The Boston Celtics have not been themselves this season, and they enter tonight's game against the New York Knicks having lost three of their last five. Whereas they were once the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, that title now belongs to the Knicks. At the moment, New York is the No. 2 seed in the East while Boston is just barely hanging onto the No. 8 spot.
This makes tonight's game against the Knicks all the more important. Save for a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 23 and a victory over the red-hot Atlanta Hawks on January 5, Boston has not had any upset victories in the 2012-13 season. Defeating one of the hottest teams in the league is one thing, but defeating a hot team that also happens to be a rival is a horse of a far different color.
Look at it this way. The Celtics' season thus far has been borderline forgettable with the core's collective age finally catching up with them. The team ranks last in rebounding and 21st in points scored, though their defense has been solid, ranking 12th in points allowed.
That defense will definitely be tested against the Knicks, who rank sixth in points scored. New York also ranks 14th in points allowed, which could make for a prime defensive battle.
The facts are simple. If the Celtics can beat the Knicks tonight, it's going to set the tone for the team's potential for the rest of the season. Boston has a long way to go before getting back to elite status, if they get there this year at all, but a win against New York definitely puts them on the right track.
You see, though the Knicks may be the better team on paper, the Celtics' track record against them is highly in Boston's favor. In the four seasons preceding 2012-13, Boston went 12-4 against New York, and that's not including a four-game sweep in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
Granted, the Knicks were a different team back then. Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun offense was fully employed, the team's best player, at one point, was Al Harrington, and the team had little regard for defense.
Even after Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony came aboard in the 2010-11 season, Boston managed to sweep that season series. Long story short, the Celtics kind of own the Knicks.
The numbers today may suggest that those days are over, but history does count for something. As low as the Celtics have gotten on the totem pole this season, they do have their history against the Knicks on which to fall back.
This makes it all the more important for the team to win tonight's game, hereby known as the ultimate Litmus test. If they can break out some of the old lightning and walk away having won handily, then there will be hope for them yet in 2013. This is a team that came within one win of the NBA Finals last season, and to see them fall so hard just from losing Ray Allen has been sad.
A victory at Madison Square Garden can and will inject a great deal of life into Boston's lineup, and can easily set the tone for them over the rest of the month. The team plays the red-hot Houston Rockets on Friday, and the defending champion Miami Heat towards the end of the month.
Those two games are hard in their own right, but it all comes back to tonight's game against the New York Knicks. To even have a shot in those two future games, Boston needs to win tonight.
Otherwise, fans will probably need to prepare themselves for a Celtics-free postseason.