WALTHAM, Mass. -- OK, so it's way too early to get worked up about the Atlantic Division standings. But the fact of the matter is the Boston Celtics are sitting atop that broken heap and trekked to the Empire State on Saturday in advance of consecutive games against the foes who were supposed to joust for that seat.
The Celtics weren't even thinking about Tuesday's visit to Brooklyn (and seeing old friends Kevin Garnett and an injured Paul Pierce). Boston was locked in on the improving Knicks and ignoring the fact the New York squads have just one more win combined (10) than Boston does overall at the moment.
The Celtics visit the Knicks for a noon tip Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
"I think every game is an opportunity," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said when asked if Boston had a unique opportunity on this trip. "It’s so early in the year. First of all, I think the Knicks -- and I know people are going to look at their [5-13] record and say what they want to say -- but they played a lot of close games, and sometimes when you haven’t won those close games, they are harder to pull out. But the last two games have not been close. And they have looked every bit the Knicks that everybody expected and then some. The way they shot their 3s, the way they are moving the ball, the way they are guarding with activity and aggressiveness, has been very impressive. They are really good. And again, we can all get caught up in the record, but I get more caught up in how they are playing right now."
Stevens went on to gush about Carmelo Anthony and New York's versatility with him in the lineup. He noted how the Celtics will focus on films of the Knicks' past two games -- a 113-83 shellacking of the Nets and a 121-83 dismantling of the Orlando Magic -- while prepping for New York's best punch.
"The most telling is what has happened most recently," Stevens said. "The one thing I don’t think you can look at is you probably shouldn’t evaluate them at all with [Tyson] Chandler because he’s not playing and he’s a big, central part of their team. But that moves [Andrea] Bargnani to the 5 some in games and that’s a skilled unit when he’s in. Especially when they play the group with [J.R.] Smith, [Tim] Hardaway [Jr.] or [Iman] Shumpert -- two of those three with Anthony at the 4, [Raymond] Felton at the 1, and Bargnani at the 5 -- that is a bear to guard."
Gerald Wallace is no stranger to the Knicks after playing for intracity rival Brooklyn last season. Asked if this was a great opportunity for the Celtics, he downplayed the significance of playing the Knicks.
"It’s a great opportunity for us to continue to get better," Wallace said. "We’re doing good. We’ve turned our home play around, we’re starting to play good at home. Now we’ve got to go out on the road and do the same thing. In order to be winners or champions in this league, you’ve got to be able to win on the road more so than you can win at home. This is a good trip for us to get started on that."
But what about Boston's chance to further entrench itself as a contender in the Atlantic (which guarantees its champ a top-four seed in the East)?
"We’ve got to find a way to win every game," Wallace said. "Our main thing is just getting better as a team, building on what we’ve already established and continue to play well. The division games are very important. We obviously want to win our division, so we have to take care of these games, but at the same time, we’re more concerned about getting better as a team and continuing to play as well as we can."
For those who played for Boston last season, Sunday's tilt is a rematch of playoff foes after the Knicks ousted Boston from the first round of the postseason. Avery Bradley noted that the veteran Celtics will have that in mind after being embarrassed and will have a little extra motivation against the Knicks.
But the company line remained on the process of getting better with Boston more concerned about itself than the opposition. Asked about New York's struggles, Wallace noted, "I don’t care about their record. I’m worried about our record. I don’t even know what their record is."