BOSTON -- J.R. Smith was the luckiest man in the house Sunday, and he wasn't even in the house. He was banned from TD Garden for Game 4 as a result of his foolishness in Game 3, conduct that cost the New York Knicks the sweep Carmelo Anthony had billed as a potential "dream come true."
Lucky? Here's how Smith remained lucky after the opponent he flagrantly fouled, Jason Terry, scored Boston's final nine points in a 97-90 victory in overtime: The Celtics aren't skilled enough or young enough or athletic enough to take four consecutive games from a superior New York opponent as the Red Sox did in 2004, not when the C's are without Rajon Rondo in the lineup.
So Smith will almost certainly survive his walk on the wild side, and escape a legacy as an all-time Knicks goat. His swinging elbow into Terry's chin won't cost the Knicks their season like Charlie Ward's tussle with P.J. Brown in Game 5 of Knicks-Heat, 1997, cost Patrick Ewing one of his best shots at a ring.
Those '97 Knicks were absolutely rolling, up 3-1 on Miami in the conference semis and fixing to finally take down Michael Jordan's Bulls, a team they'd beaten in Chicago to close the regular season, and deny Jordan a second straight 70-win season.
The Knicks fell apart after that Ward-Brown fight in Miami, and after David Stern practically handed down life sentences for Ewing and every other visiting star guilty of misdemeanor jaywalking off the bench. Stern banged everyone but Clyde Frazier, and soon enough Madison Square Garden executives Jim Dolan and Marc Lustgarten were ripping into Jeff Van Gundy face to face for failing to discipline his team.
Odds are Mike Woodson will be receiving no such reprimands at the end of this series, one expected to end in his team's favor Wednesday night at the Garden. But Woodson should receive a warning the coach can pass down to his reigning Sixth Man Award winner, Smith, who has embraced the popular angle -- notarized by his coach -- that he has done a lot of growing up of late.
If a player is ill-tempered enough to get himself ejected in a blowout victory over a weak team about to go down 0-3 in a first-round series, what might become of him in the final minutes of a Game 5 in Miami in the conference final?
Smith's absence in Game 4 had a negative impact on Anthony, who felt compelled to jack up 35 shots, and forced Raymond Felton, in Doc Rivers' words, to "take the role of J.R. Smith," a role Felton handled with admirable care in scoring 27 points, 16 in the third quarter. Of greater consequence, Smith's absence had a positive impact on a Celtics team that had been a shell of its former self.
Rivers said he couldn't measure the magnitude of that impact, but added it might have "changed the events for all of us" and reminded that, if nothing else, "guarding one less guy can't hurt." Smith's unnecessary roughness Friday night also served to anger Terry, a proud member of the champion Mavericks from two years ago and a shooter who had missed 15 of his 22 field-goal attempts over the first three games.
"It hurt," Terry said of the Smith elbow. "It still hurts right now. As long as I feel that, I'll be thinking about it."
And as long as the Celtics remain alive in this series, J.R. Smith won't be the only New Yorker thinking about it.
Though Woodson refused to use Smith's suspension as an excuse Sunday, his Knicks scored a lousy 35 points in the first half and were down by as many as 20 before rallying and forcing the overtime. A neutral observer of this series would've concluded that the Knicks would already be second-rounders if their second-best offensive player had kept his arms to himself in Game 3 and suited up for Game 4.
"I missed him out there," Anthony said.
"J.R.'s a big piece to what we do," Woodson said.
A big piece, and a volatile one, too. That should scare Knicks fans long enough to remember other postseason games gone awry in a New York minute.
Of course, the Knicks have a history of coming undone at the worst possible time. John Starks famously head-butted Reggie Miller in the playoffs in 1993, when Pat Riley all but shoved the tossed Starks down the tunnel and into the locker room. In '98, a year after the Knicks lost their minds against the Heat, Larry Johnson squared off against his former friend, Alonzo Mourning, who ended up dragging the fallen and flailing Van Gundy around the Garden floor with his foot.
If the Knicks survived those '93 and '98 meltdowns, hey, that was then and this is now.
All in all, Woodson has done a terrific job with this team, making his predecessor, Mike D'Antoni, look really, really bad in comparison. But Woodson's honor-roll report card is smudged by a C-plus in conduct, as in the uneven conduct of his team during tense times.
Last spring, Amar'e Stoudemire slammed his hand through a fire extinguisher case to shatter whatever remote chance the Knicks had of upsetting Miami in the first round. This season, the Knicks lost their composure against the Grizzlies (with technicals), against the Bulls (with ejections) and against the Celtics (with Anthony chasing Kevin Garnett out to the bus).
Now J.R. Smith has advanced the trend, earning his one-game suspension. Saturday night's news, Anthony said, "put a damper into a lot of our plans." The Knicks missed a wide-open opportunity to put away a Celtics team that finally punched back.
"They were fighting for dear life," Melo said.
By scoring his 16-18 points, Smith would've made their desperation moot. But he did something selfish at a time of the year that calls for supreme selflessness, and the Knicks lost a first-round sweep because of it.
They're still prohibitive favorites to eliminate the Celtics, to prevent them from becoming the first team in NBA history to overcome an 0-3 deficit. But what happens the next time J.R. decides his initials stand for Just React?
What happens when the stakes are higher and the opponents are tougher, and the Knicks' sixth man chooses to fire an elbow just for the hell of it?