2011 NBA Playoffs: A Comprehensive Knicks-Celtics Series Preview

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2011 NBA Playoffs: A Comprehensive Knicks-Celtics Series Preview
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

These two teams, this year, have had some out and out battles. 

Two of those games obviously came before the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, and the Celtics swapped out Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic. The Knicks lost those two games by six points combined. 

The second, a throwback back-and-forth battle at Madison Square Garden, ended with a step-back dagger through the Knicks’ collective hearts from Paul Pierce (and a just-too-late three-pointer from Amar’e Stoudemire). 

There have been two more games since the trades, but let’s all just pretend Wednesday’s season-finale JV matchup in Boston didn’t actually happen, and concentrate on the March 21 matchup in MSG. It was a hyper-physical game (Troy Murphy, Ray Allen, and Carmelo Anthony all shed blood) in which the Knicks blew a huge lead, but at the same time proved that they could absolutely, positively hang with these guys. 

I don’t really buy all the talk about how Knicks vs. Celtics is a rivalry. New York vs. Boston generally evokes the feel of a rivalry game. Yankees vs. Red Sox is a rivalry. Jets vs. Patriots is a rivalry. Rangers vs. Bruins is a rivalry. But not Knicks vs. Celtics. 

The teams just haven’t been good at the same time in too long. The Knicks have been dreadful during the Celtics’ most recent stretch of good teams, just as the Celtics weren’t that great during the late 90’s run of Knicks teams. 

But because the games this year were so great, and because the Celtics are seen to be nearing the end of their run just as the Knicks are starting theirs, and because these two teams seem to have been going in opposite directions for the last few weeks (New York went 7-2 down the stretch while Boston was 6-7 in their last 13 games), and because it is New York vs. Boston and the Garden vs. the Garden, this series will absolutely FEEL like a rivalry. 

It’s going to be physical. It’s going to be close. It’s going to be bloody. And it’s going to be so much damn fun. 

Which is why I’m going to break the series down right here in every way I can possibly think of: position by position, strengths and weaknesses, x-factors, and storylines, and I’ll throw in a prediction at the end too. 

 

Point Guard

Chauncey Billups vs. Rajon Rondo 

This should be a huge advantage for the Celtics. Chauncey Billups is old and slower, and he’s not getting any younger or quicker. And Rondo is maybe the league’s quickest point guards, and one of the craftiest as well. Rondo should win this in a landslide. 

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But Chauncey has been playing great lately for the Knicks, and Rondo has been downright dreadful at times since the Celtics traded his good buddy Kendrick Perkins. So it’s closer than it might look. 

Still, though, I have to give the Celtics the advantage here. Rondo was so good in last season’s playoffs (he pretty much outplayed LeBron in the Cleveland series), and the physical advantages he has on Billups are so glaring, that I just can’t see Chauncey winning this individual matchup. 

 

Shooting Guard

Landry Fields vs. Jesus Shuttlesworth Ray Allen 

Chalk up another one for the Celtics. Allen is still the league’s best sharpshooter, no matter what the percentages say. I’m still shocked when he misses a shot, and so is he, and you probably are too. 

Fields has had as good of a season as you could have possibly asked for from a second round pick who almost nobody had heard of before his game was called on draft night. (I literally had never heard of him, and I follow college basketball pretty closely) 

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

For most of the season, he led all NBA guards in rebounding, and all NBA players in fourth quarter three-point percentages. But his play has really tapered off down the stretch, especially since the Knicks traded for Carmelo. 

Meanwhile, Jesus Shuttlesworth quietly had maybe the most efficient season of his career. He shot 49 percent from the field and 44 percent from three and for the most part played very good defense. 

 

Small Forward

Carmelo Anthony vs. Paul Pierce 

A few years ago, before the Celtics ever traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Paul Pierce was seen as a selfish, shoot-first-ask-questions-later “superstar” who had a bad attitude and didn’t care enough about winning.

Eventually though, a light went on for Pierce, and he subjugated his game to accommodate two new teammates, started caring on the defensive end of the court, and became one of the best late-game closers in the league. Sound familiar? 

It should. Because that’s pretty much what seems to have happened to Carmelo Anthony this season, in the span of just the time since he’s been traded to the Knicks.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

After initially winning six of their first nine games after the trade, the Knicks endured a horrible 1-9 stretch, during which Melo shouldered a lot of the blame. But right after that, the Knicks won seven in a row, and Carmelo has never looked better (He averaged almost 30 and 10 during the streak). 

To me, the winner of this matchup could be the winner of the series. They’re very similar players at different stages of their career. 

They are both very physical small-forwards who can take you off the dribble, raise up for a quick jumper, or back you down in the post. And they’ve both really stepped up their defense. 

