The last time the Knicks and Celtics got together in New York, the hosts emerged with a chest-thumping Christmas Day win that suggested the Atlantic Division would be a dogfight this year. Little more than three months later, Boston (36-25, 15-16 away) returns to New York (31-29, 20-11 home) hoping to essentially wrap up the division crown and the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
To preview the late-season showdown, we play a game of 3-on-3 with ESPN New York's Jared Zwerling and ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg and Greg Payne.
1. What will you be focused on when the Celtics visit the Knicks?
Zwerling: Defensively for the Knicks, the key area is limiting Rajon Rondo, the engine of the Celtics. When he plays well, so do his teammates. The speedy Rondo is especially deadly when the Celtics grab long rebounds. He's already out by the halfcourt line to receive the outlet pass, and then he only needs about five dribbles to get to the basket. So the Knicks can't get beat on the boards and they'll have to try and make sure they're always a step ahead of Rondo when he leaks out to the wings. Because if he becomes a one-man fastbreak during a fourth-quarter stretch, the Celtics can build a 10-0 run very, very quickly. A quick momentum swing like that in the crucial minutes of a likely grind-out matchup could mean the difference in the game. Fortunately for the Knicks, they have one of the game's best guard defenders in Iman Shumpert. Offensively for the Knicks, they simply need a second playmaker not named Carmelo Anthony. Melo can always entertain the Garden crowd with 42 points, but he needs help, especially down the stretch.
Forsberg: As will be the case over the final five games, health will be in the spotlight for Boston. Is Paul Pierce feeling 100 percent after stubbing his toe late in Saturday's win over New Jersey (then taking Sunday's finale of a back-to-back-to-back in Charlotte off)? Pierce has a tough assignment with Anthony and the team should tread carefully with his minutes if he displays any signs of pain (though after missing the Christmas Day battle at MSG, it's going to keep Pierce off one of his favorite stages). Will Ray Allen be able to get back on the floor tonight and continue the process of settling into that bench role? Beyond health, the Tyson Chandler-Kevin Garnett matchup should be a defensive-minded war, while Rondo always seems to save some of his finest performances for the 'Bockers (even with Jeremy Lin not being on the floor this time around).
Payne: I'll be watching to see how the Celtics defend Carmelo Anthony. Over his last five games, Anthony has averaged nearly 33 points per game, and is coming off of a 42-point effort against the Heat in a loss this past Sunday. Paul Pierce will obviously start out on Anthony, and then it'll most likely be Mickael Pietrus from there, and possibly even Sasha Pavlovic for a handful of possessions. Slowing Anthony down, though, will be crucial to Boston's chances of winning on Tuesday night. The Celtics rarely resort to double-teaming opposing players, but if Anthony catches fire early, you never know. Of course, the Celtics could employ the opposite strategy: Let Anthony get his and focus on slowing down everyone else around him. We'll have to wait and see what Boston opts for.
2. It looks like the Knicks and Celtics may have to go through the Bulls in the early rounds of the postseason. Who has the better shot at upsetting the East's top seed?
Zwerling: The Celtics. While the Knicks and Celtics almost cancel each other out with their defense and frontcourt scoring firepower (Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, and Pierce and Garnett, respectively), the major advantage for the Celtics is, again, Rondo. He can create so many problems for the Bulls' defense. The Knicks only have a semi-healthy Baron Davis, and Lin won't be back until maybe the conference semifinals (but that's not definite). Even when Lin does return, he won't be immediately effective, especially playing in his first playoff series. Defenses will eat him alive, like they were doing before he went down on March 26 with a small chronic meniscal tear in his left knee. So with Rondo, a triple-double threat every night, the Celtics have the better shot.
Forsberg: Go look at the Knicks' roster. There's a ton of individual talent there; enough to make even a top seed a bit leery of having to see them in the early rounds. If they could stay healthy and put it all together, New York could be a real upset threat. Alas, it's hard to imagine them putting it together at this point. Despite the Knicks' recent success, it's Boston that has put together a prolonged stretch of quality ball, posting a 21-8 mark since the All-Star break. What's more, the Celtics are holding their own against top competition and it would seem their playoff experience makes them the more likely squad to pull off a postseason upset.
Payne: I'd say the Celtics, mainly because they have better personnel to combat Derrick Rose. You won't stop the reigning league MVP completely, but you can do your best to slow him down and I think between Rondo and Avery Bradley, the C's have the defensive chops needed to do just that. Rondo will get the call from the opening tip and he'll have to use his quickness to stay in front of Rose as best he can -- no small feat considering Rose's superior strength. Bradley might be Boston's best option, though, as he can hound Rose with some full-court pressure, and at the very least, take valuable seconds off of the shot clock and force the Bulls to be a little more rushed with their halfcourt offensive sets.
3. What does the team you cover have to do in the playoffs for this season to be considered a success?
Zwerling: For the Knicks to have any chance at succeeding in the playoffs, they need to keep doing what they're doing on defense, which Miami's Dwyane Wade called "improved" after Sunday's game. That's been their MO since Mike Woodson took over the team on March 14, a span during which they've held opponents to 89.1 points per game -- the third-best mark in the league. That kind of stoppage is exactly what's needed in the playoffs, as games are more physical and low scoring. The Knicks have proven they can battle out on defense and come out on top, as they're 13-5 under Woodson. Offensively, however, Anthony alone won't be able to get his guys out of the first round. He'll need help, and a lot of the onus falls on Stoudemire. If the Knicks had been at full strength for a few weeks -- with Stoudemire and Lin especially -- the Knicks would have been able to develop some chemistry, and have a much better chance of reaching the semifinals. That would be considered a success because last year they got swept by the Celtics in the first round. Unfortunately for the hobbled Knicks, time is just not on their side. Injuries, once again, may have doomed their chances.
Forsberg: When you've been to the mountaintop, you don't settle for anything less than the view from the summit. And, regardless of adversity, the Celtics organization will find no silver linings in anything less than a chance to win a world title. That said, time will likely offer a bit more perspective on this frenzied season. Given all the adversity that Boston has overcome, playing one of the East's top dog like the Heat or Bulls competitively in the second round might be enough for fans to look back and appreciate what the Green accomplished (and maybe someday the team would, too). Behind their second-half surge, the Celtics have been a completely undesirable opponent among the East's top seeds. That might not necessarily translate into anything more than an opening-round triumph, but it's going to be really interesting to see what Boston can do after that. There's something about a team that not only has playoff experience, but the mental resolve the Celtics have displayed this season. If nothing else, they're going to go down swinging and that's maybe all you can ask for.
Payne: It sounds like everyone is expecting the Celtics to meet their demise in the second round against either the Bulls or Heat, so if they make it into the Eastern Conference finals, you'd have to say they exceeded expectations, right? Obviously a championship is the primary goal for any team. But for this Celtics club, considering the unreal injury situation they've battled all season in losing Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox (heart ailments), Jermaine O'Neal (wrist injury) and even Ray Allen for prolonged stretches, making it to the conference finals and flirting with a trip to the NBA Finals should ultimately qualify this season as a success.
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