It may have taken lean years of Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown and Mike D'Antoni driving them into the ground, but the New York Knicks officially returned to the Eastern Conference elite in 2012-13.
In his first full season as head coach, Mike Woodson, who took over for D'Antoni midway through last season, led New York to a 54-28 record. He helped guide Carmelo Anthony to his first career scoring title, navigated multi-game injuries to just about everyone on the roster and somehow coaxed a career year out of likely Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith.
The result was a No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and possible coach of the year honors for Woodson. During the season where New York City was supposed to be taken over by the arrival of the Brooklyn Nets, this Knicks team showed where the city's loyalties truly lie.
And their prize for that wonderful season? A matchup with the one high seed no one in the East wanted to play, the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics again navigated their way through a season of turmoil and questions about the long-term viability of their core. Rajon Rondo tore his ACL midway through the campaign, leading to rampant trade rumors about Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But just as he did a year prior, general manager Danny Ainge avoided pulling the trigger, leaving his boys for (at least) one more ride.
Twelve months ago, that decision led to the Celtics being within one game of an NBA Finals berth. The Knicks hope to show that was an aberration and make their first second round appearance of the Carmelo Anthony era.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of when and where to watch this matchup of NBA titans along with predictions for the outcome.
First Round Schedule
|1||Saturday, April 20 at 3 p.m. ET||Madison Square Garden in New York City||ABC|
|2||Tuesday, April 23 at 8 p.m. ET||Madison Square Garden in New York City||TNT|
Friday, April 26 at 8 p.m. ET
|TD Garden in Boston||ESPN|
Sunday, April 28 at 1 p.m. ET
|TD Garden in Boston||ABC|
Wednesday, May 1
|Madison Square Garden in New York City||N/A|
Friday, May 3
|TD Garden in Boston||N/A|
Sunday, May 5
|Madison Square Garden in New York City||N/A
Regular Season Record and Leaders
Points Leader: Carmelo Anthony (28.7 PPG)
Rebounds Leader: Tyson Chandler (10.7 RPG)
Assists Leader: Raymond Felton (5.5 APG)
Knicks First Round Series Breakdown
Biggest Strength: Outside Shooting
Once considered one of the league's least inventive coaches when with the Hawks, credit Mike Woodson for a grand evolution during his first full season with the Knicks. Though partially necessitated by Amar'e Stoudemire's injury-plagued campaign, Woodson implemented a Heat-esque offense with a non-tradtional power forward (Anthony) and a bunch of spot-up shooters on the outside.
The strategy worked like gangbusters—at least initially. The Knicks stared out the season 18-5, knocking down 41 percent of their three-pointers on over 29 attempts per game. They were the talk of the NBA, a surprising juggernaut that seemed like Miami's only challenge to the Eastern Conference throne.
And then everything stopped working. A three-month stretch from Dec. 17 to March 17 followed that initial start, where New York went 20-21 in a series that represented half of the season. The Knicks made just 34.4 percent of their three-pointers in that period, which would tie with Denver for the sixth-worst in the league.
But as all the sky is falling theories floated around the New York City area, Woodon did what few other coaches would: He had the patience to stick with the original plan. New York saw its three-point percentage regress to dreadful levels while taking an inordinate amount of attempts, and Woodson had the trust in his players to let the wave ride out.
Unsurprisingly, Woodson's patience paid off. The Knicks began a rip-roaring streak that allowed them to ascend back to the second seed in the Eastern Conference down the stretched, buoyed by a 13-game winning streak.
At the heart of that was—you guessed it—three-point efficiency. During its last 18 games of the season, the Knicks were back at their 41 percent rate while taking over 28 attempts per game—the most in the league during that stretch.
Facing off against the Celtics will create an interesting dichotomy. Boston has historically been excellent versus three-pointers—especially in the corners—and ranked fourth in the league this year in those situations, per NBA.com.
New York shot a middling 38.3 percent from three against the Celtics during the regular season, but the Knicks' proficiency was violently erratic. They hit 14-of-27 in the teams' last meeting, which is contrasted by a 8-of-28 performance back in January.
Over the course of a seven-game series, which side the Knicks fall on will be critical. But based on how brilliantly they've been playing lately, it's hard to bet against New York's shots falling—even against a defensive stalwart like Boston.
