The Yankees and Red Sox, Giants and Patriots, Rangers and Bruins…New York and Boston are the best of enemies when it comes to sport and regardless of the code, field or ball, they are intent on getting the better of one another. While the battle on the hardwood has always been much more partial to the green than the orange, this season could represent the turning point New Yorkers have been waiting for. Not only do the Knicks have home-court through the first round, but they’re the second seed in the East. With so much on the line for both teams, this promises to be one of the most bruising, intense first round match-ups that is odds on favorite to include the most cereal plugs.
The Celtics have weathered injuries to Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Leondro Barbosa to cling to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve done so battled without their star playmaker for the second half of the season, in which they held steady to go 21-17 to close the season after Rondo tore his ACL. With Rondo going down, a team that revolved around their speedy dime disher completely transformed their make-up and morphed to the kind of team that Doc Rivers ran before Rajon Rondo emerged as a star. It’s still a team that strives to move without the ball and work the ball around the perimeter. But what makes the Celtics strong isn’t their offensive prowess, but their stingy defense that finished 12th best in the league at restricting opponent scoring.
Boston accomplishes through employing lockdown defender Avery Bradley against their strongest opposing guard, and anchoring the veteran Kevin Garnett in the paint to work down any inside threat. Still surviving off the masterfully constructed defensive scheme engineered by Tom Thibadeau during his tenure as an assistant with the Celtics, they still load the strong side almost as good as any other elite team in the NBA. It’s a strategy that is set to be particularly effective against a Knicks team that is most exploitable to this kind of stragety. The Knicks both lean heavily upon one wing scorer and are, on the whole, a terrible passing team. It’s not necessarily that turnovers are a problem for New York, but they favor an isolation branded game of basketball; which is why they’re ranked dead last in assists. For Boston, this works to their favor as they try to shut out Carmelo Anthony’s bevy of scoring moves and force some turnovers. This may have become even easily as Knicks guard Pablo Prigioni has been ruled out of game 1 with an ankle ailment. The Knicks managed to scorch the Celtics in two of their three convincing wins over them this season by allowing their supporting cast to carry the scoring load with Anthony neutralised, but if the Celtics are diligent in shutting down the passing lanes when Anthony is blanketed, they could have a much better chance at forcing some turnovers and winning this series.
The other big defensive strength that the Celtics can use to strangle the Knicks is their perimeter defense. As the season closed this week, the Boston Celtics finished as fourth in the league in restricting their opponents’ three-point percentage. For a team that relies on the likes of Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd and Steve Novak to bank their threes to win, this is bad news for the Knicks. Granted, Anthony and Smith have managed to collectively torch the Celtics during the regular season; but there’s no guarantees they’ll continue to buck the trend. With the better part of a week to gameplan for this series, the brains trust of Doc Rivers and his staff are likely to have found a way to address the ways of Anthony and Smith and Celtics fans will hope that the Knicks become another victim to the stifling Celtics D.
However, the Celtics are going to have their hands full dealing with Tyson Chandler. Ranked second last in the league for rebounding, it’s no secret Boston has issues with their size and their ability to collect boards. A far cry from Celtics of Bill Russell’s time, this squad is marred by a lack of height and weakness at the rim. The team’s leading rebounder, Kevin Garnett, brings down only 7.8 per contest. While these numbers were acceptable when Garnett played at the 4 to Kendrick Perkins on previous iterations of the Boston Celtics, but a 6’11 Center with greatly diminished athleticism is not the recipe to dominate the glass. The rebounding weakness is going to be a large concern for Doc Rivers going into battle against Tyson Chandler (10.7rpg, 4.1 off.) and Carmleo Anthony (6.9rpg, 2 off.). While not a great rebounding team either, this is one area that the Knicks do have the advantage in and will exploit the Celtics. Tyson Chandler, creeping towards the twilight of his career, knows how important this year is to his aspirations of adding a championship ring to the Olympic Gold medal and will be preparing to exploit the small Celtics to the best of his abilities.
