It's playoff time!
The Boston Celtics tend to save their best for the postseason.
With a 41-40 regular season record, that seems more like wishful thinking than reality, but underestimating the Celtics only brings bad news to opponents.
After limping its way through most of the lockout-shortened season, Boston rallied to capture the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference a year ago. The Celtics then embarked on an improbable run to Game 7 of the conference finals, pushing the Heat to the brink of elimination.
It would be foolish for any team to repeat the same mistake as the Heat made.
This time around, the Celtics will be the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference—a position the franchise has not been in since the NBA moved to include 16 teams during the 1983-84 season.
First up are the second-seeded New York Knicks who will attempt to snuff out any Boston run before it can spark.
Not only that, the Knicks will look to improve on their own recent dreadful postseason history. Since 2002, the team has won just one playoff game. By comparison, Boston has won 69 over that same stretch—including a first-round sweep of New York in 2011.
Will history repeat itself or will the Knicks send Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett home, pondering retirement?
It's been an up-and-down season for Rivers (right) and his team.
It’s definitely been quite the roller coaster ride for the Celtics this season.
As a result, the team’s 2012-13 season can be broken into four segments.
Segment 1: Games 1-30 (14-16)
This stretch would take the team to the end of 2012.
During this time, Boston struggled to generate offense and gave up points in bunches, averaging 95.9 points while allowing 98.1 per night.
Making matters worse, the team was still without the recovering Avery Bradley. Paired with slow starts from several key role players, the Celtics stumbled out of the gate.
Segment 2: Games 31-43 (20-23)
These 13 games provided the Celtics with optimism, but then had it snatched right out of their grasp.
With a healthy Bradley back in the lineup, the Boston defense was back at its best, limiting opponents to just 90.4 points during the stretch. Unfortunately, the Celtics also contained their own offense to 93.1 points a night.
While improvement was evident, the inconsistency was still there. It came as no surprise then that Boston reeled off six straight wins, only to follow that up with six straight losses.
However, the loss off Rajon Rondo to an ACL injury for the remainder of the season declared this stretch a disappointment.
Segment 3: Games 44-65 (36-29)
Largely considered dead by critics, the Celtics responded by putting together a 16-6 record over this stretch. The team rediscovered its offense by averaging 98.1 points and keeping up its high level of play on defense. Opponents only managed 91 points a night.
Segment 4: Games 66-81 (41-40)
Right when Boston thought they had it all together, everything fell apart.
While the team played some of its best offense of the season with 98.9 points per gam, the Celtics’ defense absolutely crumbled. Boston allowed opponents a staggering 100.5 points a night, including a stretch where the team allowed 100 points in six of seven games.
Unlike last season, Boston has failed to get hot at the right moment.
Which team will we see in the postseason?
It's always a heated battle when these two teams take the court.
Season Series: New York won 3-1
-Jan. 7 at New York (102-96 BOS)
-Jan. 24 at Boston (89-86 NY)
-Mar. 26 at Boston (100-85 NY)
-Mar. 31 at New York (108-89 NY)
Team DNA (League Rank in Parentheses)
-Boston: 103.2 offensive rating (24th), 103.1 defensive rating (sixth), 91.7 pace (16th)
-New York: 111.1 offensive rating (third), 106.4 defensive rating (18th), 89.7 pace (26th)
Offense (Per Game; League Rank)
-Points: Boston (96.6; 8th) New York (100; 11th)
-Field-Goal Percent: Boston (46.5 percent; 6th) New York (44.8 percent; 17th)
-Three-Point Field-Goal Percent: Boston (35.8 percent; 16th) New York (37.6 percent; fourth)
-Assists: Boston (22.8; 11th) New York (19.2; 30th)
Edge: New York
Defense (Per Game; League Rank)
-Points Allowed: Boston (96.5; ninth) New York (95.8; seventh)
-Opponent Field-Goal Percent: Boston (44.4 percent; seventh) New York (45.9 percent; 19th)
-Opponent Three-Point Field-Goal Percent: Boston (33.9 percent; second) New York (36; 17th)
-Steals: Boston (8.3; ninth) New York (8.2; 12th)
Miscellaneous (Per Game; League Rank)
-Total Rebounding: Boston (39.4; 29th) New York (40.4; 26th)
-Offensive Rebounding: Boston (8.1; 30th) New York (10.8; 21st)
-Turnovers: Boston (13.9; 14th) New York (11.6; first)
-Points in the Paint: Boston (38.1; 27th) New York (33.6; 30th)
Edge: New York (slightly)
Can Anthony (center) be stopped?
Stop the Three-Point Shot
The Knicks come in as one of the premier three-point shooting teams in the league, connecting on 37.6 percent of their attempts. The team currently ranks fourth in the NBA.
But what hurts opponents the most is the fact that New York has plenty of options to kick it out too. Eight players on the roster shoot 35 percent or higher from beyond the arc. That includes Steve Novak (42.9 percent) and Chris Copeland (42.6 percent).
If the Celtics want to give themselves a chance to win, it’s imperative that they slow down the Knicks’ outside shooter. Luckily, Boston ranks second in the league in defending the three-point shot—opponents have only shot 33.9 percent.
Season Series: Over the four games, New York shot 38.3 percent from downtown. The Knicks shot 47.5 percent in their two home games while shooting just 28.6 percent during the two Boston contests.
Win the Battle Down Low
It’s no secret that the Celtics have interior difficulties. They rank 29th in rebounding and 27th in points in the paint.
Luckily for Boston, the Knicks are just as bad. They might even be worse.
