Eastern Playoff Preview: Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks
Continuing on our journey through a massive playoffs preview, next up is New York vs. Boston. (Spoiler: These two teams don’t like each other.)
Aaron Weiss: With the Knicks’ front line being so old and injured, even Shavlik Randolph is licking his lips at the prospect of playing them. Yet while Celtics big men may be happy for the matchup, those tasked with perimeter defense will have to deal with a positively streaking Knick squad that just locked up their 13th win in a row by sinking 20 three-pointers. Consider that Carmelo Anthony only made three of those and STILL scored 36 points, and Celtics may not have a defense in their arsenal that can handle the Knicks’ offensive barrage. The Knicks won the season series 3-1, including two of those victories coming in this streak. A potential x-factor can come in the form of Kevin Garnett, who didn’t play in either of those games, and has the kind of mid-range game and rebounding prowess the Knicks have had trouble counter-acting in the past.
Truth is, these two teams are a very close match for one-another. As good as the Knicks offense has been, the Celtics defense has been just as good. Same goes for the Knicks terrible defense, which matches the Celtics terrible offense. What the series will likely come down to, then, is individual performances. If Melo can pitch in even a couple of the performances he’s shown this past week, with J.R. Smith staying sane, any of their bigs returning from the dead, and solid contribution from guys like Felton, Shumpert, Novak, or even Copeland, this might be over quicker than we think. It feels like that’s asking a lot, but when you look at this streak, that’s how it’s been. They’ve been that consistent, in ways that shouldn’t hold up. It’s not like they’ve been scoring 120 a night like the Rockets, or shooting particularly accurate. The team is just playing really well, with solid minute distribution and consistent gameplans from Coach Woodson. If you’re able to combine that with Melo playing possibly his best basketball, that can make for a very dangerous team, or at least one that’s good enough to beat the Celtics.
This Celtics team will fight valiantly, though. But they actually have a greater likelihood of beating themselves than anything else. They’ve gone .500 since the start of March, and the record really tells the whole story. The team actually has been a stronger unit as a whole since Rondo left, at least mentally, but there’s weak spots beyond the age of, ahem, certain players. Jeff Green has been quite good on offense, and seems to have matured into a critical player for Boston. It’ll be interesting to see who the Knicks throw at him to prevent him from having a major impact. Unfortunately, his defense remains spotty, to be kind, and it’s hard to imagine either him or Paul Pierce handling Anthony. Courtney Lee may be that defender, but then you have Lee’s offense, which ranges from non-existent to bad. Non-existent is probably what Celtics fans wish was Jordan Crawford’s game was, as it would be far preferable to what he’s doing now. Seriously, Jordan Crawford is bad, and he should feel bad. Instead, he’ll just keep shooting, and that drives me fucking crazy.
I can’t say this will be an easy series for the Knicks, but it’s sure as hell going to be a hard one for the Celtics. Both these teams need leaders to step up in legendary ways, and truly play like it’s the playoffs. For the Knicks, that will have to be Carmelo, with an average of at least 30/6/2. For the Celtics, they’ll need someone who can drive to the basket, coordinate things on the court while keeping a pace that favors the Celtics, and who thrives on national television with his fierce style of play. The only guy on the Celtics who can do that is Rajon Rond… oh.
Prediction: Knicks win 4-1
Spencer Lund: That’s messed up, mang. Mike is a big Celtics fan, and the Rondo dig cuts to the core of this lost Celtics season. I don’t think the Celtics are an opponent the Knicks wanted to face so early in the postseason because this Boston team thrives off of being the underdog. Garnett and Pierce are back—sort of—and Jeff Green has become a dependable wing scorer when Pierce needs a breather. Jason Terry is still a knucklehead, but it’s less amusing when he’s struggling to knock down a three-pointer. This is going to be a series though; the Celtics’ pride and defensive game planning will make sure of that.