Biggest Weakness: Non-Existent Offensive Interior Presence
The reason New York struggles so mightily when its three-pointers aren't falling at an elite rate is rooted in its lack of interior scoring. Stoudemire's injury may have sorted out Woodson's rotation and cemented the Knicks' offensive identity, but it also leaves them without a second option.
Though New York's struggles coincided with Stoudemire's return to the lineup—and do with that fact what you will—it's hard to deny his offensive brilliance. After an initial adjustment period, Amar'e was adjusting to his sixth man role, scoring a shade under 17 points and grabbing over five rebounds per game in March. The Knicks' scoring rate went down just a shade with Stoudemire on the floor, according to NBA.com, which is noteworthy because a ton of his minutes came with the second unit.
A return at some point this postseason is possible for Stoudemire, just not likely in the first round.
While some Knicks fans will do a silent fist pump with that news, New York's lack of secondary options become apparent. No team shot fewer times inside eight feet than the Knicks, per NBA.com. That would be fine if New York made a high percentage of its inside shots—say, like another low-usage inside team like the Heat—but it doesn't. The Knicks are shooting a very mediocre 59 percent inside the restricted area this season, which is the area of highest proficiency on an NBA floor.
Woodson knows that's the case, which makes the health of Tyson Chandler paramount. By substituting Chris Copeland into a pseudo-center spot at times, Woodson has been able to keep the Knicks' offense effective by completely spreading the floor without Chandler. And they have been able to avoid cratering defensively by employing an interesting switch system on pick-and-rolls that should be in full effect in the first round.
But a player like Chandler is irreplaceable when trying to win four out of seven games. Chandler's pick-and-roll brilliance—he ranks seventh in points per possession finishing on those sets, per Synergy—gives the Knicks just enough of a second option offensively.
Health remains the biggest question. Chandler has missed all but four of the season's final 18 games while he deals with a bulging disk in his neck. If Chandler can come back and be Tyson Chandler, then New York might have enough of an interior presence. If not, trouble could be coming if the Knicks aren't hitting from outside.
Best Matchup: Knicks Transition Offense vs. Celtics Transition Defense
For the most part, the Knicks aren't a run-and-gun team. The Knicks average 92 possessions per game this season, which ranks as the league's fifth-slowest pace, per NBA.com. For all the talk about the Celtics' age and their lack of point guard with Rajon Rondo out, Boston actually averages nearly two possessions more per game than New York.
The reasoning for that is simple: The Knicks are ancient and thus way better at playing in the half court. They are oldest team in league history, though releasing Kurt Thomas will help that mean age somewhat.
That being said, one of the select few times New York has resembled a "running" team has come against the Celtics. According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks finish over 11 percent of their plays this season against the Celtics in transition, a number that's two percent greater than their regular-season total.
It's a small percentage increase overall. That difference usually represents just a couple extra transition opportunities per game for the Knicks. But it's no mistake that New York has consistently hit right around that 11 percent mark in the four regular season meetings between these two clubs.
It's not a coincidence, quite frankly, because the Celtics are terrible in transition defense. According to Synergy Sports, Boston allows 1.23 points per possession in transition, second-worst in the league, and allow opponents to shoot 63 percent.
Much of that is explainable. The Celtics' excellence on defense comes not from their athletic excellence or perimeter speed (Avery Bradley exempted, of course), but from a scheme that's been in place for over a half-decade. Boston excels defensively because it's been coached better than any other team and its players know how to rotate with jaw-dropping precision.
That breaks down in transition. The Celtics don't like to run, and they especially don't like to do so with Jason Terry on the floor. Terry has been the source of derision throughout the season in Boston for his awful defensive presence, as seen in the video above where he over-helps and leaves Iman Shumpert open for a corner jumper.
The Knicks aren't going to start running overnight. And postseason play historically slows down and becomes more defensive-minded. But on those few transition opportunities the Knicks decide to take, they should be able to have a ton of success.
Worst Matchup: Celtics' Motion vs. Knicks' Poor Cut Defense
A byproduct of Rajon Rondo's season-ending knee injury was that the Celtics' offense started matching their defense schematically. There are no more wasted movements, every step a player takes in Boston's offense has a specific purpose leading to another command—a human domino effect.