Adding to the rolling pain for Boston is the bullish Kenyon Martin. Expected to match up on either Brandon Bass, KG or Jeff Green when on the floor, Martin brings aggression off the pine and has been impressiv e during the season for the Knicks since signing on as a free agent. A veristile defender, Martin provides a good secondary option to cover the interesting Celtics big man line-up. He has the skills and length to cover Bass and despite conceding some foot speed, should be able to do the job on Jeff Green when Melo is resting or on Pierce. With Anthony developing into a LeBron-esque combo forward, the Knicks now have the ability to load up on a ‘big’ line-up of two guards (hey, Shump!), Melo, Martin and Chandler that could potentially wreak havoc against a Boston outfit that is suspectible to size and rebounding.
New York Knicks
This is the New York Knicks that MSG wanted. They’re second-best in the East for a reason. Carmelo Anthony, fresh off his first scoring title, seems poised to lead from the front by piling on the points and he’s brought some friends this time. Adding to the scoring attack marshaled by Melo is J.R. Smith. Both guys are extremely talented scorers to the point you can’t isolate a specific aspect of their offense that is particularly good. You take away their shot and they drive to the hole. Lock down the paint, and they’ll hit a step-back jumper right in your face. Surrounding the two gifted scorers are a combination of good perimeter scorers (Novak, Kidd) and the inside bangers who are ready to receive and finish down low (Chandler, Martin).
The well crafted offense of Mike Woodson’s will test the stingy Celtics defensive more than almost any other side in the East. Raymond Felton, while not continuing the promise he showed during the hot start to the season, has done a serviceable driving the offense while Kidd has played his role of back-up ballhandler and spot-up shooter despite hitting some slumps throughout the year. Carmelo Anthony isn’t simply a brilliant scorer, or a superstar either – he’s a brilliant superstar scorer who is in red hot form. Closing the season, Carmelo Anthony threw 50 points on the Heat and then another 40 the following week on the Hawks. Not only are these primetime Kobe numbers in terms of scoring, but he went about his business in a very efficient manner – shooting 66% over the two games. The Celtics are going to struggle to contain him. In an earlier encounter, Rivers overloaded the strong side to death which successfully threw Anthony off his game…but allowed J.R. Smith to bury 32. Next time out the Celtics were blown out of the water on all cylinders.
The say that Anthony or Smith aren’t the best offensive weapon in Woodson’s chest would seem laughable, but there’s a third toy the Knicks have to play with that could keep the Celtics staff awake at night. The ‘two-PG combo’ that Woodson has used effectively throughout the year has been devastatingly effective. When two of Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni and Jason Kidd hit the floor, they become one of the most biting offenses in the league bar few. It works because the Knicks retain everything mentioned above that makes their offense so spectacular and strong – Anthony and Smith’s scoring, Chandler’s inside work and the perimeter guys – but adds in an element of ball movement that the Knicks don’t have when they throw out other line-ups with a traditional two.With the ball pinging around, it opens up more opportunities for the Novaks placed around the perimeter and also gets the Knicks a lot of good looks inside that the Celtics need to work hard to try to limit.
When the Knicks are fit and firing, they are near-unstoppable. The only issue for New York, is that they’re never healthy. The Knicks have already had to rule out starting guard Pablo Prigioni for game 1 with an ankle injury. Offseason signing Rasheed Wallace has already retreated to retirement before the Playoffs commenced due to a foot injury that has kept him sidelined for a lot of time this season, which led to Earl Barron coming on board to fill the void. The biggest out however for the Knicks could be Amar’e Stoudemire.
Speaking to the New York Daily News, Mike Woodson believes the former All-Star Stoudemire may m “I think he’s going to be out, That’s my gut. But he was out here moving around and shooting a little bit. It’s kind of nice to see him on the floor.” Stoudemire’s out compounds the hit to the Knicks’ depth as well as Prigioni’s injury. The injury will force Chris Copeland to start, which is another blow to the bench that is now likely going to lean more on the production of Steve Novak and Kenyon Martin during the Boston series.
