NBA Playoff Preview - Boston vs. New York
From The Sports Network
By John McMullen, NBA editor
Boston Celtics: 3rd Seed, East (56-26)
New York Knicks: 6th Seed, East (42-40)
(Sports Network) - One of the NBA's storied rivalries will be renewed in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals when the Boston Celtics square off with the revitalized New York Knicks.
The Knicks have reached the postseason for the first time in seven years, while Boston enjoyed its fourth straight 50-win season and its fourth consecutive Atlantic Division crown.
For the Celtics, however, it's all about the NBA championship, something the franchise has captured a record 17 times, the last of which came in the 2007-08 season, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen's first year in Beantown.
Early in the season the Celtics had the look of a legitimate title threat but the team struggled down the stretch. You can trace the unevenness to the shakeup at the trade deadline when basketball chief Danny Ainge felt the need to remake his bench with just seven weeks to go before the postseason, dealing popular center Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City.
Ainge's moves will be debated in Boston for a very long time unless the C's are able to flick the switch, turn it around and win their second title in four years.
The Celtics embark on that goal by facing a Knicks team shaped by the sign- and-trade deal that brought Amare Stoudemire from Phoenix in the offseason and the blockbuster at the trade deadline that saw Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups arrive from Denver.
Early on, Anthony's arrival seemed to disrupt a growing team but his talents kicked in and New York won seven straight to earn the sixth seed before shutting things down.
'Melo earned back-to-back Player of the Week honors during that stretch and brings the type of offensive talent to Gotham that hasn't been seen since Anthony's boyhood hero, Bernard King, was lighting up Madison Square Garden.
The Celtics have dominated the Knicks in recent years, winning 16 of 18 versus New York, including a four-game sweep this season that included a 112-102 win in the regular season finale for both clubs on Wednesday.
That served as more an exhibition game, however, with neither team wanting to give away too much before the start of the playoffs. New York did receive some good news in the contest as Stoudemire was able to return from an ankle injury and played for the first time in four games, totaling 14 points in a little over 20 minutes of action.
In the playoffs, the rivalry dates all the way back to 1950-51 when New York swept Boston in a three-game Eastern semifinals set. The Knicks also won a five-game set the last time the two hooked up in the postseason, 1989-90. Overall the clubs have met 13 times, with the Celtics taking seven of the series.
"This is what the guys have been preparing for all year," Boston head coach Doc Rivers said of the upcoming set.
POINT GUARD: Everyone talks about the Big Three in Boston but the straw that stirs the drink on this team is point guard Rajon Rondo, who has stumbled a bit down the stretch. When healthy, Rondo is one of the game's quickest quarterbacks. Despite the lack of a top-tier, consistent jumper, Rondo has made a team that features three future Hall of Famers into his own.
The Kentucky product has also always upped his game in the postseason, becoming almost a daily triple-double threat. His ability to get on the boards really shows up against most point guards and his floor game and decision making is solid. The book on Rondo remains simple, sag off him and make him take that suspect jumper. That's become a little easier recently since some have suggested the plantar fasciitis he dealt with earlier in the season is still lingering.
"When Rondo is being aggressive, he's breaking defenses down, he's pushing the ball up," former Celtics great Kevin McHale said in a recent conference call. "They really need Rondo to push the ball all the time, to be aggressive offensively and to be the igniter to that Celtics offense."
Rondo's counterpart, veteran Chauncey Billups, is certainly playoff tested and he didn't earn the nickname "Mr. Big Shot" for being a shrinking violet. Billups doesn't have the athleticism to keep up with a healthy Rondo on the defensive end but his powerful frame, silky smooth jumper and floor stewardship make him just as tough on Rondo. Billups is also one of the game's best free throw shooters, especially in pressure situations.
SHOOTING GUARD: Allen is one of the finest pure shooters to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. He still can come off the screen better than anyone since Reggie Miller, has a lightning-quick trigger and is not afraid to take the big shot. In fact, Allen's marksmanship can take over any game when he heats up. Although aging, the UConn product is also an underrated defender.
The Knicks will counter with rookie Landry Fields, a very nice surprise in his freshman season. Fields has good size, is a decent stand-still three-point shooter from the weakside and a plus defender but this is as big a mismatch as you will find in the series.
CENTER: When the Celtics traded the popular Perkins, a solid interior defender that can set a teeth-chattering pick, it was on the assumption that veteran Shaquille O'Neal would be able to go come playoff time. O'Neal appeared in only 37 games this season, missing all but five minutes of the last 34 games with Achilles and calf injuries.
