For most of the night the Boston Celtics looked as if they had just run the Boston Marathon, dragging their sorry selves up and down the Madison Square Garden court while the home team threatened to Globetrotter them out of town.
Carmelo Anthony was piecing together a triple-double, and Steve Novak and J.R. Smith were busy playing an absurd game of H-O-R-S-E from the 3-point line before Boston made a late run on muscle memory, on the pride and precision of Paul Pierce, whose 43 points would be scored in vain.
In the end, maybe the Celtics didn't have enough to lose here. Maybe three consecutive road games followed by two consecutive nights in the naked city left them too tired and too distracted to care enough about the low drama of the New York Knicks, a bottom seed that can't stop Boston from claiming yet another division title.
Either way, Anthony finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in this 118-110 victory, and Novak and J.R. Smith combined for 50 points and made 15 of 20 3s, delivering the daggers that might ultimately earn the Knicks seventh place in the East, a perilous place to land.
Everyone knows the drill by now: The Knicks would be better off facing the top-seeded Chicago Bulls than the second-seeded Miami Heat, even if Chicago would probably beat the Knicks in six, quashing Anthony's thin chances of winning his first championship ring since his Syracuse one-and-done.
Without Jeremy Lin or a fully functional Amare Stoudemire or a home-court advantage in any round, the Knicks aren't strong enough to ride Melo's hot hand from here to June. But that doesn't mean Anthony shouldn't seize a title over the next three years. The popular theory that at least two true stars are required to win it all -- a notion hardened by Miami's collection of two and a half -- has this one small mountain to climb:
Dirk Nowitzki just proved it wrong.
The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat, and the star system, with Nowitzki and a willing supporting cast anchored in the middle by Tyson Chandler, a pro's pro and winner's winner who makes a mockery of David Stern's refusal to let high school grads into the draft.
If Nowitzki could do it with Chandler and Co., why can't Anthony?
"He's really put this team on his shoulders," said Chandler, who hit the Celtics for 20 points and seven rebounds, "and yes, it does remind me of what Dirk did for us [last year]. I talked to [Anthony] a couple of times after games and said, 'If you continue to play like that it will just lift the other guys' play and we can make a heck of a run.'"
Chandler was walking out of his locker room, heading for the Garden exits, when asked if Anthony could do for the Knicks what Nowitzki did for the Mavs.
"For sure, for sure," the center said. "They're two different players, but I put them both right at the top and I definitely think we can duplicate what we did [in Dallas]."
Beyond Nowitzki and Chandler, the Mavericks who averaged double figures in minutes during last year's playoffs included Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Jose Barea, Peja Stojakovic, DeShawn Stevenson, and Brendan Haywood.
Beyond Anthony and Chandler, the Knicks already have a rotation (when healthy) in the same ballpark. An aging Baron Davis is no aging Kidd, but Marion is no Stoudemire, either, even with Amare in a diminished physical state. The Terrys and Bareas and Pejas more or less line up with the Smiths and Lins and Novaks, and Iman Shumpert is a better stopper, and prospect, than Stevenson is or was.
A couple of supplemental faces will change next season, but with Chandler and Stoudemire signed for three more years, the Knicks won't be fitting another big-name, big-game acquisition under the cap. So Melo will have to do it the Nowitzki way, assuming he's good enough to do it the Nowitzki way.
When he was done watching his Celtics surrender 72 first-half points, done watching his bench get outscored by a staggering 55-2 count, Doc Rivers was asked if the Knicks' core of Anthony, Chandler, and Stoudemire was capable of winning a title in the coming years.
"I don't know," Rivers said. "It's a good core, though, and if you have that core the whole key is figuring out the right role players. We had the right three stars when we won it, but the role players were huge for us.
"Carmelo is a lot like Dirk in that he can carry a game, but Dallas had been together for a long time and Jason Kidd is such a great point guard and he made it work."
Earlier, before the Knicks built a 21-point halftime lead, the Celtics coach was asked if Anthony could elevate a team like Nowitzki had. Rivers called Dirk "a freak of nature," a description he didn't apply to Anthony.
"Carmelo is not that with his size, and [Kevin] Durant is that," Rivers said. "Dirk is a 7-footer playing like a 2-guard; it's an unfair advantage, and that's who Dirk is. Carmelo does have that ability, though, as far as he can make shots with good defense. That's what separates him. That's why he's a great player."
A great player whose teams have lost in the first round of the playoffs seven times in eight tries.
Anthony will be favored to end up 1-for-9 after he faces the Heat or the Bulls this year. Stoudemire is expected back as soon as Friday, and Mike Woodson is swearing his power forward will return as a starter, and swearing he'll find a way to make the pairing with Melo work.
But whether or not his bad back cooperates through the playoffs, Stoudemire isn't likely to return next year as the athletic dynamo he was on arrival in New York. Anthony will have to get the best out of a scaled-down Stoudemire, just as Nowitzki had to get the best out of a scaled-down Marion and Kidd.
The center who won it all with Dirk, Chandler, believes Anthony can pull it off. If Knicks fans have to wait another year or three, hey, they've had plenty of practice.