Carmelo leads and Steve Novak and J.R. Smith follow, overwhelming the Celtics in an almost-playoff game

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Novak congratulates Smith. (nba.com)
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In Sunday's loss to the Miami Heat, the New York Knicks came up against the limitations of a formula that consists of stiff defense and utter reliance on Carmelo Anthony for offense. 

Tuesday night, playing what amounted to an elimination game for home-court advantage in their first-round playoff series, they found out something about how far they might go if Anthony is surrounded by scorers.

At a raucous Madison Square Garden, the Knicks beat the division-leading Boston Celtics 118-110, preserving the slim possibility of winning the division and avoiding Miami or Chicago in the first round of the playoffs.

Steve Novak, who played a huge part in the victory, was asked after the game whether the Knicks had found their formula for success.

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"Yeah, for sure," he said, in a locker-room scrum. "You look at how Dallas played last year, I think it's just a perfect example of how you move the ball well, they moved it until they got a good shot. They had a guy who was a horse, guys around him who could knock down shots, and aren't dependent on that one guy."

The Knicks' horse, of course, is Carmelo Anthony, who had 35 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. The guys who could knock down shots are Novak and J.R. Smith, who each had 25 points.

The atmosphere was intense right from the start, with pockets of Celtics fans and Knicks going at each other well before tipoff and even, in pockets, during the national anthem. ("Celtics suck," "Knicks suck," etc.)

The scoreline may have suggested a loosey-goosey offensive shoot-out, to say nothing of the high shooting percentages from both teams—57 percent for the Knicks, 54 percent for the Celtics.

But the game was hard-fought throughout. It just happened to be one of those nights when neither team missed much.

The Celtics, a veteran team facing a Knicks squad that is undermanned offensively and defensively, was able to exploit those weaknesses in ways previous opponents of the Knicks haven't. 

The visitors managed to quiet the crowd somewhat by jumping out to an early 9-2 lead, and remaining ahead, 26-22, with a little over two minutes left in the first quarter. Iman Shumpert was the only Knicks guard capable of vigorous defense, and he was assigned to Boston's elite point guard Rajon Rondo.

That left Avery Bradley free to continue his recent hot shooting, and he found open shots whenever he wanted. His defender, Baron Davis, has seemed to break down a little with each passing game. Fighting through back, knee, neck and other injuries, he also suffered before last night's match-up from a stomach bug that required an IV, according to Knicks coach Mike Woodson after the game. He still played 18 minutes for a team that needed him, but they weren't particularly good ones.

Enter J.R. Smith. Like so many Knicks this season, his role has changed several times. New York signed him to be what he's been throughout his eight-year career: a shooter. His accuracy has come and gone, but he's also proven to be valuable for his rebounding, defense, and most surprisingly, his excellence, at times, passing the ball. 

Smith made a three. He found Tyson Chandler in the lane for another basket. He made another three, then found Iman Shumpert for three more. The M.S.G. crowd fed off of Smith's action, which is constant. No one knows precisely how it will turn out when he's in the game; but everybody knows things will happen, and J.R. Smith will be responsible.

On Tuesday night, they were good things, and New York led 32-26 after one quarter. It was a tremendous offensive performance, and it paled in comparison to the second quarter.

Smith found Jared Jeffries, who converted a layup. Then Smith hit another two threes. Time out Boston, pandemonium at the Garden.

Then Steve Novak made his first three. Anthony hit one. Mike Bibby, of all people, hit one. Smith hit another one, Bibby collecting assists mainly by tossing the ball to open three-point shooters. Another for Smith. Another for Novak. Another for Smith. The crowd, louder at each one. Another for Novak. Another for Smith. Another for Novak. No, seriously, they kept taking turns. 40 points in the quarter, 72 in the half, against a Boston team that has absolutely dominated the Knicks for, oh, about a decade. Fourteen three pointers.

No one was under any illusions at halftime, even though the Knicks led by 19, 72-53. The Celtics would come back. They'd close out on the perimeter shooters the way they usually did. They'd been cheating like crazy to punish the one man who'd been scoring regularly for the Knicks over the past few weeks, clogging the lane to prevent Anthony from burning them. He'd still shot 8-for-11, and the three-pointers had rained down on them. Something had to change.

In the third quarter, New York took just two three-pointers, making one. But the Knicks had some adjustments to make as well. Smith took advantage of the tighter perimeter coverage to penetrate and get to the foul line. Tyson Chandler, largely absent from the offensive explosion in the first half, was a perfect 5-for-5 in the third quarter, repeatedly filling the lane that was now abandoned by defenders sent to positions further out.

Yet the Knicks' lead shrank to just 12. Paul Pierce had 17 points in the third quarter, his movements fluid and deadly. He's like the school bully who walks toward the Knicks, in no particular hurry. New York knows how this goes: Pierce gets their lunch money.

The crowd got quieter. 

Pierce kept coming, and the lead kept dropping, but very gradually. To 11, on a Pierce three-pointer. A few misses on both ends, the seconds taking forever to count down. Anthony scored, Pierce matched him, Anthony scored again. A Kevin Garnett long jumper cut the lead to 107-97 with 6:01 left, but Novak countered with another three to push it back to 13.

But it seemed as if the Knicks had run out of gas. A number of poor possessions followed, Mike Bibby inexplicably taking a pair of perimeter shots, and Boston cut New York's lead to just 112-106 with 3:06 left on a pair of Pierce free throws.

Anthony, who did absolutely everything a player can do to help his team win, tried to make a contested shot from nine feet out, but missed. Chandler corraled the offensive rebound, and Anthony, closely guarded once again, returned to the first-half formula, finding an open Novak. The M.S.G. crowd already goes crazy when Novak gets the ball, immediately willing him to shoot it. When he buried a shot to put New York back up by nine, the noise-explosion reached another level, one usually reserved for games in May and June.

Ah, but those Celtics. Rondo immediately countered with a jumper. So Novak had to do it again, and he did, Anthony drawing the double and finding Novak for the three, the 118-108 lead with two minutes left, and Anthony's tenth assist, giving him a triple-double to go along with his 35 points and 12 rebounds.

"That was huge," Smith said, reflecting on the game at his locker, of Novak's two game-clinching threes. "Plus he had a hand in his face twice, so you've got to give it up to him. He's the best three-point shooter in our league by far."

Novak finished 8-for-10 from the field. All the shots were threes.

Meanwhile, Anthony, the facilitator for both of Novak's kill shots, bore no resemblance to the slumping, one-dimensional player whose ineffectual play and sulky attitude (just last month!) had gotten his last coach fired. 

After the game, Anthony bounded through the entrance to the Knicks' locker room and allowed the mass of reporters to envelope him while he calmly sat at his locker and dissected his most complete performance as a Knick yet.

He was asked whether he thought he was playing his best basketball of the season coming down the stretch. He smiled as he began to answer. Everybody, Anthony included, knew the answer was yes.

"I could say that," Anthony said. "Especially with guys being hurt, with Amar'e, Lin, I've had to step up in every aspect of the game. Scoring, rebounding, just doing it all. My teammates look at me, they expect that out of me."