By Jason Keidel
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Assuming Amar’e Stoudemire plays, the Knicks should beat Boston tonight. Handily. The sliver between the two teams in two games can be measured by a whistle here, a rebound there, and an attitude befitting the altitude of playoff basketball. Five points separate them over 96 minutes of basketball.
The Celtics win these days on toughness more than talent, on the muscle memory of heritage and triumph. Those banners hanging from whatever they call the Boston Garden these days are there for a reason, for this time of the season. They dangle like territorial flags, reminding each team who’s boss.
You don’t win 17 championships in one generation. With 50 years between their first and latest title, the Celtics are basketball’s avatar of aura, of Al Davis’s Commitment to Excellence (before Davis became that crazy man feeding the pigeons in the park, wrapped in a Member’s Only jumpsuit).
Haters bristle at campy designations like “Yankee Pride” or any notion that wearing a Yankees jersey, Cowboys helmet, or Celtics tank top imbues you skill, will, and biblical virtue. But in a real sense, you’re playing more than the man in front of you when you suit-up against a legendary franchise.
The Knicks must break through that metaphysical membrane by ignoring the periphery. Tradition doesn’t coach or play. As nauseating as he is, Curt Schilling was correct in 2001 when he said “Mystique” and “Destiny” are indeed dancers at your local strip club. Reputation is as important as you allow it to be, as is the Knicks’ 0-6 record against the Celtics this season.
Ambulances flanked a fight in 1964 between Sonny Liston and some kid named Cassius Clay, assuming the stone-fisted champion could kill the Louisville Lip. Perhaps Ali was the only one who knew he’d beat Liston that night, but that’s all that mattered.
Pundits were drunk on the dunks and rebounds by Carmelo in Game 2. “That’s why you make that trade,” was the universal refrain.
Wrong. Transcendent performances live forever when you win. No one embraces the oxymoronic, “Greatest Loser,” which sounds much more apropos as a TV marquee about obesity. I saw Isiah Thomas score 16 points in 90 seconds against – you guessed it – the Knickerbockers in a playoff game. But the Pistons lost, so the scoring outburst belongs in the back of the history books. We remember Magic Johnson, in perhaps the greatest performance of all, going for 42 points and 15 rebounds as a center, in the NBA Finals, in his rookie year, in the absence of Kareem, against Darryl Dawkins, because the Lakers won.
We remember Michael Jordan on an IV drip while he dropped 38 on Utah in the NBA Finals. We remember his double-nickel on the Knicks because he won. We rarely recall the 63 he posted on Boston because he lost
Few teams have banked on their burgeoning heritage more than the Celtics, from home court edge to loyal, ornery fans to toying with the temperature in the visitor’s locker room. You don’t stay that good that long by accident.
But on the court, Boston has no one to cover Carmelo or Amar’e. With each game, Boston sinks into the chronological quicksand of Father Time. Rondo aside, Boston has panted, staggered, and stumbled while chasing the high-priced gunners on the Knicks. One team is entering its prime, while the other limps toward its pasture.
But if the Knicks are to finish the journey from compete to complete, they can’t just come close, ride on the shoulders of moral victories. If the Knicks win the next two games, Boston just might peter out. Being old isn’t just about speed; it’s about endurance. Those of us straddling 40 can feel it on a much smaller scale: those subway stairs that now render you winded; those two beers that now give you a hangover; that half-court basketball game with your old high school pals that you can only play once a week now instead of twice.
The New York Jets, eternally tormented by Tom Brady and the Patriots, were able to vanquish an allegedly superior, supposedly unstoppable, team. The Tao of Rex, his mission statement the day he was hired, was to announce that he never knelt at the altar of Belichick.
The resurgent Rangers are a preamble to the big show tonight. The Knicks aren’t just playing a playoff game; they also carry the spirit of the city, a chance to feed a ravenous fan base that hasn’t eaten since 2001. A loss tonight would likely lead to a sweep and a collective groan, “Same old Knicks.”
The Knicks need to show us that they care as much as we do, that the desolate days of Isiah Thomas are over, that Carmelo didn’t just bring star power, but also firepower, that beyond the red carpet glitter is a blue-collar grit shared by the men and women who can’t afford courtside seats.
For too long MSG has been that gentlemen’s club, filled with performers whose wrinkles and myriad moles appear when the lights are brightest. And rather than bask in the glow they’ve burned under the glare of playing in the biggest city.
With all due respect to hockey and its fans, there’s been a murmur under the blacktop that’s ready to explode. And the Knicks have their hands on the lid. For a town that eternally bleeds blue, we’re ready for a slice of orange.
Make this a real Garden Party.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
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