The injuries to the Knicks’ front court players didn’t really affect them during their winning streak, at least until they faced the streak-busting Bulls, and they weren’t missing both Kenyon Martin AND Tyson Chandler at the same time like were against Chicago. Once both went down, there were lineups that have had Melo as the ostensible center (with Mike D’Antoni wincing at his crappy fortune from LA when he could have played small ball with ‘Melo). Carmelo’s rebounding has been incredible over the last week, but Tyson and Kenyon better be ready or Garnett and Green, and maybe even Brandon Bass, will have their way in the paint and on the offensive glass. Driving for a bucket will never feel this easy for the aging Celtics.
I love the Knicks, but I don’t trust them—even when their lineups featuring ‘Melo at power forward have destroyed teams offensively while Amar’e has been injured. This occured both at the start of the season and over the last month when the Knicks finally started returning to what works for them: spreading the floor with all those shooters and a center that can roll hard to the hoop and set high screens for Felton to do his thing. Felton is finally healthy again, and when he’s making smart decisions on those pick and roll opportunities, the Knicks are very hard to stop. Add in a focused J.R. Smith and the New York basketball community is justifiably escatic; although, I’m not sure the title, We’ll Always have Linsanity, makes as much sense now if they’re coming correct in April and May.
This is all without even mentioning Carmelo Anthony’s ascendence to “he’s playing the best basketball of his career” over the last few weeks. Carmelo’s shot-happy still-mid-range-heavy onslaught of the Knicks’ Bernard King Folklore™ has been incredibly fun to watch, and his smirk has actually widened into a fully formed grin over that time, but the threat of a possible 12-for-35 performance with just 4 boards and a low-scoring loss in the Garden is hard to overcome. I think the Knicks will need homecourt advantage more than they realize. Paul Pierce will have one of those games where we remember he’s an NBA Finals MVP and 10-time all star whose mental toughness is unassailable. Garnett will dominate whichever front court players—not named Tyson or Kenyon—the Knicks trot out (James Singleton?), but he’ll only be on the court for 30 minutes a night, and he’ll be tuckered out in the last minutes. The Knicks will win their first playoff series since the sexier Van Gundy (big ups to McQuaid Jesuit) led another Marcus Camby team to the NBA Finals. But it’ll be a lot harder than it probably should be. This Celtics team is basically just a Welshman’s villanelle, but I’m loathe to repeat the clichéd idea that Father Time is undefeated. Screw Father Time, the Celtics are neverending, except when they end in seven.
Prediction: New York wins, 4-3
Michael Pina: I’m a Celtics fan, and damn proud of it. Can you blame me? I admit these still-chugging players with this still brilliant coach have taken a wrong turn into their darkest alley yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be rolling up their sleeves to throw well-calculated punches. Sure, it makes me nervous that Jeff Green is probably Boston’s greatest offensive threat, and that Avery Bradley’s up and mostly down offensive output has permeated towards the other end, where he’s still the best, but not his best, defending the ball. (This isn’t excuse-making, but in the end, it’s the referees who hold the greatest influence on how effective Bradley can be. If he’s permitted to bump Ray Felton up and down the court, the Knicks will feel it. If not, well, this type of box score could become a regular thing.)
J.R. Smith doesn’t scare me. He’s the the best sixth man in the league and scoring the ball in an unstoppable way normally reserved for perennial All-Stars…but he’s J.R. Smith. Does anyone who’s watched his career think he can string together bits and pieces of positive play for a minimum of 16 quarters? Smith is the type who can take care of himself in three games, but crashes as a tragic disaster in the other four.
(The one guy on New York who makes me more nervous than I probably should be is Chris Copeland, the rookie who, as it turns out, was placed on this Earth to destroy the Boston Celtics.)
But the real reason I’m going with Boston over New York, against almost every numerical dosage of empirical evidence that’s presented itself this season, is the human element. For the most part we know how the Celtics will respond to the pressures of playoff basketball. They’ll run their stuff, get the shot they want, clamp down on New York’s three-point shooters by the second or third game, and force Carmelo Anthony to do things he doesn’t want to do.
Meanwhile, the Knicks haven’t won a playoff series in a decade. Not to sound smug, but I’ll believe the Knicks can beat the Celtics four times out of seven when I see it.
Prediction: Boston wins, 4-2