New York Knicks forward Anthony and head coach D'Antoni react in Game 2 of their NBA Eastern Conference playoff series against the Boston Celtics in Boston

Knicks need to execute late or Celtics will be executioner


The Knicks are not dead in their series against the Celtics.

But when they take the floor Friday night in a shaking-the-building loud Madison Square Garden, there will be a guy standing in the corner wearing a full length black hooded robe, with a boney hand holding a sickle. He’s waiting for just one more end-of-game mistake — from player or coach — and then he will claim his prize.

New York came into this series with a puncher’s chance — they were not the better team, but they had two guys capable of landing haymakers and stealing a game. And both did.

Both games this series the Celtics were staggered. Then held on to win.

The Celtics executed better at the end of games, something now ingrained in their championship DNA. The Knicks could not finish them off. They are still alive only because they go home with the chance to take that next step, catch a couple breaks and execute when the game is decided.

The math is simple — either they step up and win the next two or they will fly back to Boston for an inevitable end. With that hooded guy riding in first class.

In Game 1, Amar’e Stoudemire was an unstoppable force in the fourth quarter. His driving dunk with 2:47 left had the Knicks up five. Then, for reasons as baffling as what happened to the Mayans, after the 2-minute mark he got no more shots off. Because a Ronny Turiaf layup was a better idea. Or a long ‘Melo three. Toney Douglas gave the Knicks hope with a long three, but then it was two more missed ‘Melo contested jumpers. Stoudemire never got a chance. That’s on Anthony. That’s on D’Antoni.

Meanwhile the Celtics executed on both ends. They stuck with what they wanted to do. They played like veterans. They won.

Game two was about Celtic execution and the lack of Knick depth. This time it was Anthony who threw the haymaker — 42 points on 30 shots and hitting wild, contested threes late like few shooters in the game every could. He was a marvel

But with the game on the line, Boston brought the hard double to get the ball out of ‘Melo’s hands and his passing options included Jared Jeffries, Bill Walker and Roger Mason. Those are 10 minutes a game guys on most playoff teams, they never see the court on a true contending team. But they were the Knicks crunch time lineup because Chauncey Billups has a bum knee, Stoudemire’s back was spasming and Landry Fields’ game has gone into the witness protection program.

The Celtics held serve at home. New York is still alive. Yes, the Knicks have to win 4-of-5 and find a way to win in Boston. But not right now. Right now they need to win two at home, where Spike Lee will be making a spectacle of himself. And that’s just what he wears to the game.

The Knicks need to keep landing the haymakers, and they have to add end-of-game execution. Not Jeffries trying to throw a bounce pass past Kevin Garnett, but smart plays. From key players. Staying with the hot hand, getting the timely stop. Making the timely shot because you made a good decisions not forced one up in isolation. Because the coach had the right players on the floor (read: not Jeffries).

The Knicks are not dead. But if they don’t execute the executioner is waiting. And wearing green.

Report: David Lee, Tyler Zeller in line to start for Celtics; Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko out of rotation

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: David Lee of Boston Celtics attacks during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on October 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Brad Stevens has a big challenge this year – sorting the Celtics’ deep roster of similarly able players.

It seems that process is shaking out at power forward and center.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

it appears Boston’s first four bigs will be starters David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk off the bench.

That leaves Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger, potentially on the outside looking in as far as the regular rotation is concerned.

Lee is the best passer of the bunch, which could partially explain why he’s starting. Boston’s most likely starting point guard, Marcus Smart, is still growing into the role of the lead ball-handler at the NBA level. Lee and presumptive starting shooting guard Avery Bradley can take some pressure off him.

Olynyk can space the floor for Isaiah Thomas-Johnson pick-and-rolls with the reserves and run pick-and-pops with Thomas himself.

I’m a little surprised Zeller is starting over Johnson, though. The Celtics just signed Johnson to a $12 million salary, and I thought they’d rely on his defense to set a tone early. Like Johnson, Zeller is a quality pick-and-roll finisher who can thrive with Thomas.

This is particularly bad news for Sullinger, who – barring a surprising contract extension – is entering a contract year. It seems those reports of offseason conditioning haven’t yet paid off. Jerebko’s deal also isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, but at least he has already gotten his mid-sized payday. Sullinger is still on his rookie-scale contract.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.