NEW YORK -- Friday was far from normal for the Celtics. They hadn't been home since Tuesday, the day after the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and wounded more than 170. They had flown straight from Toronto, where they concluded their regular season, to New York for the beginning of their first-round playoff series with the Knicks. The terror of Friday's daylong manhunt for the suspected bombers reached them at Columbia University, where they were practicing. "Stay in the house!" they shouted into their cell phones, to their loved ones back at home, unable as they were to protect them themselves.
Their practice, said head coach Doc Rivers, was sloppy and unfocused, and understandably so. Rajon Rondo, their injured point guard, was supposed to join his teammates yesterday, but he was locked down like the rest of Boston.
"Yesterday was a strange day," said Rivers early Saturday afternoon. "Thank gosh it's over. I'm sure our players can exhale."
He added: "What that does today, I have no idea."
Just before tip-off on Saturday, in a game that ended as a 85-78 Knicks win, it seemed as if the emotions of the last week might carry over. Reporters hurried to post photos to Twitter of the small black patches the Celtics wore on the right shoulder of their jerseys -- "BOSTON STANDS AS ONE," they read. The Boston Fire Department Color Guard and representatives of the FDNY presented the colors together. About ten minutes before the game began, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce offered brief remarks to the crowd at Madison Square Garden about the week's events.
"We, as New Yorkers, understand what you guys are going through, so once again we want to send our prayers out and our condolences to the city of Boston and the people of Boston as well," Anthony said to warm applause.
"The Boston Celtics, the city of Boston, would like to thank you for your support, and all the support from people around the country throughout this tragic event," Pierce said. "Boston will rise and run again." More applause.
Then it was as if a switch had been flipped. "Let's go Knicks!" the crowd chanted even as a saxophonist played the national anthem. As the Celtics' starting lineup was announced, it was lustily booed, and the players were booed even more as they jumped around together near the free throw line. The few Celtics fans in the arena were admonished when they applauded their team's early baskets. "Is this guy serious?" shouted one blue-wearing fan. "No clapping!" Mark Sanchez, the Jets' perennially struggling quarterback, was booed also, when he was revealed to be in the crowd.
The game, too, progressed as might have been expected even before Monday's tragedy and the events that followed. Carmelo Anthony, the NBA's leading scorer, was unstoppable early (he scored ten of the Knicks' first 12 points) and unstoppable late (eight of their last 13). Even though his shot failed him for a while -- he hit just 13 of 29 attempts -- he still finished with a game-high 36 points, having averaged 36.9 in the regular season's final month. J.R. Smith was his usual maddening, disruptive self (he chipped in 15 points, with five rebounds and five assists). The Knicks' deep cadre of wizened veterans did their wizened veteran things, especially Jason Kidd (eight points, three steals) and Kenyon Martin. Martin took over when it mattered for a still gimpy Tyson Chandler, still bothered by a neck injury, who went scoreless in 20 minutes in his first game in three weeks. Martin had nine rebounds and ten points, the last two on a layup after a terrific catch of an Anthony bullet pass that gave New York its winning margin.
The Celtics, too, played as expected. They are a proud team, and despite their coach's worry about an emotional hangover they played to a high level through halftime. They entered the break with a 53-49 lead, thanks in large measure to 20 first-half points from Jeff Green. But then the troubles that led them to lose 11 of their last 17 regular season games reemerged. Kevin Garnett, who did not play in 12 of those games due to an inflamed ankle, was not himself, scoring just eight points on four of 12 shooting. A thin bench -- Rivers gave court time to just eight players -- did very little, as Jordan Crawford, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry combined to go zero for seven from the field in nearly 51 combined minutes.
Mostly, the absence of Rondo -- who made it to New York for the game and watched from the bench -- continued to hurt them. Rondo's intelligence makes him an asset in practices ("I always tell him, if he wasn't so crazy, he'd be a great coach," said Rivers), but his ruptured ACL might continue to doom his team in games. Without the NBA assists leader's facilitating, the Celtics' players resorted to standing around, holding the ball and trying to make their own play when they weren't hoping that Pierce (who had 21 points) would make one for them.
"Couldn't get `em out of it," Rivers said. "We were making post passes from the other side of the floor. Those are not good passes." In the fourth quarter, the Celtics scored as many points as they committed turnovers: eight.
After it was over, the talk almost exclusively concerned basketball. How the Knicks' defense had stiffened ("Second half, we were as solid as we've been all year, from a defensive standpoint," said Knicks head coach Mike Woodson). How the Celtics' struggles stemmed not from what they and their city had endured this week, but, simply, from their makeup and performance. "Emotionally, we were pretty good, to be honest," Rivers said. "We just stopped playing the right way."
It will be difficult, in this series, for the Celtics to start playing the right way for any extended period of time, particularly as they can't expect 26 points from Green again, nor a 13-of-29 afternoon from Anthony. "What more do you want?" Green asked, about Anthony's shooting.
"It felt like old times," said Kenyon Martin. He was referring specifically to his reuniting with Kidd, his Nets teammate of a decade ago, but he might as well have been speaking about the restoration of the state of things between the Knicks and the Celtics from last Monday morning. The Knicks are deep, energetic, largely healthy, aged in all the right ways. The Celtics are thin, passive, injured, aged in all the wrong ones. "Celtics suck! Celtics suck!" New York's victorious fans chanted, as they filed out of Madison Square Garden.
It didn't seem at all inappropriate. A basketball game, a basketball team, can do certain things for a wounded community. It can, for instance, distract in a welcome way. It can prove that recently terrorized people -- players, fans -- can gather together in a public place, and do there what they normally do. But it can't restore legs or lives, and anyone who can be healed by it wasn't grievously injured to begin with. Saturday afternoon's game was connected to the events that consumed and terrified Boston for the past week, but not in the ways that really matter. That is how it should be.