Rondo and the Celtics teach the Knicks a lesson that may come in handy

Rondo goes past Lin and Stoudemire. (nba.com)
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Perhaps the strangest part about New York's 115-111 loss to the Boston Celtics was how unfamiliar the final stretch run of play was, despite the all-too-similar result.

With the loss Sunday, the Knicks have now dropped 22 of 25 meetings to the Celtics, and they haven't won in Boston since 2006. This Celtics win featured an incredible performance from Rajon Rondo—who managed 15-plus points, 15-plus rebounds and 20-plus assists, a feat that has been accomplished only two other times, once by Wilt Chamberlain, once by Oscar Robertson—and 34 points from Paul Pierce.

The funny thing about this game, though, was that in the late going it was the Knicks who figured out the Celtics, not the other way around.

This game was essentially three games in one. There was the first half, filled with Knick turnovers yet ended with a 56-51 New York lead at the break. There was most of the third quarter, when the Celtics adjusted defensively and the Knicks took nearly a full quarter to figure it out. And then came the final period and overtime, in which the Knicks repeatedly got the shots they wanted, and put themselves in an excellent position to win.

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The headline, of course, is that they lost, and the Knicks get no points in the standings for trying hard. And yet, once again, the Knicks are showing signs of being a team that's still coming together in time to make a run late in the regular season.

Take a closer look at that first half. The Knicks managed an unhealthy 14 turnovers. So why the five-point lead? That's easy: the Knicks shot better than 56 percent from the field, with 14 assists on their 22 field goals, and controlled the offensive boards.

The Celtics were rushing double-team traps at Jeremy Lin, and generally gambling that with the ball out of Lin's hands, good things would happen for Boston defensively. It led to turnovers, but at the expense of giving New York easy baskets and multiple opportunities when the trap failed. Carmelo Anthony had 12 points at halftime, Amar'e Stoudemire 10.

The Celtics pulled back from this strategy in the third quarter, and at first, the Knicks didn't know how to react. They continued to push on the offensive end, not realizing that what had once been open passing lanes from already-committed defenders had turned into Celtics defenders lying in wait. The result was an ugly quarter, filled with missed shots, a few more turnovers, and most problematic of all, one shot combined for Stoudemire and Anthony.

But once the Knicks adjusted to this reset the results changed in a hurry. They leveraged their athleticism to out-rebound Boston, consistently got quality shots around the basket, and forced Rondo into an 0-for-6 shooting quarter.

Offensive sets produced good shots for Anthony repeatedly—he took 10 in the quarter, making four, and only one of them could have been described as forced. Lin seemed to figure out the new, lower-pressure defense as well, leading to repeated forays to the basket as the game wound to its conclusion.

Once Steve Novak hit a pair of free throws with 18 seconds to go, the Knicks had turned an 80-65 deficit into a 103-100 lead. 

What happened next was that Paul Pierce hit a three-point shot that couldn't have been better guarded by Iman Shumpert. And in overtime, the Knicks got most of the good looks, and most of the rebounds, but they shot 3-for-16, while Boston shot 4-for-8. And that was that.

The Knicks will be taking some significant lessons from Sunday. As was the case against Miami, the opposition took Jeremy Lin out of the game with huge defensive pressure, but they were able to hang in against it. (Remember, even against Miami, the Knicks trailed just 51-47 at the break.) Once the defense pulls out of a frantic pressing game, the Knicks can take advantage by adjusting quicker.

The Knicks are also still figuring out how to make the best use of their extended rotation: Sunday, for example, New York had ten players with at least 15 minutes played, as opposed to Boston's seven. No Knick logged more than Stoudemire's 38 minutes; Anthony had 35 and Lin 32.

As of Monday, Boston holds a 1.5 game lead over the Knicks for the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference. Both teams are set to embark on a difficult portion of their respective schedules. The Celtics will play nine of their next 11 games on the road, most of them against playoff contenders, including an eight-game road trip that features five games out west. Over that same period, New York's task is almost as difficult: seven of the next 11 are on the road.

For either team to stand a good chance of advancing in the playoffs, they'll need to not only pass the other, but Philadelphia as well. Both teams, incidentally, get two shots at the 76ers in their next 11.

Jockeying between seventh and eighth place in the East means a first-round series against the Bulls or the Heat; finish ahead of Philadelphia, and win the Atlantic Division, and the resulting plum is a third seed and home court against every team but the Bulls and the Heat.

Sunday's loss means the arithmetic is a bit harder for New York than Boston; the Celtics are 2 behind the 76ers, the Knicks are 3.5 games back.

These Celtics won a title four years ago, and are hoping to defy their age to contend for another. These Knicks are still figuring out what they're capable of.