said, while licking his wounds from a left knee injury, pondering whether he'll be able to play Game 2 on Tuesday night. "I still feel we should've came out with the win. This is one that kind of got away."
Yes, it is. But there's always Game 2, then Games 3 and 4 at the Garden.
Imagine the possibilities.