NEW YORK -- In the 72 hours leading up to Tuesday's game, the Boston Celtics made no secret of their plan to force-feed Kevin Garnett. And a mere 27 seconds had elapsed before Garnett hit a fadeaway jumper on Boston's first possession of the night.
But it didn't take nearly as long for Boston's strategy to unravel. Garnett got tagged with two questionable fouls in the span of 18 seconds early in the first quarter, then spent much of the night glued to the bench. When Garnett did return, his rhythm had disappeared and the Celtics' offense endured another anemic second-half performance as they lost to the New York Knicks 87-71 in Game 2 of an Eastern Conference first-round matchup at Madison Square Garden.
New York leads the series 2-0 as it shifts to Boston.
Even before Garnett's night was referenced, Celtics coach Doc Rivers vented a bit about the early whistles that disrupted Boston's entire game plan.
"I thought the fouls on Kevin were horrendous and had a huge effect on us," Rivers said. "He never got in his rhythm when you could see he was going to have a [good] game. It hurt us."
The Celtics managed to survive most of the first half without Garnett, rallying to open as much as a nine-point lead during the brief stretch he was on the floor.
But when Garnett came out for the second half, he simply didn't have it anymore. A 15-foot fadeaway clanged off iron, then an 18-foot jumper was off the mark and a turnaround bank shot kissed too hard off the glass. As New York rallied ahead, Garnett got whistled for a shooting foul -- his fourth infraction of the night -- and was back in foul jail less than four minutes into the third quarter.
By the time a desperate Rivers put Garnett back on the floor just three minutes later, the Celtics were staring at a double-digit deficit that the Knicks maintained virtually the rest of the way to the finish line.
Asked about the whistles, Garnett offered, "At times it's frustrating, but fouls are part of the game. Refs are calling things; it's an aggressive time in postseason play. I just have to be consistent and continue to put the onus on the refs. And position myself not to foul so much."
After the Celtics mustered only 25 second-half points during Saturday's Game 1 loss in New York, it seemed unlikely they could do worse on Tuesday. But they did. The Celtics shot an impossibly low 19.4 percent in the second half (7-of-36 overall) and mustered just 23 points after the intermission.
The Knicks outscored Boston 32-11 in the third quarter alone, building as much as a 16-point cushion, and never really looked back while strengthening their grip on this series.
Tentative from foul trouble and seemingly on tilt as the game slipped away, Garnett let the team's offensive woes negatively impact his defense.
Raymond Felton dashed to the rim for a layup that Garnett was too late to properly help on, then Carmelo Anthony raced past him for a dunk that had the Knicks up 74-59 late in the third quarter. But it was on the offensive end where Garnett's absence left Boston cluttered and unable to generate easy points.
"It's tough when you don't have one of your inside presences out there," Piece said. "With Kevin being in foul trouble, we couldn't establish him."
Garnett spent much of his night sitting alongside good friend Rajon Rondo, who is traveling with the team at the start of the playoffs despite rehabbing after February's ACL surgery.
Boston's offense desperately misses that duo this time of year, particularly given the way they help each other on the floor. Garnett picked up his fourth foul less than four minutes into the second half, which further glued him to the pine; minus Rondo, no one stepped up in KG's place. By the time Garnett returned and shots started falling again, it was too late.
Garnett finished with 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting with a team-high 11 rebounds over 24 minutes, 10 seconds. The crowd spent much of the night showering him with the somewhat-familiar strains of a "KG sucks!" chant (which sounded alarmingly like the Yankees version that often rings through Fenway Park).
Asked what positives the Celtics could pluck from the game, Garnett leaned on Boston's ability to keep New York to a reasonable output.
"They haven't scored 90 points yet, and when you're playing a team like this, that's a good sign," Garnett said. "We just have to figure out the offensive side of the ball, and not be so stagnated. [The Celtics have to] figure out ways to score more off opportunities [and] be aggressive, take advantage of mismatches."
Asked if he could put his finger on why Boston had struggled on the offensive end in this series, Garnett answered simply, "I cannot." But he remains optimistic the Celtics can reverse the series' momentum, so long as he can stay on the court.
Expect the Celtics to again make Garnett the focal point of the offense during Friday's Game 3 at TD Garden. If nothing else, Garnett believes the home crowd can give his team a jolt.
"We're going home," Garnett said. "We're going to be in front of our crowd, a lot more confidence and energy in the building. But we still have to play better."
And that starts with making sure Garnett is on the floor.