Advantages the Boston Celtics Have over the New York Knicks
The Boston Celtics started the conference quarterfinals against the New York Knicks in a disappointing fashion. After building a seven-point advantage toward the end of the third quarter, Boston squandered its lead with sloppy play on both sides of the floor.
That implosion unveiled a plethora of startling statistics. However, the team in green still impressed in many areas for over 34 minutes.
Coach Doc Rivers and his players showed that these two squads may be closer in talent and, better yet, heart, than their respective No. 2 and No. 7 seeds suggest.
The following factors comprise the advantages Boston has over New York, and why a series upset remains a distinct possibility.
When floor general Rajon Rondo went down in late January with a partially-torn ACL, many worried that the Celtics would struggle to initiate team basketball. The result was quite the contrary, as Boston actually started moving the ball better as a team.
That kind of ball movement, offensive creation and selflessness launched a 14-4 run and moved the Celtics well over .500 and into the playoff race. Against New York, their offense remains superior on a team level.
And they started Game 1 with that mentality. They spread the floor, moved the ball well and found open shots. They pushed the transition game and used penetration to exploit New York's defensive holes.
Of course, the implosion directly resulted from the anomaly of a fourth quarter that included three field goals and eight turnovers. The Green threw the ball across the middle of the court wildly, dribbled into double and triple coverage and struggled to even make a crisp entry pass.
Although the Celtics miss Rondo tremendously, their offense is much better than that frame suggests. They finished the regular season in the top 10 in team assists (22.8 per game), while New York rested last in the league with 19.3.
And while Boston's 13.9 turnovers a game (13th-best in the NBA) don't hold a candle to the Knicks' league-lowest 11.6 per game, its assist-to-turnover are only separated by a few hundredths.
When operating at its A-game, Boston achieves a level of offensive fluidity not generally reached by its counterparts. While New York often hoists up the best three-point shot it can find, Boston strives to find the best shot in general. This serves as a prime advantage for the C's, and could be a series-influencing factor.
Paul Pierce vs. Carmelo Anthony
Stay with me here.
Carmelo Anthony owns the NBA's scoring title this season (28.7 points per game), and clearly sits as one of the top stars of the game. He finished Game 1 with 36 points and his 4-of-5 shooting in the fourth quarter propelled the comeback victory.
But Melo remains one of the upper-echelon players in this league who many just can't figure out. He chucks up 30 or more shots regularly. He does not enjoy passing the ball. He plays a brand of “I'll hand-check but won't slide my feet” defense that might get excused by the refs, but not by opposing talent.
Translation: Anthony is one of the worst stars in the history of the NBA playoffs. This time last year, Wall Street Journal released data which supported its claim that he is the "biggest playoff loser." Among players who have appeared in at least 50 postseason games, his 18-36 win-loss record stands as the worst ever. That's a .300 winning percentage, and it's not a coincidence.
Many regard this season as the finest of Melo's 10-year career. But points aren't everything, especially when a player hoists a preposterous 22.2 shots per game (the second-most of his career) and only hits 45 percent of them.
And for an athletic guy, with size and 37 minutes of playing time per game, Anthony's 6.9 rebound average is poor. His impact in the team game on both sides of the floor is even worse.
The Syracuse alum averages 2.5 assists per 36 minutes, the worst of his career and an abysmal rate for a guy who touches the ball nearly every possession he plays. Carmelo essentially plays like the coach's son in little league—his ball-hogging, shot-chucking mentality leads everyone to believe he's great, but in actuality he's just holding the team back with his selfish play.
His defense also suffered this year. Per 36 minutes, he registered a career-low 0.8 steals and only half a block. He doesn't slide over on defense or take charges when someone penetrates the lane. Some stars adjust their game, recognizing that the "faces of the league" must play on both ends. Anthony must have missed that memo.
Paul Pierce, however, received it. He may have lost a step in his mid-30s but he has not lost the drive, defensive fire, passing ability and clutch factor. To be clear, he isn't as talented all-around as Anthony. But many NBA coaches would likely agree that his knowledge, team game and veteran skill set far exceed what Melo brings to the table, especially in the playoffs.
If Pierce can improve on his ugly 6-of-15 shooting numbers from Game 1, the Celtics could definitely steal one from the Knicks and head back to TD BankNorth Garden tied 1-1. That would leave the little league star a little pouty, right where Boston wants him.
Stifling Old School Defense
When Boston led 70-67 with 10:30 left in Game 1, Celtics Nation must have been jubilant.
The defensive package of Pierce, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass had held Anthony to 28 points on 24 shots, even forcing him through a rough 2-of-11 stretch in the second quarter. If they maintained that aggressive shut-down defense during the last stretch, they would be sitting pretty with a 1-0 lead.
Regardless, Boston proved to the nation it still possesses the ability to shut down elite offensive players. It played Melo tight, made him dribble more than he feels comfortable and kept him out of a rhythm by forcing difficult shots.
This kind of team defense explains why the Green ranked seventh-best in the league with a .441 opposing field-goal percentage (New York allows opponents to shoot .458).
Combine that with the Celtics' .465 offensive field-goal percentage during the season (compared to the Knicks' .448), and it's abundantly clear that Boston has certain advantages on both ends of the floor.
Simply put, any team that takes good shots and forces difficult ones has a good chance at advancing. Boston just needs all the pieces to fit—it must continue to play the tight defense exhibited in Game 1, while also getting more than 10-of-27 combined shooting from Pierce and Garnett.
One would imagine New York coach Mike Woodson did a little preparation for his team's first postseason game. After having played the Celtics four times during the season (winning three of them handily) it's surprising that he seemed unaware of Jeff Green's existence.
Green made them pay. They attempted to have the much-tinier and slower Jason Kidd guard him on the wing. Carmelo played lackluster defense on him in the post. They let him exploit the weaker, less aggressive Iman Shumpert on the drive, as well as the turn-and-shoot. They even left him open for threes.
Celtics Nation probably expected him to rip off his jersey in the first half, screaming “Are you not entertained!?” Gladiator-style. He did it all, exploiting weaker defenders for a 20-point onslaught.
The Twitter banter has suggested that his six-point second half came as a direct result of halftime changes by Woodson, and improved D by Anthony. But I don't buy that. Doc Rivers should have given more opportunities to Green, the one who gave them the big lead to begin with, instead of letting Pierce try to step up.
Green's aggressive dribble-drives cannot be stopped, even by the older, bigger and defensive-minded Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin. His inside-outside game clearly gives the Celtics a huge advantage. It's Rivers' obligation to put the ball in his hands, or else he can plan his fishing trip now.
Boston has a set of relative advantages over the New York Knicks. Now it has to decide whether it wants to capitalize on them, or throw in the proverbial towel.