EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 25, 2011

Sweep Dreams

On Pro Basketball
Michael Muldoon

A natural cynic, I'm fighting it.

Believe me, I'm fighting it.

But could the Celtics beat the Heat?

That seemed a preposterous notion just a week ago, but the Celtics, who limped through a miserable final month of the season, just finished a four-game sweep of the Knicks with a 101-89 win yesterday at Madison Square Garden.

Injuries notwithstanding, the Knicks are the epitome of mediocre. Maybe Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Co. will figure it out next year, but that seems far from a given.

Nonetheless, the C's did what they had to do. The first two games were ugly, but they gave the New Yorkers a chance to self-destruct and that's exactly what they did.

Game 3 was supposed to be bedlam at MSG, but these battle-tested C's got past their Game 1 and 2 doldrums and toyed with the Knicks. Ripped their hearts out.

Yesterday was more of the same. Trailing by 23 early in the third, the hosts cut it to 4 with 7:35 left in the game. But Doc Rivers called a time-out and woke his club from the slumber and the C's pulled away.

It was classic modern Big 3 Celtics. Paul Pierce, who was struggling, was inserted into the game and made the two game-changing plays: a driving lefty lay-up followed by a bullet pass to Rajon Rondo for a lay-up.

Pierce made Carmelo Anthony (32 points but on 10-of-24 shooting) work and Melo went out meekly.

Kevin Garnett took advantage of New York's smallish front line for 26 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in 33 minutes and helped limit the banged up Stoudemire to a woeful 5-of-20 shooting day.

The Celtics will be rested and ornery when the Heat finish off the 76ers (Miami leads 3-1) and their Eastern Conference semifinal series begins Saturday or Sunday.

Boston turned it on last year for its memorable run to the final and this club appears headed in the right direction.

The Heat clearly have the advantage in the all important talent department with their Big 3 but until they do it, there are a lot of question marks. They have an unproven coach and it will probably come down to is LeBron James a winner?

He may be one of the top five pure talents ever to play the game along with Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal.

But with the pressure on, would you rather have Paul Pierce, Ray Allen or LeBron taking that big shot? At this point, LeBron is a distant No. 3.

Of course, you're a choker until you do it. I remember Sports Illustrated wrote a devastating column on a young Magic Johnson, calling him a choker. Then he went on to win four more titles and went down as a legendary winner. Same with John Elway.

Kendrick Perkins is gone but not forgotten, but Boston is right where it wants to be. Rondo has regained his confidence, KG is healthy, Pierce and Allen have come on strong, Jermaine O'Neal has come out of nowhere to play some quality minutes.

There are two lingering questions.

Can Shaq play? It seems like a longshot but the C's brass is stringing people along.

Then, what's wrong with the bench? Glen Davis finally played well yesterday and he's always accounted himself well in the postseason. Delonte West, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic have been major disappointments.

The aging Pierce and Allen will have their hands full with LeBron and Dwyane Wade, so these guys must perform. A repeat of their play vs. New York and Boston is doomed.

No more excuses for Green, who was supposed to be an impact player but has been invisible.

If Boston can make LeBron come up small again, it will give us another reason to be giddy over the New Big 3 era.

• • •

Michael Muldoon is an Eagle-Tribune sports writer. E-mail him at mmuldoon@eagletribune.com.

Celtics 101, Knicks 89

25: Years since the C's last swept a best-of-7 series

11: Years since the Knicks last won a playoff series

6 or 7: Days until Boston's next game, likely at Miami

21-12-5: Points, assists and rebounds for Rajon Rondo

13: Approximate size of the shoe Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni put in his mouth prior to the game when he said of Rondo: "I'd like to see him play on Minnesota and see how he does."

26-10: Points and rebounds for Kevin Garnett

1 of 10: Amar'e Stoudemire's first-half shooting

3,648: Days since the Knicks won a playoff game (April 29, 2001 vs. Toronto)

16-38: Carmelo Anthony's career playoff record

Mystery player blasts KG

The May 2 ESPN the Magazine has a piece where an anonymous player writes about the NBA. He's not a big fan of Celtics forward Kevin Garnett.

"Garnett is a punk and a coward. I know, I know, easy for me to say behind this column. Don't worry, I'll tell him to his face, too. And I'm not the only one who thinks that. If you're not on his team, chances are you hate the guy.

You can learn a lot by watching his eyes. If he's talking to you — and he's always talking — he avoids eye contact. My advice to other guys in the league: Stare him down and he'll retreat.

From what I've seen, he'll never mix it up with a player who's bigger than he is. Personally, I think he's scared to fight — like a playground bully who barks but doesn't bite."