Going into Game 1, the Knicks were tied with the Sacramento Kings as the second-worst interior defensive team in the league, allowing 46.0 points in the paint per game. But in their first three regular season matchups against the Celtics -- 15th in the league in paint points average (41.5) -- the Knicks allowed a 53.3 average. Even without the traded Kendrick Perkins in their third meeting on March 21, the Celtics simply dominated the inside game, outscoring the Knicks 44 to 28.
But last night, the Knicks, while we all know they can score, went from the league's third-worst defensive team (105.7 points per game allowed) to almost looking like the Celtics, the best defensive team (opponents 91.1 ppg). They fell just short with a two-point loss.
On a positive note, the Celtics' 87 points was the third-lowest total scored all year against the Knicks, who limited the Cs to just 34 points in the paint. You've got to tip your hat off to Mike D'Antoni and Co., who had been criticized all season for their lack of defensive coaching. This morning after practice, Amare Stoudemire directed compliments to the sideline bosses and explained what they did.
"I think we played well enough to win last night. We did a great job defensively," Stoudemire said. "The coaching staff gave us a certain strategy and personnel sheet. We studied it. We went over it over and over and over. We definitely showed a defensive effort out there last night and so hopefully we can do that again tomorrow night. We stuck to our strategies."
Said D'Antoni: "Defensively we were really good. We can tighten up a few things, but to hold them in the 80s, we’ll take that again. Our offense has to be better."
So what specifically did the Knicks do defensively to get under the Celtics' skin in the paint? Stoudemire said the guys wanted to make it hard for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to catch the ball in their sweet spots (they both shot under 40 percent in the game). STAT even included a personal shot at Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who had said Stoudemire "is not that hard to guard" on the eve of Game 1.
"We did a good job of denying them the ball," Stoudemire said. "When you're facing an offensive threat, it's tough to stop them from scoring, and the best way to do that -- and I've experienced it with guarding Garnett and those guys -- is to try to deny them the ball. If they don't catch it, they can't score."
"We're just playing smart. I know Baby wanted to try to draw contact and draw fouls, and his core is not really as tight as it should be, so I knew I can catch him off balance with that. So I kind of backed up when [he posted on me]. I thought he traveled on [one of the plays], but he turned the ball over. Just a couple key stops, man. That's what it takes to win. You've got to get stops down the stretch."
The Knicks arguably played their best defensive quarter of the year in the second, limiting the Celtics to 15 points on 6-of-18 shooting (33.3 percent) and forcing them into six turnovers (in comparison, the Knicks only had two). At halftime, the score was 51-39, but then the Cs, led by Rajon Rondo, came out running after the break and outscored the Knicks 20-13 in the third quarter.
"They had a couple of transition baskets," Stoudemire said. "We've got to try to limit those. If we cut those out then we have a better chance to win. Also, offensive boards, a few long rebounds out there. If we try to get a few of those long rebounds, a couple hustle plays they got, we should have a better chance to win."
Toney Douglas, who will likely replace the injured Chauncey Billups as the starting point guard in Game 2, said it all comes down to containing the Celtics.
"Our defense is going to be key for this whole series -- keep that same defense or even better," Douglas said. "If everybody is locked in and focused on the one page then we'll be fine."
You can follow Jared Zwerling on Twitter.