By DAN KELLYSpecial to ZAGSBLOGNEW YORK — With 40 seconds remaining and the Knicks clinging to a five-point lead, Carmelo Anthony fired a pass, high and hard, into the paint.
Kenyon Martin snagged it, then laid it in, and the Knicks held on for an 85-78 win over the Celtics in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series.
“Terrible pass,” Martin said. “Melo said ‘Thanks for bailing me out.'”
More relevant than the pass or the catch was the fact that it was Martin and not Tyson Chandler logging those essential fourth-quarter minutes. The Knicks’ starting center, who missed 16 of the last 20 games with a bulging disc in his neck, sat down midway through the third quarter and never checked back into the game.
For the season Chandler averaged 10 points and nearly 11 rebounds in over 32 minutes per game. In Game 1 he did not attempt a shot and finished with zero points and 5 rebounds in 20 minutes of play.
“I knew I’d be rusty,” Chandler said. “I knew I’d be a little winded. I knew at some point my legs would get the best of me. But I just wanted to be out there with my team and do some things defensively and get some guys open in the pick and roll.”
When healthy, Chandler’s defensive presence around the rim allows the Knicks to play their “small ball” lineup featuring Anthony at power forward. His ability to suck defenders into the paint on offense with his hard rolls to the rim open up driving lanes and kick-out three’s for the rest of the Knicks.
The Game 1 version of Chandler did not look healthy but he sounds optimistic that he’ll improve going forward in the series.
“I’ve only been cleared to run for the last two or three days,” he said. “So I knew that I would struggle a little bit…I think I’m going to get better game-by-game honestly. I’m not even thinking about it at this point. Just getting my timing back and getting my legs and trying to get in a rhythm at this point.”
Coach Mike Woodson sounded equally unconcerned.
“Tyson didn’t have it tonight,” he said. “That’s no knock against him. He gave us what he had and I elected to go with Kenyon. The next night it might not be Kenyon’s game, it might be Tyson’s game.”
Despite Chandler’s quiet afternoon, the Knicks held their own on the glass. They matched the Celtics with 40 rebounds for the game, including 10 offensive rebounds, five of which were collected by Martin.
“Kenyon came in, played big minutes and made big plays,” Chandler said, “(Martin) grabbed a lot of huge offensive rebounds. Blocked some shots. Finished with Carmelo’s (Joe) Flacco to (Anquan) Boldin hook up. He made key play after key play.”
Said Martin: “That’s what I’m here for, so he doesn’t have to play 35-40 minutes a night. I think that’s why they brought me in. We’re both not 100 percent. It’s mind over matter at this point. He gave us what he had. So did I. It’s about us being a team. He doesn’t have to carry the load alone. I have a lot of playoff experience. I know what it takes to win games.”
When Chandler shakes off the rust and gets his legs back under him, the Knicks might have two big men who can go over the middle and make big catches down the stretch.
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.