BOSTON -- When the locker room doors opened, most of the stalls were empty. There were towels on the floor and the smell of buffalo wings ordered in from across the street. Next to Amar'e Stoudemire on the training tables sat Carmelo Anthony, unshowered and shirtless, his legs dangling like an extension of his frown.
The Knicks had been down by 17 in the second quarter. They were up by 11 in the fourth. "It's a game that we should have won," Stoudemire said, after they had lost 90-86 to the Celtics.
There was nothing special about this third loss in four games for the 6-16 Knicks. They found another way to be bad, but what did it mean in the end? They rank 28th in the league in the only category that matters -- only the young rebuilding Jazz and Bucks have worse records, barely. Brooklyn is the lone team spending more than the Knicks, and in spite of so many pathetic statistics New York remains three games out of the final playoff spot, and 3.5 behind the division-leading Celtics.
In the larger scheme this forgettable game was far more important to the visitors than to their hosts. As Celtics president Danny Ainge admitted in the Boston Globe on Friday, "Making the playoffs is not a goal." The Celtics, as always, have bigger plans; for the Knicks, who have no first-round pick, long-term planning is the one thing they cannot afford. For them, every game seems to play itself out like Christmas Eve in Scrooge's bed, revisiting the mistakes they've made.
Last Sunday the Knicks were slaughtered 114-73 on their home court by the Celtics, which left New York coach Mike Woodson hoping for a statement from his team in the rematch here five days later. "I'm anxious to see how we respond," said Woodson. "That was an embarrassment."
Embarrassment, like the Knicks' failures, is versatile. This time they lost in no small part because J.R. Smith, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, attempted one shot (an errant three) in his 26 minutes. Woodson was flabbergasted, for it is better for Smith to shoot too much than never at all. "I was trying to make opportunities for my teammates to excel," Smith said by way of explaining his three assists. "It may not be the right way; it may be the right way. I'm trying to figure it out."
It shouldn't be that difficult to figure: They scored 86 points. "We need guys doing what they do well," Anthony said.
The Celtics were up 48-31 midway through the second quarter when Andrea Bargnani launched a comeback with a midrange jumper and a couple of free throws. Anthony scored nine points in the closing four minutes to bring the Knicks within 54-48; then he made a three to open the scoring on the other side of halftime.
Rare is the Knicks player not struggling now. Guard Iman Shumpert has been having a hard time recently amid his own injury concerns and trade rumors, and the Knicks appear to be sensitive to their promising young guard. Smith was at the table waiting to come in after Shumpert airballed a three. Instead of yanking Shumpert under such negative circumstances, Woodson sent Smith back to the bench. When the Celtics called a timeout moments after losing the lead (61-59) to a Kenyon Martin dunk, injured center Tyson Chandler followed Shumpert to the bench shouting encouragement, and then Anthony leaned down to whisper more advice to Shumpert.
The small quartet of Shumpert (1-for-8), Pablo Prigioni (1-for-6), Tim Hardaway Jr. (0-for-2) and Beno Udrih (1-for-3) was 3-for-19 as a group, all while Smith was dreaming of becoming Maurice Cheeks. Their contagion spread to Boston's converted point guard Jordan Crawford, who overcame his own 0-for-8 performance with six assists, including the key pass to a rolling Vitor Faverani that put the Knicks down 88-84 with 67 seconds left.
"They," said Smith of the Celtics, "are No. 1 in our division for a reason." Yes, and the reason is that the division stinks.
So grows the pressure on Anthony (26 points on 24 shots), who leads the NBA in minutes after playing 42 Friday. In the third quarter he told Prigioni to use him as a decoy because the Knicks were surging without him, but in the fourth they reverted to leaning on Anthony for eight shots (of which he made one) while Woodson counted three shots that Bargnani (22 points) passed up. "It's not every night I'm going to bail us out," said Anthony, who had his drive poked away by Jeff Green in the final minute. "We should know that."
Stoudemire has been trying to come to their rescue. This was his fourth game in five nights, during which he has averaged 27 minutes and 16 points while shooting 26-for-37. "I feel good," he said, and it's true -- he looked nimble and athletic, and maybe his comeback will make the difference when Chandler returns and Smith recovers his aim.
In the meantime Chandler and Raymond Felton remain sidelined indefinitely, while Kenyon Martin (abdominal strain) may not be available Saturday against the visiting Hawks. Stoudemire said he expects to be held out "for precautionary reasons."
It is a peculiar kind of hell to keep losing but to never seem to lose ground, and the name of that hell is the Eastern Conference.