In the Knicks-Celtics first regular season meeting on October 29, in which the Knicks lost 105-101, everyone who's in the starting five now, except for Danilo Gallinari, had standout offensive performances. Amare Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler and Landry Fields combined for 74 points, but Gallo had a season-low two. While the Italian Stallion has upped his scoring since then, averaging 15.3 points per game, and the Knicks now lead the league in scoring at 108.5 ppg, they've faced the second-easiest strength of schedule so far this season. Tonight, the Knicks will have their toughest challenge, facing a Celtics team that has won an Eastern Conference-high 10 games in a row. Here are three things the Knicks have to do to get over the hump:
Come out of the gates strong on offense and defense, especially in the first quarter. While the Celtics rank third in the league in average first quarter margin (+4.6), the Knicks are 21st-worst (-1.5). And for the rest of the game, except for a slight edge to the Knicks in the second quarter (+2.4 to +2.3), the Celtics have the margin advantage. Entering the fourth quarter, the Celtics are second in the league in margin lead (+9.0), while the Knicks are ninth (+2.3). Except for Stoudemire, who's had five straight games with 10 or more points in the fourth quarter, the rest of the team has been average in the final period -- hence their -0.7 margin deficit.
Contain Rajon Rondo and the Celtics' frontcourt shooters in the halfcourt set by tightening up their pick-and-roll defense. The Knicks' point guard and big man defenders have to be more vigilant than how they were in their first meeting against the Cs. Sometimes Felton and Toney Douglas would sink beneath the pick, giving Rondo only a slice of space he needed to use his quickness to penetrate the lane and create a play at the basket, which led to his career-high 24 assists. Currently the Cs rank first in the league in makes at the rim per game with 17.8. Other times, Stoudemire or Timofey Mozgov would double team Rondo too long, leaving Kevin Garnett or Glen Davis open for the midrange jumpshot. The Cs are one of the best teams in the pick-and-pop, as they rank at the top of the league in makes per game 10 to 15 feet and 16 to 23 feet. While Garnett is averaging 15.5 points per game, Davis is on a tear lately, scoring 16 ppg in roughly 30 minutes off the bench. Of course, the Knicks have to be alert when Ray Allen or Paul Pierce have the ball in the pick-and-roll, because they both can drill it from downtown. Basically, the Knicks have to fight through, play smart, and have good spacing and timing on every Celtics P&R.
The bigs need to crash the boards, and the guards need to keep their eye on Rondo in transition. On the season, the Knicks are giving up the fifth most rebounds, and the Celtics have a more aggressive presence in the paint. In their first meeting, the Knicks got outrebounded 54-38, and not only that, Stoudemire and Mozgov only combined for 10 of them, which was the same amount as Fields, the starting shooting guard. During the Knicks' current 13-1 stretch, Mike D'Antoni has gotten by with a smaller lineup, but he may have to mix it up tonight and include Mozgov and Ronny Turiaf more in the rotations. (After tonight and Friday against the Heat, we'll know more about the Knicks' defensive needs moving forward.) Fortunately, Shaquille O'Neal is out tonight resting a sore right calf. But no matter what, once the shot goes up, Felton and Douglas have to immediately read where Rondo is on the court. Several times during their first meeting, Rondo was able to get the head start on the break and make things happen. In addition to the Knicks' guards, the other players need to quickly pick up their man, or else the Celtics will get easy dunks down low once again -- and Doc Rivers will get his 300th regular season win with the team.
You can follow Jared Zwerling on Twitter.