The fire has returned to the Knicks' defense.
Down the stretch of the regular season, it was the offense that was getting all the accolades as the Knicks locked up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Carmelo Anthony was chasing the league's scoring title, which he won, and J.R. Smith was establishing himself as an offensive force. The defense, which was such a factor when the Knicks got off to an 18-5 start, could be decent at times but certainly was not the first, second or even third attribute pundits were discussing when talking about the strength of the Knicks.
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Enter Boston. The Knicks' second-half defense has been the big story of their first-round series and a major reason the Knicks will head into Boston Friday night with a 2-0 lead.
The Knicks held the Celtics to 25 points during the second half of Game 1 and to 23 points in the second half of Game 2, which set consecutive postseason records for both franchises. The Celtics had a 19.4 shooting percentage (7-for-36) in the second half of Game 2 and were nearly outscored by Anthony, who had 19 second-half points.
The Knicks, trying to take advantage of the absence of injured All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, have been turning up the ball pressure, especially in the open court. Without a player who can break presses and penetrate, the Celtics are being forced to settle for jump shots, particularly when their big men, such as Kevin Garnett, get into foul trouble.
"Their pressure made us turn the ball over,'' Avery Bradley said. "We just weren't executing our plays. We let them run us out of our plays. It was to their advantage. We were getting a shot up like three seconds [left] in the shot clock every time down.''
In a conference call Wednesday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers insisted it was a matter of the Knicks just playing "more desperate'' in the second half, and he faulted his team's defensive effort as much as its offensive problems.
Rivers' explanation just might be a desperate attempt at deflecting attention from the fact that his team doesn't have the offensive firepower to keep pace with the Knicks now that Paul Pierce is expected to run the offense as well as carry a great deal of the scoring load.
Two games in and the Knicks certainly think their defense is what can win them this series.
Said Anthony: "We know when we buckle down on the defensive end, it's hard for teams. Now, in the playoffs, it is magnified times ten. Each play, each possession, means that much more. We have been locking down.''