The Boston Celtics and New York Knicks square off Tuesday night in the first of two contests in five days between the two squads. With the season series at 1-1 and Boston jockeying for playoff positioning, Tuesday’s matchup begins a crucial stretch for both teams.
The surging Knicks have found new life in the last week after dropping six of their previous nine games. Since March 18, New York has strung together four straight wins, courtesy of some big performances from J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony.
The Knicks have clinched a playoff berth, but they aren’t in position to coast into the postseason. Both Indiana and New York sit 12 games back of the Miami Heat, and Brooklyn is nipping at their heels at 14.5 games out of first.
With 14 games remaining on their schedule, the Knicks have to make a strong push in the final three weeks of the season, and Boston faces a similar situation.
Since jumping out to a hot start with star point guard Rajon Rondo on the shelf, the Celtics have begun to sputter. Boston has dropped its last four contests and six of its last eight, now 18.5 games out of first and just 1.5 games ahead of the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks.
There’s virtually no chance of the Celtics falling behind the Philadelphia 76ers (26-42), but they can’t afford to flounder in their remaining 13 games. The eighth playoff seed is an unenviable position in the Eastern Conference this year with the surging Miami Heat awaiting the conference’s last playoff squad.
Where: TD Garden, Boston
When: Tuesday, March 26, at 7 p.m. ET
Betting Lines: Unavailable as of March 24, at 8:30 a.m. ET
New York Injuries (via ESPN): Tyson Chandler (neck), Iman Shumpert (knee, day to day), Kurt Thomas (out), Amar’e Stoudemire (out)
Records: New York Knicks (42-26), Boston Celtics (36-33)
Key Storyline: A Playoff Preview?
The Eastern Conference playoff picture is shaping up to be a tight race down the stretch. Miami has the No. 1 seed in a vice grip, but the rest of the conference remains wide open for the final seven squads still in playoff contention.
Were the season to end today, the Celtics and Knicks would square off in the first round of the playoffs. Given the recent state of the playoff race, there’s a good chance that’s exactly what happens.
In the first regular-season meeting between the two clubs on January 7, Boston came away with a 102-96 victory and Anthony earned a one-game suspension for an exchange with Kevin Garnett that led to some postgame antics in the parking lot. New York got its revenge on January 24 with an 89-86 victory, but a lot has changed in the two months since that contest.
Rondo and Amar’e Stoudemire were both healthy the last time Boston and New York squared off. With the two stars on the shelf, both squads have taken on a new look.
The Knicks and Celtics have a lot to play for in the final three weeks of the regular season. This game could prove to be a preview for the opening round of the playoffs, and neither team will want to show any signs of weakness, especially with another matchup on the slate in one week.
Courtney Lee vs. J.R. Smith
Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith has been on a tear in the last two weeks, averaging 20.9 points in the team’s last seven games. He’s been a streaky shooter from behind the arc (34.7 percent), but he’s fully capable of stretches of excellent shooting from long range.
Courtney Lee has been dealing with a sprained left ankle that forced him to miss Saturday’s contest with Memphis (per Boston.com). Should he be healthy enough to go on Tuesday, he’ll be faced with a difficult task in shutting down New York’s second-leading scorer.
Lee is a solid defender with adequate length to offer a good matchup against taller shooting guards. As well as Smith has played at times this year, though, keeping him quiet will boil down to more than just getting a hand in his face.
Smith’s defensive play is as inconsistent as his long-range shot at times, and while Lee is by no means a prolific scorer, he’s capable of 15-plus points against poor defenders. Don’t expect a lights-out performance from Lee, but a 20-point game isn’t out of the question.
Both New York and Boston utilize a fairly consistent rotation in the backcourt. Given Lee’s ankle injury, the task of guarding Smith (33.4 minutes per game) will also fall on Avery Bradley, Jason Terry and Jordan Crawford at times. Regardless of the defensive matchup, shutting down Smith will be the key to a Celtics victory on Tuesday.
X-Factor: Raymond Felton
Boston’s backcourt boasts a trio of able defenders, but focusing on Smith will open things up for point guard Raymond Felton at the offensive end.
Felton (14.2 PPG) is a streaky scorer, but 10 20-plus-point performances this season prove he is capable of carrying the team at the offensive end. With Smith and Anthony sure to garner a lot of attention from Bradley, Lee and Paul Pierce, expect Felton to get a lot of scoring opportunities on Tuesday.
Injuries have hampered the Celtics in the second half, and backcourt play will ultimately be the deciding factor in this contest. If the Celtics are at full strength, they match up well New York’s scorers at the defensive end, but Lee’s ankle injury raises some questions about how effective Boston will be defending a high-scoring New York backcourt.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Avery Bradley
SG: Courtney Lee
SF: Paul Pierce
PF: Brandon Bass
C: Kevin Garnett
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: Iman Shumpert
SF: James White
PF: Carmelo Anthony
C: Tyson Chandler
Injuries to Lee and Garnett are putting the pressure on Boston with the playoff race coming down to the wire. The Celtics can’t afford to add to their losing streak, but it may be inevitable.
New York is playing good basketball right now, and while besting Utah, Orlando and Toronto (twice) isn’t exactly a monumental feat, the Knicks have momentum at a crucial juncture. Matchups with Memphis and Miami lie ahead, and maintaining that momentum will be paramount in New York’s attempt to remain ahead of Indiana in the Eastern Conference race.
This contest will prove to be as close as the previous two between these clubs, but New York will take the season-series lead in a hard-fought battle with 20-plus point performances from both Anthony and Smith.
Prediction: New York 106, Boston 101