There's no denying O'Neal will be pivotal to the Celtics' championship hopes. If he plays, he gives Boston a very formidable inside presence. If he sits the C's have a hole as big as O'Neal himself in the middle.
Asked if he expects his veteran big man to return for Game 1 on Sunday, Rivers was a bit coy.
"I do, but I can't guarantee that," Rivers said. "He's going to try to get through practices and see what he can do."
If O'Neal is absent, Nenad Krstic, a totally different player that relies on finesse, or the aging Jermaine O'Neal will get the nod.
Either way, the Knicks aren't in any position to take advantage of a question mark in the paint. Undersized Frenchman Ronny Turiaf brings energy, a defensive mindset and a little toughness on the boards but is certainly no world-beater.
SMALL FORWARD: Paul Pierce is the Celtics' go-to-guy down the stretch of close games and is one of the NBA's best. The 2008 NBA Finals MVP was once again the Celtics' leading scorer and is one of the game's best finishers. The Truth's vaunted body control also enables him to march to the foul line at will and he is a very underrated defender.
Anthony, however, is simply more talented and has really been hitting his stride lately. 'Melo is one of the game's best pure scorers, a player that can use his length to shoot over a zone or post-up on the blocks. He is, however, prone to defense lapses and turnovers. As a Knick, Anthony posted averages of 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists and recorded seven 30-point efforts.
POWER FORWARD: Before Anthony arrived, Knicks fans had gotten into the habit of chanting MVP...MVP...MVP at Stoudemire, a bit grandiose yes but "Stat" did turnaround this moribund franchise, becoming the first Knick since Patrick Ewing in 1992 to start an All-Star Game. Stoudemire may be the most athletic power forward in the game and can destroy defenses with his powerful drive to the hoop and incredible leaping ability. He's also improved on the defensive end.
Garnett, of course, is the NBA's resident bully and one of the best power forwards of all-time. He's clearly on the downside of a spectacular career but "the Big Ticket" has been incredibly efficient as usual and clearly has enough left in his bag of tricks to make things very difficult for a player than can be pushed around like Stoudemire.
BENCH: The Knicks are very thin here. Guard Toney Douglas can fill it up when he's on but when the jumper isn't falling, New York really doesn't have anyone else that can provide an offensive punch off the bench. Backup point Anthony Carter is certainly the team's most dogged defender, while Shelden Williams and offers some length and athleticism up front. The fact that New York also relies on Jared Jeffries and ex-Celtic Bill Walker at times doesn't bode well.
The Celtics bench is much more talented and if Shaq can go, that will make it much deeper with Rivers having the ability to use Krstic and Jermaine O'Neal as situational players.
Big Baby Davis and Jeff Green could be the difference makers in the set. Davis provides offense inside and some toughness while Green, who was acquired in the Perkins trade, is a big-time talent that can help both offensively and with his perimeter defense.
Meanwhile, veteran guard Delonte West, who offers solid minutes at both backcourt spots, should be ready for Game 1 after re-injuring his right ankle earlier in the week.
"I am a huge fan of Delonte West," McHale said. "I just think that kid knows how to play, he can play the point guard, he can play the off guard. I think he's going to be big if the Celtics can get on a big run in the playoffs."
COACHING: Rivers has never been regarded as a great chess player but he has done a wonderful job melding the egos of three superstars, and managing personalities may be the most important job of an NBA coach. He credits getting along with the players, coaches and upper management as the keys to his success and is universally regarded as one of the top coaches in the NBA.
Mike D'Antoni is what he is, a great offensive mind that often ignores the other end. Whether he will ever give enough thought to the defensive part of the game is up for debate and he may have a ceiling as a coach that never reaches a championship.
PREDICTION: If you are looking for an upset in the East this is it. Anthony can take over any game when the jumper is falling and Stoudemire is as good a second option in the game, while Billups' mettle come playoff time can't be questioned. Meanwhile, Boston is aging and Rondo is clearly not right.
"For the first time I just see Father Time," ex-NBA star Chris Webber said when discussing the Celtics. "He's gaining weight and he's sitting on top of [the Celtics]. I think they are going to be able to turn it on. The one good thing about the playoffs is it is a second season, but it just worries me about the age and I think some of that has to do with the injuries."
That said, New York is just far too thin to last in a seven-game set against a team that has been through so many wars. You can talk about all the tread that has been lost on the tires of Garnett, Pierce and Allen but they have always showed up come playoff time.
"(The Knicks) don't play any defense," TNT analyst and NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. "They've got two dynamic offensive players (Anthony and Stoudemire) but they are not going to beat Boston, I guarantee you that."
CELTICS in 6
04/15 14:58:39 ET