It’s no secret that the Knicks’ health has been their biggest limitation this season, with their full list never being available because of injury. J.R. Smith and Steve Novak are the only two to play in more than 80 games this season. Prigioni and Kidd both have more than 75 under their belt but the list begins to thin with Felton (68), Melo (67) and Chandler (66) being the only other to play above 60 games this season. For the Knicks, they’ve had nearly $30,000,000 worth of players that have not topped that 60 game plateau this season with many of them – Kurt Thomas, Amar’e Stoudemire, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace – unavailable for this series.
Players to Watch
The players to watch in this series are very directly linked with each other. The two have been at two ends of the spectrum this season – from lining up on the same side of the center stripe at All-Star Weekend, to coming within inches of a WWE-style parking lot brawl at the Celtics team bus. Carmelo Anthony has a chance to exact some revenge to the trash talking psycho Kevin Garnett. It’s a storm that the NBA has been waiting for and praying for all season. There’s Carmelo, who has always emitted a sense of sensitivity and vulnerability about himself while earning some sympathy from some of the more partial fans. A member of that star-studded 2003 draft class, he’s had to watch his peers collect their championship rings while meddling away on the Nuggets and lately the Knicks. He went to London and, we suspect, had to sit around while LeBron and Kobe compared championship rings and told Kevin Durant and James Harden how good it’ll feel when they one day get theirs. Well, maybe it didn’t exactly go like that, but Carmelo Anthony has long seemed like the guy who ends up without a chair when the music stops. However, he’s the most devastating scorers in the league today and has his best chance this year.
Enter Kevin Garnett, who has done everything from have a bar fight with Dwight Howard to allegedly calling Detroit’s Charlie Villanueva a ‘cancer patient’ and driving LeBron James to insanity – to his own detriment last season in the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s already exploited Carmelo’s emotional vulnerability in a game earlier this season with an alleged slur about Anthony’s wife LaLa that led to a heated confrontation between the two. Both later dismissed it and even palled around at the All-Star game, but Garnett holds no punches when on the hardwood; let alone during a Playoffs game.
For both, time is running out. I’ve written before about the urgency of the Knicks putting it all together now and time is short for Kevin Garnett. Every year since the 2008 Finals, everyone has wondered how long this Boston outfit has left. Some would say their championship window has already closed. Garnett is nearly thirty seven years old and in his seventeenth year. Paul Pierce is treading similar water. Danny Ainge has come close to detonating this core for years now and came close sending KG to the Clippers at the last deadline. If he has any chances left to win another title in Celtic green, it’s this year. Don’t expect KG to go down without a fight.
At their best, both teams could make the Eastern Conference Finals while at their worst, both are borderline playoff teams. The Knicks marched into the Playoffs with fifteen of their last eighteen while Boston closed their year with a 3-12 slide. The Celtics will fight valiantly as they always do, but the New York Knicks know their time is now. Carmelo Anthony is simply unstoppable, and sadly for the Celtics Army, nothing Boston can throw at the Knicks will be enough to overcome the strength of Anthony and the interior defense of Chandler and Martin. While I am taking the Knicks in this one, I must remark that this is the most unpredictable series, I believe, in the entire bracket. We don’t even know who’s suiting up for the Knicks every night, let alone how they’ll play. For the Celtics, they’re as good as their movement suggests – at their peak, they were light-footed and strong when diving to the hoop. At their worst, they throw up enough bricks to build a new home stadium if they so desired. One variable which could play large is the enormous sense of motivation and passion that the proud Boston Celtics may encompass going into the series following this week’s tragic events. Doc Rivers has spoken beautifully this week of his anger at what has been inflicted upon his city, and the team’s love and affinity with it. The Celtics are certainly not a team that ever lacks passion, but the galvanising events of the past week may be something that takes them into another gear which could lead them to an upset. With all that being said though, I am still backing the Knicks who I think will continue their hot run and take this one in 6.