Here is where the part where you tell me "duh." Of course NBA teams have scripted movement, they're not a group of deranged people mindlessly walking around like the cast of The Walking Dead. But that's not always the case. Sometimes the specific purpose of a player on an offensive position amounts to "get the hell out of the way" and allow the star to take over.
In Boston, that offensive star was Rondo. His propensity for free-styling and stat-chasing frustrated many in the greater Massachusetts area when it went wrong. When it went right, though, there weren't five more dynamic individual players in the entire league. The Celtics' run in the postseason last year wasn't possible without his 44-8-10 against Miami in Game 2 or any of his other brilliant performances.
Without Rondo, the penchant for spectacular disappears. Boston is left with efficient, which should do it just find against the Knicks.
While it was certainly a part of the Celtics' offense pre-injury, they have become increasingly reliant on creating shots via cut opportunities Doc Rivers' motion offense. The lack of wasted movement is a byproduct of that increased emphasis, and Boston has made a team-wide effort to never miss an open basket when one is available.
During this series, the Celtics should be able to take advantage of New York's lackadaisical defense on cutters. Boston's motion is obviously reliant on backdoor cuts—the Celtics rank third in the NBA at 1.26 points per possession on plays finished by a cutting offensive player—and the Knicks have been wretched in those situations all season.
The play above is just one such are where Boston took advantage of the Knicks during their previous matchups this year. Boston essentially sneaks around like an adolescent breaking curfew trying to get into the paint and the communication breakdown between Shumpert and Kenyon Martin somehow allows Brandon Bass into the paint.
Breakdowns like that have been all too prevalent for the Knicks this season, ones that the Celtics can and while take advantage of.
Key Player: J.R. Smith
It's no secret that much of the Knicks' recent ascent starts with the dueling offensive banjos known as Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. Anthony, who was receiving a ton of midseason criticism for New York's swoon, has been MVP-caliber over the past month. He's scoring 32.5 points per game while shooting a shade under 49 percent and grabbing over nine rebounds per night since March 18. That run took Anthony to his first career scoring title and almost guaranteed him a place on MVP ballots across the nation.
Smith has also been great over that period of time. But it would be doing him a disservice to limit his ascent to such a short period. Over the past two months, Smith has become undoubtedly the best sixth man in the league—and it isn't even close. The soon-to-be free-agent has bought into Woodson's coaching style, become a mediocre perimeter defender (as opposed to god awful) and become a positive voice in the locker room.
And, of course, Smith is scoring by the truckload. Since the beginning of March, Smith is averaging 22.1 points per game, a figure that would rank eighth in the league for the entire season. He's done so while not taking an absurdly higher amount of attempts, but by being more efficient with the ones he's taking.
The question is whether this change in Smith's tendencies can continue—especially against a team like the Celtics. Smith will see a ton of Avery Bradley in this series when he's leading second team, and Bradley may be the best perimeter defender in basketball. The Celtics guard is exactly the type of player who can force Smith into Old J.R. habits—taking long and contested shots, dribbling for the entire length of Django Unchained, etc.
Two months is an awfully short period to change a player now nine years deep into an NBA career. The J.R. Smith Knicks fans have seen over the past couple months is everything folks once envisioned for his career. Seeing that go off the rails, though, could prove to be a death knell for New York.
No matter which side of the coin this series falls on, it's hard to envision anything but a six or seven-game series. These teams are too schematically matched for games to become blowouts, and the Celtics very well could have been injected with Freddy Krueger serum—they just won't die.
Who ya got?
And with the Knicks always standing on the cliff's edge with their three-point reliance, Boston could even steal one at Madison Square Garden. These Celtics aren't going to be rattled in the slightest to hit the Big Apple, and the rivalry between these two squads has long been apparent.
Nevertheless, there comes a time when a team's era of contention ends. Rondo is out of the lineup, Paul Pierce can't carry the load on a nightly basis and Kevin Garnett playing 36 minutes a night at a high level may just be too much to ask for. The Celtics have talented players like Jeff Green who could theoretically take over an entire game, but calling him an enigma is putting it mildly.
New York has simply rounded into form and done so at the perfect time. This won't be an easy series and the toll could have longer-term implications if Indiana skates through to the second round, but the Knicks finally drive a stake through the heart of the Celtics.
Prediction: Knicks in Six.