By Jason Keidel
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For a franchise with no pulse for a decade, the Knicks pumped some serious heart last night.

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In the face of injuries, 18,000 ornery fans, and the aggregate pall and pull of their own reputation as chumps, the Knicks pounded the Celtics on the boards, swatted shots, dove for loose balls, and almost won with 40 percent of their starting lineup on the shelf. Sadly, Game 2 ended like Game 1, littered with moral victories, a few words to add to the next pep talk.

Chauncey Billups (knee) and Amar’e Stoudemire (back) are two patients testing our patience with injuries at the worst time, as we all watch their hopelessly insufficient subs scamper across the hardwood, falling just short of the upset.

The basketball cognoscenti branded Billups the gem of the Carmelo trade. Lost in the group hug is that fact that, at 34, Billups has become a walking triage. Pick a part of his anatomy and it’s likely been tweaked for a week.

Both teams are brittle, giving this series the tone of attrition. Boston either got really old really quickly, or the Knicks have greased the skids to the retirement home.

Or both.

And though I said the Knicks could not come back from 0-2, there has never been a more live underdog than New York right now, who has momentum, mojo, and home court this weekend. All assuming STAT gets up off the deck.

To the horror of Knicks fans, a man near the Knicks’ bench was seen squatting over a prostrate Stoudemire, knuckles buried into his back. Stoudemire was the newest member of the M*A*S*H unit, at a most important moment

I’m not a physician (nor do I play one on television), but back issues have derailed many careers, much less a playoff series. From Don Mattingly to Larry Bird, it’s almost a silent problem. You see no bleeding, no bandages, and no bones. Just pain. Knicks fans will cross their fingers, praying that Stoudemire can lead his spastic squad despite his spastic back.

Carmelo Anthony (42 points, 17 rebounds) was volcanic last night, more than making up for his hideous performance in Game 1. Yet it wasn’t enough, which is part of the Knicks’ narrative this year: a team that competes but never completes.

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Amar’e was great in Game 1 and Carmelo was fabulous in Game 2. A shame they can’t be brilliant at the same time. And that’s what’s missing. It’s not enough to cobble together stars and assume a dynastic universe. They either need more time or more talent around them. They need more than Jared Jeffries.

While Carmelo went Sleepy Floyd for 47 minutes, Jeffries went Charles Smith for 4.7 seconds. Jeffries parked under the rim and, rather than take it strong to the tin, tried some silly bounce pass that Kevin Garnett flicked away, along with the game. It is emblematic of the team: an amalgam of parts, a prototype, not yet ready for mass production. They need to be refined and redefined.

Until then, they should throw one helluva scare into the Celtics, who will find the Grim Reaper in their locker room before the NBA Finals. Garnett doesn’t garner the respect (or double-teams) he used to. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, two-thirds of the basketball Guidra that stampeded the NBA for the last four years, have flashed a fraction of their former genius. It happens to all teams and all talents, and it seems to happen overnight. One day, you just wake up a step slower. And thus the Big Three seem to run on a beach more than on birch.

Frankly, the Knicks are better than Boston. No doubt you’ll demand a urine sample after that assertion. But as the series shifts from parquet to Park Ave, few of you feel the Knicks are dead. And you don’t have to be a Carmeloholic to predict that this series will go seven games.

No matter your tri-state sporting allegiance, it’s splendid to have an important basketball game played in New York City, the sport’s ancestral home. It’s too painful to recall and repeat the fact that the Knicks haven’t won a playoff game in a decade, rendering MSG morbid and muted since. One win will change that.

New Yorkers have an odd relationship with the Knicks. Carmelo gets the credit when the team thrives, while all defeats are on D’Antoni. Even worse, the Kool-Aid drinkers and Carmeloholics are blaming the refs, saying the zebras have zeroed in on their beloved Knicks, shoving them into a 2-0 hole. Some are even saying the games are fixed.

In reality, the Knicks need to fix their end game, a way to drill the nail in the enemy’s coffin, and a number of other, exhausted sporting idioms I can’t think of at the moment.

As another New Yorker once said…Just win, baby.

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