That first step can be a doozy
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Before getting into the messy particulars, let us pause briefly to appreciate the moment.
Knicks fans have been waiting for 13 years and deserve to celebrate their team finally, mercifully winning a playoff series, beating the Celtics, 88-80, Friday night to reach the second round against the Pacers.
They survived and advanced, and they deserve praise for doing so, even if in this case survival meant absorbing a stunning 20-0 Boston run that nearly erased a 26-point fourth-quarter lead.
Oh my. But it all came out well, punctuated by Carmelo Anthony making a three-point basket that restored order and a nine-point lead with 1:43 left, his first successful three-pointer since Game 3.
"It's a very deep breath we're taking right now," J.R. Smith said later.
At least it was entertaining. But as the Knicks and their fans know, this spring never was about the first round. "We didn't do anything," Jason Kidd said. "We were supposed to win this series, and we did."
The Knicks are better than the Celtics, even if Boston put a scare into them by winning twice after falling behind 3-0.
Comparisons to the 2004 Red Sox -- including the Celtics trotting out pregame video highlights from that season's ALCS to rile up the TD Garden crowd -- were silly. The Red Sox who shocked the Yankees were about-to-be champions; these Celtics are champions long past.
No, this Knicks season always has been about winning two series and earning a crack at the Heat.
And thus the six games against the Celtics must be judged by what they mean moving forward.
The negative spin is that the series reminded everyone of the Knicks' flaws, and that not sweeping cost them a week of rest. But it is equally possible that their mini-crisis was a wake-up call.
"It's such a great learning experience -- when you get a win," Tyson Chandler said. "We have to grow from it. I'm glad it happened; I'm glad it happened in the first round."
Chandler was referring specifically to Game 6, but the sentiment could apply to the entire series.
If nothing else, it is highly unlikely the Knicks ever again will arrive dressed in black for a potential closeout game. (After the ALCS video, the Celtics had more fun by showing pictures of the Knicks in black before Game 5.)
And perhaps Smith will remember to keep his elbows and golf references to himself henceforth.
The Knicks can't afford for him to stray again.
In basketball terms, the Knicks were reminded after Game 5 that they are at their best when they play swarming defense, push the pace and avoid resorting to isolation plays for Anthony and Smith.
It probably is just as well that the Knicks have little time to savor ousting the Celtics in a series that grew increasingly nasty and even dragged Anthony's wife, LaLa, into the fray.
Best simply to move on, as Anthony did to advance to the second round for the second time in his NBA career. His shooting slump extended to a third game and his left shoulder continues to bother him. But he scored seven Knicks points in a row after the Celtics drew within four, and he said he will keep shooting.
"You always believe the next one is going in," said Anthony, who was disgusted when a reporter told him he had missed 19 three-pointers in a row before Friday night's late dagger.
Anthony said it was a relief to have delivered the milestone victory the Knicks long craved. But he insisted he never felt a personal burden to see it through.
"I can't go into a basketball game thinking about that," he said. "My mind was clear."
Four more victories and he will be able to see clear to LeBron.