Pierce has the championship experience. Carmelo has the youth, athleticism, and the better all-around right now. 

This one is almost too close to call, but I’m giving a slight advantage to Carmelo. Slight. 

 

Power Forward

Amar’e Stoudemire vs. Kevin Garnett 

KG is all about defense, rebounding, mid-range jumpers, and woofing and hollering like a maniac. Stoudemire is partial to rim rattling dunks and smiles, and only occasionally cares on the defensive end of the court (although more this year than ever before). 

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

But both are the emotional leader of their respective teams. Garnett changed the Celtics culture immediately upon coming over in a trade from the Timberwolves, and immediately instilled a passion that was absent on the defensive end of the court. They won a championship in their first season, literally going from worst to first. 

Amar’e boldly declared “The Knicks are back” in front of Madison Square Garden before he had even officially signed his five-year, $100 million deal and took all the weight of a city on his shoulders.

He delivered as promised, tantalizing fans with a stretch of nine consecutive 30-point games early in the year, and teaming with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to lead the Knicks back to the playoffs for the first time since Stephon Marbury was running the point. 

Stoudemire is the better offensive player. Garnett is the better defensive player. Overall? I’ve got to give another slight edge to Amare and the Knicks. 

 

Center

Ronny Turiaf/Shelden Williams/Jared Jeffries vs. Nenad Kristic/Jermaine O’Neal/Shaquille O’Neal 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ugly situations going on here for both teams. The Knicks’ size, rebounding and defense problem at the center position is well chronicled. 

The Celtics problems at this position really only came up recently. They used to own one of the biggest size advantages of any team in the league, and they traded it away. They shipped off Kendrick Perkins, the league’s best post defender, to Oklahoma City, and sent Semih Erden, and underrated backup big man, to Cleveland. 

None of Turiaf, Williams or Jeffries can be counted on to provide anything resembling offense, and their defense isn’t a big enough factor to garner an advantage for New York. 

If either of the O’Neals can stay on the court for significant minutes, you’ve got to give this one to the Celtics.

 

Bench

Toney Douglas, Shawne Williams, Bill Walker, Shelden Williams, Jared Jeffries vs. Glen Davis, Jeff Green, Delonte West (maybe), Carlos Arroyo, Troy Murphy 

The Celtics are certainly deeper here in terms of quantity of quality (yes, I used those words that way) contributors, but the Knicks probably have the best bench player in Douglas. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Since he went to Florida State, I’m extremely reluctant to give him any compliments, but when a guy leads the NBA in three-pointers after the All-Star break, you have to give credit where credit is due. 

But after that, the Knicks’ bench is too hit-or-miss for me to declare it a win for them. Shawne Williams is really only a positive when he’s knocking down corner threes, which he did much more often in the first half of the season than the second half. Shelden Williams and Jeffries are negatives on the offense end. And Walker is the most enigmatic of the bunch. 

Glen Davis was one of the better sixth men in the league for much of the year, and has stepped up his defense this year from the past. Green can play the three and the four, but hasn’t fit in that well yet since coming over from OKC.

West and Arroyo backup at the guard spots, but since Rondo and Allen play so many minutes, aren’t counted on too heavily. Still, they both have playoff experience and are solid. 

 

Biggest Strengths

Knicks offensive firepower vs. Celtics lockdown defense 

This is obviously the big battle of the series, and whoever controls the tempo and style of play will in all likelihood be able to win the series. 

If the Knicks are able to push the pace, get out in transition and make their 3s, they will be very tough to beat. If the Celtics can make it a grind-it-out, half-court, defensive battle, they’ll likely be able to frustrate the Knicks into bad shots on one end of the court while unleashing their trademark efficiency on the other. 

With Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony leading the charge, the Knicks have averaged 107 points per game since the trade. Chauncey Billups has been solid but not spectacular since coming over.

Toney Douglas has been absolutely on fire, and has become a more important player to the Knicks’ offensive success than Landry Fields. Fields is very efficient, but has struggled late in the season. 

These new Knicks can attack you in a lot of different ways, whether it’s a Billups-Stoudemire of Billups-Anthony pick and roll with the other waiting for a 15-foot jumper on the weak side, or getting out in transition, or letting Amar’e or Melo taking their man one on one in isolation. 

The Knicks are definitely tough to stop, but the Celtics are even tougher to score on. Their ability to cut off both the paint and the passing lanes if unparalleled. 

Their general focus will be to turn both Amar’e and Carmelo into jump shooters, not letting them get to either the rim or the free throw line. Rondo will apply a lot of ball pressure on Billups, and try not to allow him to hit the roll man or the pop man in screen-roll and pick-and-pop situations. 

Not letting the Knicks get out and run will be huge too. Expect the Celtics to hit the offensive boards hard, since the Knicks are one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. 

