Maybe the Boston Celtics can thank the New York Knicks.
The Celtics are two wins away from raising their Banner 18 after weathering the usual Golden State Warriors’ third-quarter storm and took a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals with a 116-100 win Wednesday at the packed TD Garden.
Instead of melting down, the Celtics showed great composure they lacked early in the season after the Warriors came back from several double-digit deficits to take an 83-82 lead in the third quarter.
The Knicks were among the few NBA teams who may have hardened the Celtics’ resolve with painful losses in the regular season. Twice they beat the Celtics in heartbreaking fashion — a double OT thriller in the season opener and the RJ Barrett game-winner that capped a 25-point comeback in January.
Five months later, here comes a much different Celtics team toughened by those painful losses.
“For me, it was just ‘be poised. Just stay calm.’ We’ve been here before,” Smart said after Game 3.
Their resilience has negated their inexperience going up against the dynastic Warriors.
“We talked about it quite a bit, our group being resilient and being able to fight through a lot of things and at times when it’s most needed being able to lock down on defense, which we did in the fourth quarter,” Udoka said.
But it wasn’t just their heart. Udoka also made the necessary adjustments to stifle the Warriors’ momentum from their third-quarter rally. For all the shotmaking brilliance of their stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, their defense was the telling difference.
“I think especially after the third quarter, [Golden State] made six or seven in that quarter. We had to adjust a little bit. Got to switching a little bit more,” Udoka said.
“That’s asking a lot of Rob (Williams) and Al (Horford) and those guys. They’ve done it all year, but with Rob being a little hampered and getting out there, you’ve got to work a little bit harder to get out on (Stephen) Curry, with the range those guys have.”
“For [Williams], it worked tonight. We can adjust a little bit, and we doubled a little bit here and there and switched a little bit more in the fourth to take away those threes. But I think what we did offensively, as well, put them in some foul trouble situations and took some of their aggression away. Like I said, four blocked shots but a lot that he deterred. I’m sure they missed a few of those threes with those contests alone.”
New York coach Tom Thibodeau also counts on his bigs for rim protection and to close out on shooters. Rookie Jericho Sims showed flashes of Williams’ mobility in short spurts, particularly against the Nets in Brooklyn in the second half of the season.
But the Knicks, though, aren’t as equipped as the Celtics with players fit for switch-heavy defensive schemes, which have propelled the Celtics’ Finals run.
In the playoffs, where the weakest link is usually hunted, the Celtics have no glaring holes in their rotation. They have the size to smother the smaller Warriors. They have shooters who can crack the Warriors’ defense. Most importantly, their eight-man rotation is all made up of two-way players. While Williams is confined to catching lobs and attacking the middle coming off short rolls, his impact on the defensive end has been tremendous.
In Game 3, Curry often found himself laboring on defense against the much taller Jayson Tatum. The result is either a Tatum drive or a kick-out pass to a Celtics shooter.
Udoka has impressed both as an X’s and O’s and motivational coach, pushing the right buttons with in-game adjustment with his culture of equal accountability from stars down to their role players.
Thibodeau can learn from that after the Kemba Walker failed experiment and Julius Randle’s shenanigans, which heavily took a toll on the Knicks’ bid to return to the playoffs.
Leon Rose can learn something from Brad Stevens, who inherited and tweaked a flawed roster from Danny Ainge. Stevens’ move to undo the Walker experiment and bring back Horford paid huge dividends. And his small but equally impressive trade deadline move to acquire Derrick White has solidified Udoka’s no-glaring-hole rotation.
Instead of star chasing, the Knicks should focus on finding players who are strong on both sides of the ball and developing a homegrown star.
Even if it falls short, this Celtics run showed a blueprint of how to counter star-studded teams in a league driven by stars.
Maybe the Knicks can thank the Celtics later.
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