NEW YORK -- I've been to Madison Square Garden dozens of times in my nearly 14 years living in this city, and I've seen it in numerous mass mental states. I've seen it rapturous, during the late-season run of this year and, even more so, during Linsanity last season. I've seen it full of bile and rage, generally during the Isiah Thomas era. I've seen it lethargic, bored and empty, usually during St. John's games. And I've seen it full of old ladies giggling and cooing. (I stopped by the dog show once.)
The one way I've never seen it, at least until last night, is absolutely terrified. The Knicks, after taking a 3-0 lead over the Boston Celtics, lost their second game in a row, and suddenly what looked like a sweep has turned into the sort of budding event that tightens a fanbase's collective sphincter. That place was shaking on Wednesday night, in the exact wrong way. The players noticed it too, and felt the same way. After jumping out to an 11-0 lead, you could sense the Knicks gripping the ball too tight, jittery, antsy, and once the Celtics tied the game up and took the lead, you could sense the whole building thinking one thing: Not again.
There were two different "not again"s. The first one made sense. Since Kevin Garnett arrived in 2007, the Celtics have vexed the Knicks in every possible way, though most often by Paul Pierce daggers in the final two minutes. New York tried to exorcise the Boston demons this year by winning the Atlantic Division and having their best season in more than a decade, but there the Celtics were, again in the first round, standing in their way. The 3-0 lead made Knicks fans think it was over. It's not over.
But I'm not sure that was the most prominent "not again."
No, the main images flipping through the brains of Knicks fans were not of Jason Terry doing that dopey airplane celebration, or J.R. Smith missing shot after shot. They were of Dave Roberts. They were of David Ortiz. They were of Curt Schilling, and Kevin Millar, and Pedro Martinez. They were of The Idiots. They were of 2004. They were of the only other non-NHL series to ever have a team come back from a 3-0 deficit, which, hey, as it turns out, happens to have involved these same two cities. Huh.
On one hand, this makes perfect sense. The most famous collapse in postseason history, potentially happening again, involving the same two cities, cities with huge media corps renowned for taking the most obvious angle and bashing it into the ground until it dies, is reborn, then bashed into the ground until it dies again. It is, of course, irresistible.
But man, is it stupid. I mean that in the plainest possible way. These are things that have nothing to do with one another. These things have as much to do with one another as a hockey puck, a bowl of oatmeal and Kant's "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals." This is obvious, but I feel obliged to point it out anyway. A basketball team in 2013 has nothing -- nothing -- to do with a baseball team in 2004. A baseball team in 2013 has nothing to do with a baseball team in 2004, let alone one from an entirely different sport. This isn't something that needs explaining, right? Once you've figured out how to tie your shoe and not walk into traffic, you have this one covered, yes?
Apparently not! It's dominating the coverage already. From the Daily News to ESPN to NESN to the Boston Herald, which even has the headline "C's take shot of `04 vibe." (I'm not sure what a shot of '04 vibe' would taste like. I'm thinking Jagermeister, with a chaser of whatever fell out of Johnny Damon's beard.) The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy had this doozy of a paragraph:
Suddenly, Celtics-Knicks has morphed into Red Sox-Yankees, circa 2004. Carmelo Anthony is Alex Rodriguez. James Dolan is George Steinbrenner. Jason Terry is Dave Roberts, and Doc Rivers is Terry Francona. We're not quite sure who'll get to play Curt Schilling with the bloody sock. Game 6 is Friday night on Causeway Street and the Knicks are certain to be tighter than Kevin Brown before Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS.
I'd love to see this paragraph extended on for another 4,000 words, just to see how far he can take it. Barack Obama is George W. Bush. The invasion of Iraq is the increasing aggression in Syria. Joe Millionaire is Kim Kardashian. Slipknot is Mumford and Sons.
It has become the central plotline of this series, and you're going to see that Dave Roberts steal on ESPN for Game 6 on Friday night more often than in the Roberts family basement. (I imagine him having a looping GIF of the steal, projected on a wall.) Not only are we forcing an outside narrative on a series that is actually about real basketball tactics and outcomes, we're doing it using a narrative from an entirely different sport.
It sound crazy, but we kinda always do this. These sort of non-parallel analogies are a basic foundation of the way we discuss sports. Every time you hear someone talk about how this college basketball team always struggles against that college basketball team, even though college basketball teams filter out their entire rosters every four years by definition and most of the time even the coaches aren't the same, we're talking about a construct that has no basis on the real planet. For years, I've known that my Cardinals struggle against Philadelphia … but that doesn't make any sense. We're talking about different Cardinals, and different Phillies, and different everythings.
It is a narrative that is imposed entirely from the outside. It seems familiar to us, that Illinois has a hard time winning at Penn State, that New York sports teams struggle when up 3-0 to Boston teams, because we've seen it before and therefore believe we are seeing some sort of pattern. But there is no pattern. These things have nothing to do with one another. It is an illusion. And it is an illusion that everyone is going to be talking about, all day, every day, until Friday night. If the Celtics win on Friday, it'll go on even longer. It's easy and lazy and obvious, so it becomes the whole story. But let's not forget just how dumb it is. If Boston wins the series, Johnny Damon does not get a share. Basketball and baseball are not the same sport. Nine years ago is not now. This is not a real thing.