The Boston Celtics, the only team in the East to sweep its first round opponent, appear to be back in the drivers seat and poised to defend its conference championship. After a pair of nail-biting games, the Celtics "took care of business," by dismantling the Knicks in consecutive games at Madison Square Garden winning them by an average margin of 14.5 ppg.
Boston Celtics fans and NBA pundits have announced the Celtics already "conference champions" before the second round even begins, and many are suggesting that the veteran team's week-long layoff prior to the start of their series against the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat will benefit them.
But how prepared is Boston to tackle its next one or more playoff opponents? And can it expect the same level of retreat and surrender shown by the hapless Knicks from them as well?
I offer five reasons why sweeping the Knicks was a good thing in the short term for Boston, but could be a bad thing in the long-run.
Last season, the defending conference champions, the Orlando Magic had one of the most dominant postseason performances in NBA History when it took out the Atlanta Hawks in four games by an average margin of 24 points per game. There was not a pundit around that was not declaring the Magic "conference champions" following the series as they had yet to play a close game in the playoffs eight games in.
They were a bit more tested and playoff ready to tackle the intensity level by the time they played against a Magic team that may have been reading too much of its positive press. Consequently, the Celtics, who were already playing at a higher level intensity-wise were more "locked in" than the barely challenged Orlando Magic. Boston won the series 4-2.
Struggle, particularly early in the postseason, has proven to be a highly beneficial thing for recent title contenders. Consider the conference finals the last two years in the East: The team that swept the first round actually did not advance to the finals.
I'm sure some Celtics fans will argue that this Celtics team in a veteran club that knows how to step up its intensity level in the next round, but I will counter by saying that with an unproven frontcourt, somewhat new bench and a year older, it's hard to know what the Celtics will do once they are backed against the wall with this particular group.
Ask any of the fans of either of the three top seeded teams which team they would want to play between "a scrappy, defensive-minded, well-coached, healthy team" or a "non-defensive, team that had been assembled twenty games prior to the playoffs, whose number one and three players will be faced with injuries early in the series." Which one do you think they would pick?
There is no doubt that both the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls got tougher opponents in the first round. These teams were more scrappy, defensive-minded, physical and just more determined than the three-man show (or one and and half men by Game 2) in New York.
This is not to say that Boston did not look impressive in their dismantling and mad handling of the New York Knicks. It's just that beating a team with no identity on defense, and little supporting cast, with two of its three key players injured seems as impressive as winning a marathon by getting a lift to the finish line in a pickup.
The Knicks, without Amare and Billups, had precious little else to work with and once they started getting hurt in Game 2, anything short of a sweep would have been somewhat embarrassing for the Celtics.
So, while I don't take anything away from the Celtics, I'm still not quite convinced of their greatness yet.
Many Celtics fans marveled at the "excellent" play and "tough defense" displayed by Jermaine O'Neal playing center against the Knicks. But when their starting center is "I didn't even know he was still in the league" Ronny Turiaf and very little size elsewhere, it's hard not to look good by comparison.
But O'Neal's stats in the series—5.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.5 bpg and 4 fouls per game—seem awfully meager for a starting center on a title contending team. And before I hear about how the Heat's center is worse, I would say: Not according to the stats—Illgauskas is averaging 6.5 ppg, 5.25rpg, .5 bpg and only 1.5 fouls a game.
As well as O'Neal has allegedly played, the undersized Knicks still held the rebounding advantage in the first two games combined and Jermaine O'Neal was in foul trouble more often than not.
I say: If he's in foul trouble against the Knicks, he may REALLY be in foul trouble once Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng realize that he's the only thing standing between themselves and the rim.
There is a possibility that Shaquille O'Neal may return to the team in the second round which many Celtics fans appear to be fairly excited about, but there is a problem with that.
After being out for weeks are we really sure he will just be reinserted into the Celtics starting lineup in the middle of a very challenging series aganst the Heat without any need to get his conditioning back? Won't he be rusty out of the gate? Couldn't his return actually hurt the Celtics' flow as they will be forced to give him touches early to "feel him out" giving their offense a predictability that opponents can pounce on?
I still say that at their ages and with their offensive games largely eroded, the O'Neal's can't be expected to "dominate" the upcoming frontlines.
One of the little discussed aspects of the Celtics sweep of the Knicks was how several of their newer players like Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and Delonte West were really non-factors in the series. This is problematic for Boston going forward because they may have to rely on these players in the later rounds of the playoffs if any of their starters are saddled with foul trouble in the next series.
One of the keys to the Celtics' great runs in the playoffs the last few years were their role players who knew what their roles were and played them extremely well. Whether it was Tony Allen on defense, Nate Robinson providing instant offense or Rasheed Wallace spreading the floor with three pointers and playing tough interior defense, the Celtics had players that could step up and provide a lift.
But there are so many question marks surrounding this team beyond the Big Four that I wonder if their depth will become an issue in the later rounds.
At least another game in the Knicks series would have given the bench players a chance to play a bit more and feel more comfortable in their roles. But with them still struggling and with a week-long layoff, when will they gain that comfort-level to be major contributors in the postseason?
Preparing to play the Miami Heat in the second round by playing the Knicks in the first round is like preparing for a WWE bout with Dolph Ziggler by mud wrestling with a Globe Girl.
The level of intensity and defensive tenacity presented by one opponent pales in comparison with the other, and while the Knicks happily gave Rajon Rondo plenty of layups and open looks to Ray Allen to shoot three pointers with not even so much as a contest, those looks will not be as easy against Miami.
This is not to say that the Heat will beat the Celtics. In fact, from what I'm hearing right now the Celtics have been hailed prohibitive favorites to beat Miami in the next round even though some of the same arguments against the Heat (over-the-hill centers, questionable bench production, up and down play) could easily be used against the Celtics as well.
This is just to say that it is always best to get a true challenge prior to facing a truly formidable adversary. Plenty of people wanted to write off the Celtics when they went seven games in both the first and second rounds of the playoffs in 2008. But those struggles made them stronger as a team and ultimately showed them what level of intensity they needed to play at to win against their biggest challenge in the Detroit Pistons.
The New York Knicks didn't do the Celtics any favors by not trying for the later part of the series. Even if the Celtics do win the East, their upcoming opponents will not be that easily vanquished.