New York ranks 26th in rebounding and last in points in the paint. The recent retirement of Rasheed Wallace and the injury to Tyson Chandler (neck) doesn’t help either. Chandler has missed the last six games and 16 of 20.
The key to this series could be determined by which team is able to better establish dominance down low or at least outperform the other in such matters.
Season Series: The Celtics won the battle in this area, averaging 43 points in the paint per game while the Knicks averaged just 33 per game. New York took the battle on the glass, averaging 43.3 rebounds per game to Boston’s 39.8.
Slow Down Carmelo Anthony
Anthony is fresh off his first NBA scoring title, averaging 28.7 points in 67 contests this season.
But his recent play is even better.
Over eight games in April, Anthony averaged 36.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists over 36.4 minutes. He also shot 53.8 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from distance.
Completely stopping Anthony might be too much to ask from the Celtics, but slowing him down is certainly doable.
That might be necessary if Boston wants to hold onto hope of a first-round upset.
Season Series: In the four games, the Celtics did a good job of controlling Anthony. The 28-year-old may have still averaged 25.3 points per game, but he did it on just 35-percent shooting from the floor and 30 percent from beyond the arc.
Bradley's defensive leadership has been a tremendous asset on the floor.
Boston head coach Doc Rivers has messed around with several different rotations this season. Some have worked. Others? Not so much.
But one lineup has stood above the rest.
Avery Bradley (PG), Paul Pierce (SG), Jeff Green (SF), Brandon Bass (PF) and Kevin Garnett (C)
For the majority of the season, it’s been either Pierce or Green. Given his longevity with the Celtics and his consistent level of play, there was no doubt that Pierce would get the nod.
However, following a strong second half, Green has earned a spot in the starting lineup.
With his addition, the lackluster Courtney Lee heads to the bench and Pierce moves to the shooting guard position. This gives Boston the advantage of creating mismatches on the offensive side of the ball with Pierce. It also allows Green to fully utilize his double-threat ability out on the wing at small forward.
Although it’s still early, the results of that lineup have been rather impressive.
Through 38 minutes on the floor, the lineup is averaging 102.9 points, 44.4 rebounds and 25.4 assists. It has also shot 55.7 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc. Altogether, that lineup has posted an offensive rating of 117.5 and a defensive rating of 88.4.
This group of five Celtics has been successful at every aspect on the court. The lineup has even been great with ball security, only turning the ball over 11.4 times per game.
Their strong play holds up on the defensive end of the floor as well.
Opponents have only averaged 86.3 points and have been limited to just 40.3 percent shooting from the floor and 15.8 percent from three-point distance.
With Rivers opting to rest his key players during the final weeks of the regular season, this lineup hasn’t been able to see much time on the court together. Come playoff time, however, the Knicks will get a full dose of its potential.
Smith (left) and Green (right) can change the outcome of the game for their respective teams.
Every team has that one player who can change the game at the drop of a hat. These players are the X-factors.
Here’s who to look out for during this series.
To make things even more interesting, these two players are also the key matchup to watch.
Boston: Jeff Green
After missing all of last season due to heart surgery, Green has come back better than ever.
Over 81 games, the 26-year-old averaged 12.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 27.9 minutes. Green also shot 46.6 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range.
But lately, he’s been downright unstoppable.
During the last 10 games, Green has averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists over 36.3 minutes. He’s shot 50.3 percent from the floor and 45.6 percent from beyond the arc.
Possessing the ability to knock down the jumper and take it to the hoop, Green has proven difficult to contain. He has dropped 30 or more points three times during the last two months.
The only thing threatening to slow down Green is whether or not he can keep up his level of play with both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the floor.
New York: J.R. Smith
There’s not another player in the league who can be as dangerous as Smith.
The only issue is getting him to live up to that potential on a nightly basis.
In 80 games this season, Smith has averaged 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists over 33.5 minutes. He’s also shot 42.2 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point distance.
Over the last 10 games, Smith has stepped it up, averaging 22 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 32.9 minutes. He’s also shot 48.3 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range.
If Smith gets it going from outside, the Celtics could be in for a long series. He’s already dropped 32 points on them during the two team’s March 26 matchup.
Boston can’t allow Smith to get into a rhythm.
Pierce and Garnett can only carry the team for so long.
Game 1: Saturday, April 20 @New York - 3 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 2: Tuesday, April 23 @ New York - 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3: Friday, April 26 @ Boston - 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4: Sunday, April 28 @ Boston - 1 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 5: Wednesday, May 1 @ New York - TBD (If Necessary)
Game 6: Friday, May 3 @ Boston - TBD (If Necessary)
Game 7: Sunday, May 5 @ New York - TBD (If Necessary)
It’s easy to expect the Knicks to walk away with the series.
Sure, New York has won 16 of 18 games and the Celtics have lost 11 of 16 to close out the regular season, but is it ever that simple with Boston in the postseason?
Veteran leaders Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett seem to take their play to the next level during the playoffs. Pierce has averaged 21 points and 6.4 rebounds in 130 career postseason appearances while Garnett has averaged 19.5 points and 11 rebounds over 125 games.
Needless to say, these two won’t allow the Celtics to go down without a fight.
However, at 35 and 36 years of age respectively, the burden may prove to be just too much to carry. Throw in the injuries to Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, and Boston may just be prolonging the inevitable.
Expect the Celtics to surprise the Knicks with an opening-game victory. But don’t expect them to capture another win away from home.
Prediction: Knicks in six games.
All stats used in this article are courtesy of NBA.com's Media Central (subscription required)