BOSTON -- The Knicks won the series, but they lost the war. They were on top Friday at the final buzzer, 88-80, to move on to the second round after six revealing games. But they weren't going to receive the credit for putting an end to the Celtics' run of contention. If this is the end, then let it be said that the Knicks did less harm upon the Celtics than the harm done by injuries and old age. Time didn't run out on Kevin Garnett's Celtics so much as it wrestled them to the ground, and only then after a prolonged fight.
"If you could have seen him getting prepared to go to practice, let alone for games," said Boston coach Doc Rivers of Garnett, and it was like that all night. All of the talk was in the past tense. No one claimed to know if Garnett would come back for another season, or if he would retire after threatening to quit last summer. But they had seen the pain he endured in order to uphold his high standards, and it were almost as if his coach wanted the best player he's ever been around to take it easy, to stop demanding more than his body could give anymore, to put an end at last to his opponents' misery.
In what may have been Garnett's final game, 16 days before his 37th birthday, he took 10 shots and made seven of them. He scored 15 points with three assists, two steals and 10 rebounds in 41 exhausting minutes. Throughout this series that the Celtics never should have been able to contest, Garnett averaged 13.7 rebounds, more than he generated in any postseason since he was 27, and more than any player in the current postseason. "It's amazing when you think about Kevin," Rivers said. "He's what, 37? He's still one of the best players in the league."
He went out double-pumping and up-and-undering layups that used to be triumphant dunks, and for most of Game 6, it looked as if his efforts were meaningless. The Knicks were making the game look easy. They were up 75-49 with fewer than 10 minutes remaining when the truth of Garnett's influence emerged one more time, maybe one last time. The truth was that Garnett always made a difference in spirit, and very often that spirit made all the difference.
The years of being around Garnett brought forth something in Avery Bradley, who came up with three steals and 10 points in the fourth quarter. Jeff Green, who was supposed to be some kind of passive softie before he became a Celtic, ramped up 10 points in the quarter himself. The uninspiring Knicks, who once again had been taking too much for granted, missed six field goals and committed five turnovers as the Celtics scored 20 unanswered points, and for those last thrilling minutes, the TD Garden sounded like an echo of better years. When Bradley stripped Carmelo Anthony for a breakaway dunk that brought Boston within four, 79-75 with 3:32 left, Rivers thought the Celtics might be on their way to forcing a Game 7 and becoming the first NBA team ever to overcome an 0-3 series deficit.
"I thought we had a great shot, I really did," Rivers said. "I thought we had them where we wanted them."
But then Carmelo Anthony, to his credit, responded instantly with a midrange jumper and a three-pointer to restore New York's advantage to nine with 1:43 to go. Anthony needed 23 shots for his 21 points, but he also generated five assists, and most important were the shots he made when nothing less would do. Even so, it can't be said that he knocked out the Celtics so much as he avoided being embarrassed by them.
The Knicks made their lives so difficult while winning the first three games. They might have been on their way to a sweep when J.R. Smith unnecessarily and self-destructively dealt Jason Terry an uppercut near the end of Game 3, which resulted in Smith's suspension in Game 4 and inspired Terry and the Celtics to win the next two games. The Knicks wore black to Game 5 as if it were Halloween, and they were dressed up like fools. There was a time a few days ago when they looked like potential threats to Miami, but this series -- their first playoff win since 2000 -- defined them as they threatened to unravel.
The takeaway of this game, this series and the last six years altogether had everything to do with Garnett's impact on the Celtics and opponents who were forced to measure up. The Celtics' victory in the 2008 NBA Finals revealed weaknesses in the Lakers that Kobe Bryant was able to tighten on their way to championships in the next two years. LeBron James became a champion because he knew that the Celtics were going to keep exposing him otherwise. Anthony was the latest star to be forced to raise his standards. "You have to deal with him emotionally, physically, mentally, and then with his talent," Rivers said.
"He changed it. He changed our whole way," Rivers went on, referring to Garnett in the past tense. "I can preach it all day, but when you have a guy walking the walk (of) what you're saying, your franchise changes. Every new guy that came in here, even vets -- stars -- who came in, from Shaq on, they had to change a little bit around Kevin."
It was a horrible 4-for-18 night for Paul Pierce, and as he struggled, Rivers grieved. "I'm down at times during the game, because you're thinking about Paul's emotions," Rivers said. "Because this is not the game he wanted, and you're trying to coach the game."
Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen had devoted themselves to the needs of the team. When Allen moved onto Miami, leaving Garnett and Pierce more vulnerable, Rivers grew ever more wary and protective of his stars. "We don't know how many more years we're going to have them -- period -- in the league," Rivers said emotionally. "You just want it to always be perfect for them. And as a coach you want to protect that. And tonight, I just didn't."
When Pierce was substituted out with 27.3 seconds remaining, the crowd failed to recognize him as one of the great Celtics of all time. They should have been cheering for him as if Larry Bird himself were on his way out. But no disrespect was meant to Pierce. They were not ready to say goodbye to him. It is understood that he is going to play next year, whether the Celtics keep him, trade him, or buy him out at a price of $5 million on the upcoming closeout year of his contract. He has more basketball in him, and then, even when Pierce is done playing, he is still going to be back in Boston one way or another. He will be one of those retired ambassadors of the Celtics' tradition.
It does not promise to be that way for Garnett. If this is his last night, then who knows when he will ever be seen again? The fans gave him a farewell ovation layered with hope that it might encourage him to return. On Garnett's way off of the floor, he gave Rivers a hug, and then another hug. "He kept asking me if I was all right," Rivers said, and with each question, the coach looked as if he were being nudged closer to tears.
The Knicks move on with the faraway hope of making the kind of impact that the Celtics have made. The Celtics, having fought so hard to keep playing, must now decide whether the fight is done. Rivers could not promise that he would be back next season, intending to wait a week or more before deciding for sure whether to return. "Doc came to me, pulled Paul and me to the side, and all three of us agreed to speak later," Garnett said. "We all said we wanted to leave it out on the floor, and that's what we did."
That's what they did until they couldn't do it anymore. In losing, something honorable was won.