I. Intro: No. 6 seed New York Knicks (42-40) vs. No. 3 seed Boston Celtics (56-26)
This series is the undisputed darling of TV executives everywhere, featuring two storied franchises from major East Coast markets who will face each other when the favorite – Boston – appears to be at the peak of its vulnerability. There’s a past/present vs. future tension at play too, as the Celtics’ Big 3 looks to be approaching its final stand while the Knicks story is clearly still unfolding: Who will be the third star to team up with All-Star forwards Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony?
This one boils down to: "Digging deep for one last push" versus "We did it! we're in the playoffs!" That puts the pressure and expectations squarely on Boston's shoulders.
II. What Happened: A look at the season series
The Celtics swept the season series, 4-0, averaging 107.8 points per game while allowing the Knicks just 101.3, making for a dominant 6.5 point average margin of victory. However, two of the games came before the trade deadline and one came on Wednesday night, in a meaningless game in which both team sat many key players.
This season, the Celtics have had their way on both ends of the court, averaging nearly 51% from the field in four meetings with the Knicks while out-rebounding New York, on average, 45-37. In general, the numbers from the season series aren't going to be comforting to Knicks fans, although Stoudemire did average 24 points and eight rebounds against the Celtics.
III. The Easy Stuff: Rajon Rondo is the X-Factor
What is going on with Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo? Not since the Where’s Waldo? books have so many people spent so much time wondering about one man whose name ends in a vowel.
It’s always been easier to talk about Rondo as a talented enigma, a brilliant loner who dances to his own beat. Lately, his numbers are off, Boston’s scoring is way down since the trade deadline and steady veterans like Ray Allen are left wondering why their touches have evaporated. That combination has left Celtics fans queasy and concerned. No one ever really understood him and suddenly that feels like a huge problem.
In three appearances against New York this season, Rondo has been big: averaging 11.0 points, dishing 16.7 assists and grabbing 6.0 boards per game, while shooting 40.5% from the field. If he manages 80% of that output, the Celtics should cruise.
IV. Secret of the Series: Will elite defense trump elite offense in the playoffs?
Clearly, this series is a match-up of opposing strengths and styles. Boston enters the series with the No. 2 defense in the league from an efficiency perspective, barely trailing the league-leading Chicago Bulls. The Knicks bring the No. 5 offense in the league to the table, and boast the second most efficient offense in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the Miami Heat. The contrast in styles continues as Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni also has his team playing the fastest pace of any playoff team while the Celtics are the fourth slowest of the 16 teams to make the postseason.
One of the NBA’s long-held commandments – correct or not – is that defense almost always trumps offense in these situations. The problem for New York, a point that’s been pounded home relentlessly over the last few months, is that Knicks are extremely imbalanced because of their struggles on the defensive end of the court. The Knicks are the least efficient defensive team to make the playoffs and will struggle mightily to stop the Celtics, even though Boston has been a slightly below average offensive team on the season.
Sure, it’s possible that top-flight offense overcomes solid defense, but rarely does a team as indifferent to stops as New York make any noise in April or May.
V. The Dinosaur Narrative: “Trading Kendrick Perkins was a death sentence for Boston’s title hopes”
At least for one series, we should get a respite from all the hand-wringing over Boston president Danny Ainge’s decision to ship his long-time center to Oklahoma City for reserve forward Jeff Green. Against the Knicks, Perkins would be helpful as an off-ball defender and rebounder but the Celtics should be able to match-up and clean the boards just fine if they go to a smaller ball lineup given New York’s general indifference to rebounding (the Knicks have the lowest rebound rate of any playoff team).
As has been often pointed out, the post-trade problem for the Celtics has been their offense, anyway, and not their defense or rebounding. Who better to get back on track against than the Knicks, who allow 105.7 points per game (third most in the league) and openly admitted as recently as March that they aren’t all on the same page schematically since trading for Anthony?
The Perkins trade – and what Green does or doesn’t give you – will be a huge factor down the road in potential later-round match-ups against the Miami Heat and/or Chicago Bulls. Against the Knicks, though, it really should be an afterthought.
VI. The Line-Item Veto: Who wins each match-up?
PG: Struggling or not, zombie Rondo does far more, on both ends, than an aging Chauncey Billups.
SG: The overachieving, do-the-little-things-rookie making his first postseason appearance versus the NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter and a tested, tough veteran with more than 100 career playoff appearances? Ray Allen all day over Landry Fields.
SF: To see just how close Carmelo Anthony vs. Paul Pierce is, check their career playoff numbers. Anthony: 24.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists. Pierce: 21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists. Anthony gets the nod, but barely.
PF: Stoudemire – brash, confident, offensively overwhelmingly -- vs. Garnett – brash, confident, defensively overwhelming – might be the best individual match-up in any first round playoff series. In these situations, it’s best to expect a push.
C: Boston expects to get perpetually injured senior citizen Shaquille O’Neal back in time for the start of the first round and will pair him with Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic; the undersized Knicks turn to Jared Jeffries and Ronny Turiaf. It’s impossible to call anyone in this group on either side a winner.
Bench: Glen Davis, Glen Davis’ hijinks and Jeff Green should have the advantage over the make-do scraps on New York’s bench that survived the trade for Anthony that sent half the roster to Denver.
Coach: Players like to play for (read: score for) Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni while the Celtics have shown over the year a devotion to and respect for Doc Rivers rarely seen in the NBA. That, plus the ring, gives Doc the edge.
Given how much the midseason trade for Anthony compromised New York’s depth, there’s a sense that the not yet fully formed Knicks are just happy to be in the postseason for the first time since 2003-2004. The Celtics, meanwhile, aren’t playing their best basketball but they do enter the postseason with a greater urgency, given the age and mentality of their core players. The Garnett/ Pierce/ Allen/ Rondo core has defeated far better all-around teams than this year’s Knicks, and a B- or better performance from Boston should be enough to see the Celtics through to the second round and a likely dream match-up with the Miami Heat. Prediction: Celtics in 5.
VIII. CBSSports.com Video Preview
Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics are prepared to square off against Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs. Who will come out on top? Ian Eagle and Ken Berger preview this matchup.