NEW YORK -- Jump shots will drop and confidence will be propped up by the undying faith of the hometown crowd. That was the picture of optimism the New York Knicks painted for themselves before playing the New Jersey Nets at Madison Square Garden.
The reality wasn't so pleasant:
The Knicks, in their current shorthanded state, are too banged up to make a series out of this first-round mismatch.
Not that anyone wearing blue and orange will admit they're outnumbered against the once-convalescing Eastern Conference champions, who are getting healthier -- mentally as much as physically -- with every double-digit blowout of their cross-Hudson rivals.
The Knicks have been playing backups because that's what happens when your team is built on individuals with maximum contracts and two of those max players -- starting shooting guard Allan Houston and starting small forward Tim Thomas -- are injured. Both missed Thursday night's thriller Game 3 at the Garden, in which the Nets edged the Knicks 81-78.
This is not to place all of the blame on their backups, Shandon Anderson and Penny Hardaway, for the Knicks' 0-3 hole (after 24-point and 18-point routs in New Jersey). But there's no denying that Anderson and Hardaway have been put in tough positions as starters, and their combined 8-for-31 effort in Game 2 exposed them for who they aren't. Coach Lenny Wilkens confirmed that fact in his critique of Game 2 after singling out the sad shooting of his "two and three."
Anderson simply isn't the shooter Houston is, and you didn't need to see him go 5-for-21 the first two games to come up with that conclusion. Hardaway, who's three inches shorter than the 6-foot-10 Thomas, spent more time on the perimeter trying to feed Stephon Marbury the ball in Game 2 instead of doing the things that typical small forwards do. Still, Hardaway was counted on to shoot 16 times, missing 11 of them, including all three of his 3-point attempts.
"It's the playoffs now. You have to suck everything up," Hardaway said. "You've got to put everything else behind you. ... We've got to play. We've got injuries and we've got to take on a lot of minutes. You've just got to do it."
Anderson averaged 35 minutes before Game 3, and in regular-season games in which he played 35 minutes or more (since Isiah Thomas's last makeover at the trade deadline), the Knicks were 0-4. Hardaway averaged 38.5 minutes in both playoff games. The Knicks were 0-3 the last two months when he got more than 35 minutes.
"We don't have any excuses," Nazr Mohammed said. "So what if Allan is not healthy. He hasn't been healthy since the end of the season but we still had to go out there and get us a playoff spot."
"We're going to have to find a way," Kurt Thomas said. "We're definitely going to have to push the ball up a little more and try to match them in transition as much as we can."
Of course, the Nets were supposed to be the team with health issues, with so much uncertainty falling over the troublesome left knees of All-Stars Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin. But you don't need to be a doctor to see that Kidd and Martin are feeling fine. The first fastbreak alley-oop slam was proof enough.
"They're healthy, man," Hardaway said. "I don't know Kenyon as well as Jason, but Jason is going to play through everything. He's definitely going to have to have something broken to be on the sidelines."
The Knicks' hopes of holding serve and sending everyone back through the Lincoln Tunnel for another game in the Meadowlands is fading fast, though they held their own at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
There's nothing like being at home, but the Knicks would prefer if it weren't a broken home.
Joe Lago is the NBA editor at ESPN.com.