Few rivalries in the sports world elicit such passionate reactions as a good old New York City vs. Boston clash.
The rich, storied history between the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics is no exception to the rule. The two franchises have battled for for more than 60 years now, and their latest installment will be played out in front of a national audience in the teams' first-round playoff series.
New York hasn't won a playoff series since the 1999-00 season, but it enters the postseason playing some of the best basketball the Big Apple has seen in more than a decade. The Knicks will have home-court advantage for the series, and they comfortably cruised to three wins in four contests against the C's during the season.
Boston has spent the season recovering from a myriad of injury issues. The laundry list known as the Celtics' injury report hasn't tempered expectations for Doc Rivers' team, but it has certainly added to the difficulty in realizing those towering aspirations.
Seeds: Boston Celtics No. 7; New York Knicks No. 2
Records: Boston Celtics 41-40; New York Knicks 54-28
Season series: New York Knicks won 3-1
Playoff schedule: Game 1 Saturday, April 20, 3 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 2 Tuesday, April 23, 8 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 3 Friday, April 26, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 4 Sunday, April 28, 1 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 5 Wednesday, May 1, TBD; Game 6 Friday, May 3, TBD; Game 7 Sunday, May 5 TBD
What Everybody's Talking About
It's hard to tell if the bigger story here is the Knicks' return to relevance or the emergence of a highly efficient Carmelo Anthony. Of course, the two themes are intrinsically linked; the former never would have taken place without the latter.
'Melo 2.0 has effectively erased any lingering memories of the Linsanity that surrounded this franchise and captivated a global audience one year ago. The new, improved Anthony is not only staring at the first scoring title of his 10-year career; he is also holding the fate of the franchise in his hands.
Even with Tyson Chandler (neck) and Kenyon Martin (ankle) expected to be ready for Game 1 (according to what Knicks coach Mike Woodson told Newsday's Al Iannazzone), Anthony may hold the greatest individual responsibility for navigating his team through the postseason.
He already leads the league with a 32.2 percent usage rate (via ESPN.com) and may be facing an even larger role with the stingy Celtics (44.1 field-goal percentage allowed, seventh-best in the NBA) awaiting the Knicks. He's not the only offensive weapon at Woodson's disposal, but he is one of the few players on the roster capable of consistently creating his own shot.
It's been a season of survival for the Celtics, but one that was always headed to this point. Even when Rajon Rondo (torn ACL) and Jared Sullinger (back) went down for the season, there was always an understanding that Boston would find its way back to the postseason. Five straight ventures past the opening round has a way of establishing some mighty expectations.
As for whether this playoff trip will be an abbreviated one, health once again rises to the forefront of Boston's concerns. Kevin Garnett (ankle) and Paul Pierce (ankle) have played sparingly down the stretch, but both players should be well rested for the second season.
Even with the evolution of Jeff Green (18.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game over his last 18 outings, via Basketball-Reference), the Celtics will still go only as far as Garnett and Pierce can carry them.
If Garnett can deter the dribble drives suddenly heavily featured in Anthony and J.R. Smith's arsenal and Pierce can continue bringing his reliable offense (18.6 points per game on the season), Boston could be looking at its sixth straight run past the opening round.
What Nobody's Talking About
The Celtics have the makings of a team capable of sending the Knicks home early.
Forget the swarm of terrific individual defenders that Rivers can throw at the ball-dominant stars of New York. Boston's team defense has silenced perimeter shooters throughout the season, as the Celtics have held opponents to the fourth-worst three-point success rate in the league (34.2, via ESPN.com).
Considering that the Knicks rely on long-range bombs more than any other club in the NBA (32.6 percent of their offense comes from beyond the arc, via teamrankings.com), this could be the defining statistic to this series.
New York outshot its season three-point percentage (37.6) in its four meetings with its Atlantic Division rival (38.3). The Celtics can afford to surrender some prolific Anthony onslaughts (they may not have any choice in the matter), but Boston defenders cannot afford to leave New York's other marksmen in the series.
Their storied rivalry added a new chapter this season when two of the teams' biggest stars (Anthony and Garnett) engaged in a battle on the floor that nearly spilled over into the locker room and outside the arena.
Regardless of what Garnett said in that exchange, he clearly found a path under Anthony's skin.
A lot has undoubtedly changed between then (Jan. 7) and now. The two teams have matched up three uneventful times since that night. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three games were New York victories. Anthony and Garnett also joined forces on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, after a reported phone call cleared the air between the two (via Ian Begley of ESPN.com).
The playoff stakes are far too great to predict any sort of first-round flare-up between Anthony and Garnett. But if Garnett senses a weakness in the Knicks star, history suggests he'll have no problem saying anything that could give the Celtics an advantage.
Key Matchup: Carmelo Anthony vs. Boston Celtics defense
Rivers understands the inherent dangers in overthinking his team's first-round matchup. He admitted that his staff had overprepared his team for its opening-night clash with the defending champion Miami Heat (via Marc D'Amico of Celtics.com), a 120-107 Miami win.
But he's already weighing his options with regard to slowing down the league's scoring champion. He's slotted three different players (Pierce, Green and Brandon Bass) for Anthony duty, largely due to Melo's ability to put his defenders in foul trouble (via Jay King of MassLive.com).
When he's on the floor, everything the Knicks do offensively starts with Anthony. If he doesn't draw extra defensive attention on reputation alone, it typically doesn't take long for him to expose the teams that throw a one-on-one matchup his way.
Smith, Raymond Felton and the rest of New York's shooters can punish lackadaisical defenders. But the key to slowing down this Knicks team, the key for the Celtics to find their way out of the first round, starts and stops with harassing Anthony.