NEW YORK -- The Celtics have plenty of tricks up their sleeves, and an uncanny sense of when to deploy them. There's the Ray Allen dagger 3-pointer, the Rajon Rondo fake-wrap-around pass leading to a layup, the Paul Pierce step-back jumper, and the wide-open Kevin Garnett 17-footer from either wing.
Then, there comes a time for the cruelest trick of all: the congratulatory postseason kiss-off, which Pierce so deviously delivered to the Knicks on Sunday after sweeping them out of the playoffs.
You know how it goes by now, or should. The Celtics have been doing this for four years, crushing dreams and decimating franchises so often they have perfected it. First came the hugs on the Madison Square Garden court as the final seconds ticked away Sunday in a 101-89 victory over the Knicks. Then came the faux praise -- the great-job-now-get-out-of-the-way pats on the back from the interview podium. It's a diabolical drill, a skill sharpened by much practice and success.
"You didn't know what to expect from them," Pierce said after the Celtics became the first participant to advance to what is expected to be an epic conference semifinals series with Miami by drop-kicking the Knicks out of the way in a first round sweep. "Even though we beat them four games, they earned our respect."
Sure. The way LeBron James twice earned their respect on his way out of the postseason at the ruthless hands of the Celtics, and the way Kobe Bryant and the Lakers did by losing to Boston in the 2008 Finals. On this great run during the Big Three era, the Celtics have given the same atta boys to Dwight Howard and the Magic (2010 conference finals) and Dwyane Wade and the Heat (2010 first round). This is the second time Chauncey Billups has been bounced by Boston, although this time he was on the bench in a suit instead of on the court with the Pistons.
The list of teams and players who have "earned" the Celtics' respect reads like a who's-who of NBA royalty. After spending their first few years in the Western Conference, this was the first taste of Boston's bitter medicine for the Knicks' star duo of Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony.
"You've got to take steps backwards sometimes to move forward," Anthony said on his long walk out of the Garden on Sunday -- a walk toward a future that is on him to determine.
The example is right in front of him.
From the very first practice after Stoudemire signed with the Knicks, it was obvious what they had acquired. This version of Stoudemire became the kind of leader and willing star he'd never been in Phoenix. Let's not get carried away with the notion that Stoudemire was the only 2010 free-agent willing to accept the challenge of rebuilding the Knicks; $99 million played a role in that, as well. But from the beginning of a season of rebirth at the Garden, to his willingness to share the spotlight with Anthony, and right to the bitter end -- when he somehow willed himself to finish what he'd started despite an excruciating back injury -- Stoudemire left no doubts about his stature in this league.
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"I didn't realize he'd tackle the big stage as hard as he did," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who has coached Stoudemire for all but one of his nine seasons in the NBA. "He was the first one to make the step and took it on his back, and then to share the spotlight with Melo ... it would be easy for a guy to be resentful for Melo to come in. That happens all the time. But there was not one day where he showed anything but, 'If this makes the Knicks better, this is what we're doing.'"
As always when a team loses to the Celtics, the Knicks didn't just lose -- they arrived at a crossroads of self-doubt. James left Cleveland because he couldn't beat the Celtics by himself, and went to Miami because Wade couldn't do it, either. As the Celtics spend the next few days getting ready to deal with both of them, the Knicks are facing a summer that has them pointed toward a brighter future than they've had in years but also toward some incredibly important decisions.
Team president Donnie Walsh, who bulldozed the cap space and brought respect back to the Garden, is on a contract that expires June 30 unless Garden chairman James Dolan exercises his fourth-year option. D'Antoni, under fire for the same tired criticisms even though he lost his third-best player and had half-a-Stoudemire for Games 3 and 4, said introspectively Sunday, "I don't know what the future holds."
Walsh said before the game that the untimely injuries should be factored into D'Antoni's evaluation, and added, "Overall, he's done a good job." D'Antoni, with one year left on his contract heading into an almost certain lockout, figures to be back. But in an odd way, decisions on Walsh and D'Antoni could be accelerated by the fact that Billups' $14.2 million contract for next season becomes fully guaranteed in five days. The best guess is that Billups, who turns 35 in September, also will be back because the $10.5 million in savings from buying him out wouldn't provide enough flexibility to acquire a suitable replacement.
If Walsh is making such an expensive decision on Billups, shouldn't he be the one making the other calls, too? And to that point, if Billups is going to be paid like a star at this stage of his career, shouldn't part of the decision be whether he's the right point guard for D'Antoni, even if it's only one year?
Assuming Dolan does the right thing and keeps Walsh –- perhaps with a lockout-protection clause written into the deal –- the best guess is that Walsh keeps D'Antoni. You know what you're getting with Walsh, who accomplished the most difficult part of the rebuilding by getting two stars and should be the one to tackle the most important part –- surrounding them with the needed complementary talent.
For all his flaws, you know what you're getting with D'Antoni, too –- and a full season to blend the offensive talents of Stoudemire and Anthony is only reasonable. You know what you're getting with Billups, as long as the injuries down the stretch weren't sirens proclaiming he's reached the end. And you know what you're getting with Stoudemire, who proved beyond any doubt that his leadership and commitment to winning are exactly what the Knicks needed as their foundation.
Which brings us to the last guy walking out of the Garden on Sunday night, the one who spoke of having to take steps back before moving forward. This whole plan hinges on Anthony rising to the same level of stardom and responsibility that Stoudemire embraced –- and improving his habits, commitment, and sense of who he is, or should be, in this league.
"I think he understands what it takes to win now after this series," Stoudemire said of his co-star, in a quiet moment in the hallways of the Garden. "I have confidence in him."
Assuming he'll be coaching Anthony next season, D'Antoni said, "He can be, is, or could be as good as anybody in the league, if not better. He's got everything. His goal should be 'I want to be a triple-double guy and I want to win a championship with the Knicks.' He has that ability. And I didn't know that totally, but watching him play, he and Amar'e together can get it done."
On the topic of bringing stars together and getting them to sacrifice for winning, nobody has done it better than Doc Rivers, who said of Anthony outside the Celtics' locker room, "Once he trusts the system, he'll be great."
"You know they're going to add players," Rivers said. "The more players you put around Carmelo, the better Carmelo is. He's a little like Paul in that they want space and room to take you off the dribble and get shots. You've got to have players on the floor with him so that he can do that more efficiently."
The biggest share of the responsibility, though, falls on Anthony, who orchestrated the trade that cost the Knicks the same kind of pieces he'll need to make this work. Of all the people involved here, Anthony got his cake and ate it, too –- the extension, the team and city of his choice, and the stage that will illuminate his gifts and expose his flaws. It's now on him to embrace it all the way Stoudemire did, and be better than he's ever been before.
A couple of years ago, as Anthony and the Nuggets were forging a path to the Western Conference finals, I asked Anthony about frequently being an afterthought in the discussion of the best players in the league. It's crowded at the top, and it's a sore spot for Anthony that there's never enough breath for his name to be included.
"If people have talks and I'm not in the conversation as a top-five player in this league," Anthony said back then, "they shouldn't be talking about it."
Many of the players on that list have been brushed aside by the Celtics on their way to bigger plans. So Anthony joined that elite club Sunday. What he does next, how he handles this taste of failure, will define him and determine whether he ever joins another list.