BOSTON -- Amare Stoudemire was slowly trying to get himself off the trainer's table when someone, it wasn't clear exactly who, cracked a joke or cracked something else that made Stoudemire start to giggle.
"Oh, don't make me laugh, man. Don't make me laugh," Stoudemire said, grimacing, as a trainer's assistant proceeded to tape an electrical stimulation device to his lower back while giving details on how to use the device to Stoudemire's bodyguard.
When it came time for Stoudemire to get dressed, he did fine with the shirt and pants but had to go back to the trainer's table to deal with his socks and shoes. The same trainer's assistant who taped the electronic stimulation machine to Stoudemire's lower back took care of the left sock before Stoudemire himself bent his right knee and lifted his right foot, succeeding in putting the second sock on all by himself.
But when it came time for the shoes, Stoudemire needed someone to put those on for him, too.
Back spasms had done this to Stoudemire after he pulled a muscle while dunking during warm-ups and then played 18 mostly ineffective minutes in the first and second quarters. The Knicks said at halftime that he was expected to return, but near the end of the third quarter came word that Stoudemire was done for the night.
The Knicks, however, were not.
In a valiant effort with two of their three best players sidelined, the Knicks went with a finishing five of Carmelo Anthony, Jared Jeffries, Bill Walker, Toney Douglas and Roger Mason and nearly pulled off the most improbable of victories. But Kevin Garnett made two huge late field goals and then came up with a steal on New York's last chance to retake the lead, sealing Boston's 96-93 victory Tuesday night in Game 2 of their first-round series.
Anthony scored 42 points but couldn't get anything going in the final three minutes when the Celtics sent a second defender darting at him every time he touched the ball.
And when the Knicks absolutely, positively needed a bucket on that last possession, the ball ended up in the hands of Jeffries, who tried to thread a warp-around pass to Walker (0-for-11) cutting through the lane.
"KG had his hand down, and when I tried to pass the ball to Bill, KG got a hand on it," Jeffries said. "When I looked at it on tape, I should have shot the ball."
Garnett deflected it, grabbed the loose ball and called timeout with 4.1 seconds remaining, and the Celtics surprised the Knicks by inbounding the ball into the backcourt, where Delonte West dribbled off all but 0.6 seconds of the remaining time before sinking two free throws for the final margin.
"I'm proud of them. We're still confident. Again, as everybody says, it doesn't start until somebody wins on the other team's court," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'm sure it's going to be a great atmosphere Friday, Amare should be ready, and that right there is going to be all-out. I think our heads are high, the locker room is good and they're confident. I can't wait until Friday."
By Friday, the Knicks will know if Stoudemire's back muscles have stopped their spasms, along with whether Chauncey Billups will be available. He is due to have an MRI on his strained left knee Wednesday when the rest of the team will have a day off.
As D'Antoni said, the locker room seemed a pretty positive place given the events that had just transpired.
Jeffries, who played what was arguably his best game in a New York uniform, had given the Knicks a 93-92 lead by scoring inside with 19.3 seconds left after New York grabbed two offensive rebounds to reset the shot clock and knock nearly a minute of time off the game clock.
After a timeout, Boston got the ball to Garnett isolated against Jeffries in the low post.
"It was a tough shot. We wanted to send him middle and not give him his baseline shot, his patented shot, and he went middle and he made it," Jeffries said.
Had he gone straight up, he would have either made or missed the shot, or drawn a foul. But Jeffries tried to pass instead, and Garnett made the defensive play of the night.
So the Knicks left town with two losses in tight games that they could have won, but their collective confidence was buoyed by the fact that their intensity was at a playoff level, they had outrebounded the Celtics 53-37 despite being without Stoudemire for most of the game, and they had limited Boston's effectiveness running its half-court offense.
If they can figure out a way to keep Rajon Rondo (30 points) from being a transition offense machine, they like their chances of evening the series over the weekend and coming back to Boston on Monday with a full, healthy roster.
"They played great," Stoudemire said. "Carmelo shot the ball extremely well tonight, something we needed. And the rest of the guys stepped up to play, they played great tonight. Hopefully some confidence from tonight's game will grow for Friday."
And with that, Stoudemire left the interview podium (where he stood rather than sat) and walked gingerly to the team bus, two blue plug outlets hidden underneath his T-shirt, his dress shirt and his jacket, waiting to be hooked up to the electronic stimulation machine that the Knicks provided him for use back at his apartment in the West Village.
In less than 72 hours, we will know whether his back is back to normal, and whether the Knicks will feed off a crowd that has been waiting seven years for a playoff game and keep this series as compelling and thrilling as it has been though Games 1 and 2.
It's basically a make-or-break game Friday, and the Knicks headed back to New York knowing that even without two of their three best players, they can hang with the Celtics.
Now it's time to see whether they can beat them.