Commentary

How Knicks beat Celts? Repeat history

The setup for this Knicks-Celtics playoff series is eerily similar to their last one, in 1990

Updated: April 17, 2011, 3:26 AM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- Chauncey Billups did not know the details of the last Celtics-Knicks playoff series, which is understandable. It happened 21 years ago. It involved players who are now scattered throughout front offices, coaches' offices and broadcast booths. And it had nothing at all to do with the life he was living back then as a 13-year-old in Colorado.

So he asked to hear the story, and he raised his eyebrows when he heard the parallels: The Knicks had acquired a savvy veteran point guard at midseason, and when it all came down to one final game it was that old ball handler, Maurice Cheeks, who made all the difference.

[+] EnlargeKevin McHale & Maurice Cheeks
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaMo Cheeks helped propel the Knicks to a playoff upset of the Celtics 21 years ago.

The Celtics were an aging team with only one excellent young player (then it was Reggie Lewis; now it is Rajon Rondo), but they had gone deep in the playoffs in five of the preceding six years and still were believed to have some gas left in the tank.

The Knicks had regressed from a first-place team in the Atlantic Division to a third-place team, Patrick Ewing had put nothing of substance on his career résumé in his five seasons, Mark Jackson had regressed considerably since his Rookie of the Year season, Charles Oakley was not yet fully appreciated and the Celtics were a 52-win team who had three elite players -- Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- playing alongside Lewis.

It had been 17 years since New York had defeated Boston in a playoff series, the Knicks had lost 26 games in a row at the old Boston Garden over six years, and nobody really gave the Knicks much of a chance.

And when the Knicks went down 0-2, it was assumed they were cooked.

They weren't.

The Knicks won Game 3 at home by three points, and then blew out the Celtics 135-108 in Game 4.

And in Game 5, coach Stu Jackson (now the NBA's executive vice president of basketball operations) made the decision to put the ball in Cheeks' hands for the entire 48 minutes, and the Knicks pulled off the improbable with a 121-114 victory.

The question for this year's Knicks squad is whether history can repeat itself.

Few are picking them to win this series. The conventional wisdom says the Celtics are too battle-tested, too cohesive, too defensive-oriented and too intense to handle for a Knicks team with two stars -- Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony -- who did not exactly build their reputations on playing defense and winning championships, as their counterparts on the Celtics have.

But the Knicks also have that extra piece of the puzzle -- much like Cheeks was back in 1990 -- in Billups, who will be heading to the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season and could conceivably be as big of a factor for the Knicks as Anthony and Stoudemire.

"Fourteen! I've made it through 14," Billups called out to no one in particular after the Knicks wrapped up the regular season Wednesday night with a meaningless loss in Boston in which he and Anthony were rested, and Boston sat out Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Jermaine O'Neal.

And what did Billups accomplish in Year 14?

He was second in the NBA in free throw percentage at 91.6. He made 146 3-pointers in 72 games, shooting them at a .402 clip -- up from last year's percentage of .386. And maybe most importantly, he gave a postgame speech late last month when the Knicks were in the middle of their six-game swoon in which he told his teammates to calm down and not get caught up in the panic. They were headed to the playoffs no matter what, Billups explained, and if they could go on the road and win one of the first two games of the series and then return to Madison Square Garden tied 1-1 for the first playoff game in the building since 2004, nobody was going to remember or care about what happened back in March.

A question: When was the last time the Knicks had a point guard like him in their locker room? Chris Duhon? No. Stephon Marbury? Uh, no. Howard Eisley? Chris Childs? Charlie Ward? Should I keep going?

[+] EnlargeChauncey Billups
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesChauncey Billups, a former NBA Finals MVP, has a history of coming up big in the playoffs.

The point here is that a wise old man can make a big difference in a postseason series, and the Knicks now have one to play alongside two players, Stoudemire and Anthony, who can give you 30 or 40 points on any given night.

The Knicks were second in the NBA in total 3-pointers, making nearly twice as many as the Celtics, and they are going to pretty much live or die on whether they knock them down in this series. The Knicks were 29-7 when hitting at least 10 3-pointers, 18-4 when making 12 or more and 7-0 when making 15 or more.

And if the ball moves against the Celtics' set defense, the open looks from 3-point range will be there.

"We're going to have to play some defense, we're going to have to get into them, and the biggest thing is we're going to have to move the ball. They have really good defensive play and if we hold it they'll get into us, but if we move it we'll find shots, and that's going to be huge," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But it's about little things, the in-between things that are going to win it. It's loose balls, it's rebounds, it's boxing out. It's all those things, and if we do that and we can constantly stay with them, I think we have two guys that can bring you home at the end of games."

So there you have it, right from the coach's mouth. If the Knicks play their game, they have a chance. If they play the Celtics' game, they probably don't.

I am picking the Celtics in seven in this series because I think they'll be able to execute their offense and get buckets in the final three minutes of tight games. I've seen them do it too many times to expect any less of them. But I've also seen the Knicks develop a level of confidence and swagger over the course of this month that truly seems genuine. So while I don't expect them to win, the very fact I expect this series to go seven means I believe they have a chance.

And if the Knicks win it, I will not be stunned, because I have seen it before -- and the potential parallels between 2011 and 1990 are too stark to ignore.

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