BOSTON -- The Knicks' Big Three was reduced to one, and while that one, Carmelo Anthony, put up a playoff performance that recalled his idol, Bernard King, it wasn't enough to overcome the Celtics in a 96-93 loss last night in Game 2 at the TD Garden.
With Chauncey Billups inactive with a left knee strain and Amar'e Stoudemire limited to 18 first-half minutes because of back spasms, Anthony scored 42 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and had six assists in a dynamic 44 minutes. And the supporting cast gave the Celtics all they could handle in yet another defeat that went down to the final seconds.
"It was fun, for the most part," said Anthony, who came within four points of King's franchise record for points in a playoff game. "We were out there fighting, man . . . It was just a battle."
A battle that had him so exhausted, he couldn't get to Delonte West in the backcourt for an inbounds with 4.1 seconds left and the Knicks trailing by one. West managed to burn all but six-tenths of a second off the clock before he was fouled. He hit two free throws to complete the scoring. A desperation heave by Bill Walker fell well short.
The series heads to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 on Friday. It will be the Knicks' first home playoff game in seven years, but they are still searching for their first playoff win in 10.
Anthony had the ball in his hands for the final possession, with the Knicks trailing 94-93 after a jump hook by Kevin Garnett with 13.3 seconds left. But Anthony opted to pass into the post to the offensively challenged Jared Jeffries.
Jeffries often struggles making the simplest offensive plays, but this game saw some of the best minutes he has played as a Knick, with 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 25:34. He gave the Knicks a 93-92 lead on a drive with 19.3 seconds left and defended Garnett tough on the jump hook. But on the Knicks' final possession, Jeffries caught the pass from Anthony on the post against Garnett and as he spun, he saw Walker flash to the paint.
Jeffries attempted an ill-advised pass, which Garnett knocked down, dove on the loose ball and then called timeout with 4.1 seconds left.
"I have to look it up on tape," Jeffries said. "I should have went ahead and shot the ball."
Or perhaps Anthony should have? He was criticized for his deep three-pointer in the final seconds of the Knicks' Game 1 loss and this time, facing an aggressive double-team, he opted to pass.
"Y'all can't have it both ways," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I think Melo made the right play. And if he would have shot it, it would have been the right play . . . I wouldn't doubt him."
Anthony was defiant. "I made the right play," he said. "The right play was to go to Jared."
Obviously, that pass would have gone to Stoudemire had he been in the game. But his lower back started to spasm during warmups and once the game stared, it intensified. With 3:22 left in the second quarter, Stoudemire left the game in pain and did not return. Anthony went to battle with a group of reserves.
"I couldn't be more proud of a team and how they battled under the circumstances," D'Antoni said.
"We're playing our ---- off, excuse my language," Anthony said of a series that has the Knicks down 0-2 and yet the defeats are by a combined five points.
Despite the 2-0 lead, the Celtics aren't feeling like they have a dominating advantage.
"I thought we were lucky to win," coach Doc Rivers said.
Rajon Rondo, who scored a playoff career-high 30 points, agreed. "We escaped another one," he said. "Nevertheless, we got the win."
Toney Douglas, who started for Billups, had 14 points and seven rebounds, but recorded just two assists and shot 5-for-16 from the field. He also struggled to contain Rondo early in the game. The Celtics' All-Star guard went right at him from the start and piled up 14 of Boston's first 18 points.
According to the NBA, only six percent of the teams that fall behind 0-2 has ever come back to win the series.