Before the Celtics and Knicks clash for the first time in the 2012-13 season, we preview the matchup with a game of 3-on-3 with ESPN New York's Ian Begley and Jared Zwerling:
1. Most people predicted the Celtics to be better than the Knicks this season. So what's been the big difference?
Begley: Guilty as charged. I picked Boston because I didn't see the Knicks developing chemistry as quickly as they did, or taking care of the ball the way they have. Mike Woodson's club has exceeded expectations by far. Boston's 3-point shooting and rebounding are way below what I thought they'd be.
Zwerling: The Knicks' D was prepped for an upgrade with the permanency of Mike Woodson, the addition of several defensive players and the team's veteran leadership. But as far as their offensive efficiency, 3-point shooting and a consistent J.R. Smith, who could have expected that? The unique Raymond Felton-Jason Kidd pairing, as well as Carmelo Anthony playing like an MVP, has made everyone better. With the Celtics, they completely lost their perimeter D. But Avery Bradley has returned.
Forsberg: New York's offense has (finally) overachieved; Boston's defense has (woefully) underperformed. It's impressive to watch the Knicks' offense figure it out. We always knew the talent was there; now it seems that it's clicking. While a lot of the focus seems to be on Anthony's exploits (and rightfully so), I'm more impressed that the Knicks have three other players who rank among the most efficient scorers in the league, including Tyson Chandler.
2. Which team is better positioned in the long run to win the Atlantic Division and fare better in the playoffs?
Begley: I'm taking the Knicks here. Even when they're not making shots, they've showed they have the ability to move the ball on offense and keep their turnovers to a minimum -- two tenets of winning basketball. They've also shown that they can defend when they want to, another indication that they can have postseason success.
Zwerling: When Felton, Rasheed Wallace and Iman Shumpert return, the Knicks will compete with the Clippers for the "deepest team in the league" title. And that, my friends, is the main reason why they're positioned better than the Celtics. While the C's now have Bradley, who has helped them tremendously recently, the Knicks will have their own defensive stopper in Shumpert soon. While the Celtics always seem to make a second-half run, as they did last season, the Knicks are well-prepared to knock them off.
Forsberg: A seven-game cushion through 33 games gives New York the obvious edge in the division. As for the playoffs, whichever team decides to get back to its defensive roots on a consistent basis will have the most success. Spearheaded by Chandler, the Knicks were a sneaky good defensive team last year, but even he can't stop the regression this season. Boston had been atrocious defensively through 30 games, but Bradley has them headed back in the right direction in their two-game winning streak.
3. What will you be watching tonight, from matchups to different schemes?
Begley: Anthony is playing at such a high level right now that he's forcing teams to send a double-team his way. More often than not, he's been making teams pay by passing quickly out of the double-team, so the ball works its way to an open teammate. Will Boston send an extra defender at Melo and, if so, can he make the C's pay?
Zwerling: As for matchups, there's no question it's Anthony versus Paul Pierce. These two guys have gone at it ever since Melo was traded to New York. Remember when Melo scored 35 points and Pierce had 43 in the Knicks' 118-110 win at the Garden last April? While Anthony is on "another planet," as ex-Nets coach Avery Johnson recently said, Pierce will put it all on the line tonight. As for different schemes, I'm curious to see if the Celtics' improved perimeter D can frustrate the Knicks' 3-point shooting. That will be the difference.
Forsberg: The battle between a great Knicks offense and a great (for the last three games) Celtics defense. Boston seems to be regaining its defensive identity, but New York's offense will be the real litmus test. The Celtics don't like to commit a double-team on anyone, but Anthony might force that issue. Boston has struggled to defend the 3-point line and absolutely cannot lose track of someone like Steve Novak. Also, I can't wait to see if Wallace heckles his old friends from the sideline.