 

Biggest Weakness

 Knicks rebounding vs. Celtics loss of identity Post-Perk 

All you need to know about the Knicks’ rebounding woes is that Carmelo Anthony leads the team in rebounding since his arrival. Barring a shocking commitment to the boards from Amar’e Stoudemire during this series, you can expect the Knicks to get spanked on the glass. 

The post-Kendrick Perkins Celtics have without a doubt been one of the most interesting stories in the league. In the days following the trade, there was a barrage of stories about how many members of the team, as well as coach Doc Rivers, were literally moved to tears when they heard about the trade. 

Rajon Rondo in particular has completely fallen off a cliff without his best friend. Garnett’s woofing and hollering no longer has the physicality of Perkins to back it up. Allen and Pierce’s gambling (at times) on the perimeter no longer has the imposing presence behind it to thwart drives to the hoop. 

These guys have looked like they’re old and slow and they’re pissed off that their teammate was traded. They look like they thought they deserved one more shot at a ring with their original group, and Danny Ainge took it away from them. This particular Celtics group had never lost a series in which their starting five was intact (remembers Perkins was injured in Game 6 of last year’s Finals, and they beat the Lakers in ’08 when healthy). Ainge robbing them of that chance has thrown them into a funk.

Whether or not they can snap out of it will determine whether the Celtics can dispatch of the Knicks in quiet fashion or whether they’ll be given a run for their money. 

 

X-Factors

Toney Douglas vs. The O'Neals

Douglas has been the Knicks' 4th leading scorer since the trade, and is the NBA's leader in 3 point field goals over that same span. His ability to shoot the 3, as well as defend both Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen at different points of the series will b e crucial for the Knicks.

Though the Knicks offense tends to stall sometimes when Billups goes off the floor and Douglas runs the point, his scoring ability can be a game changer. He has taken over games this year with his shot, like when he hit tied a franchise record with 9 3-pointers against the Grizzlies in March.

If the Celtics can keep the O'Neals on the floor, it would provide them with a huge advantage inside. The Knicks simply do not have the size to contend with either one of them. 

They haven't been able to stay healthy for most of the year, but in the playoffs, there is always at least one day in between the games. They both have experience going on deep playoff runs, can man the middle on defense, and at their best can still draw and pass out of a double team in the post.

Because the Knicks are such a poor team at stepping out on shooters, the O'Neals ability to draw doubles and kick out to Ray Allen or Paul Pierce for 3 is paramount. 

 

Storylines

The Knicks are Back! vs. The Celtics Last Stand? 

When Amar’e Stoudemire stood in front of Madison Square Garden and proudly declared, “The Knicks are back,” many laughed at him. How could a guy who had never played without Steve Nash, who was joining a team that had been one of the worst in basketball over the previous few years, and who had no teammates with any kind of experience to speak of, be so bold? 

But Stoudemire took one of the youngest teams in the league on his shoulders, carried a huge load for the first half of the season, and looked like an MVP candidate in the early going. He still gets those chants at home games, even though he long dropped out of serious consideration for the award. 

Then in February, the Knicks truly arrived, at least as far as being a relevant team in the national zeitgeist. Carmelo Anthony came aboard, Madison Square Garden absolutely exploded (in the good way), and many fans instantly had dreams of multiple championships. 

This team is not at that point yet, but they are on their way. They have two important building blocks, and the cap space to potentially bring in a third a la the Miami Heat in the summer of 2012 in the form of Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Dwight Howard. If not one of them, they will certainly be able to improve the team markedly in that span. Things are looking up for the Knicks, certainly when you consider where they were just a year ago. 

The Celtics seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Coming into the season, it was expected that this would be sort of a last stand for this particular group in Boston. 

Doc Rivers isn’t expected back next year. The since-jettisoned Kendrick Perkins wasn’t expected to resign in Boston after his contract ended. Garnett, Pierce and Allen are not getting any younger. Other than Rajon Rondo, there isn’t a super-star caliber player in the pipeline for the Celtics either. 

And they’ve kind of validated all of that this season, especially with the way they’ve looked down the stretch. Is there anyone who could have watched the last 20 games that can seriously say that the Cs look like title contenders for NEXT year and beyond? I don’t think so. 

The question for them will be whether they can put it back together for one last go at it. This group won a championship in their first year together, and they came oh so close last year. The veterans will not want their lasting legacy to be last year’s Game 7 loss to the Lakers. 

 

Prediction 

As much as it pains me to say, I have to take the Celtics to win the series. It’ll be a hard fought battle, and the Knicks will surely learn from and grow from it, but in the end the Celtics experience, playoff-tested mettle and defense will wear them out. 

Celtics in 7 games

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