Opening Tip: Toughest division rival?

Which Atlantic Division foe will be the toughest for the Knicks in the playoffs? Weigh in below. US Presswire

Every weekday throughout the season, ESPNNewYork.com will tackle a burning question about the Knicks in our "Opening Tip" segment.

Today's Burning Question: Who will be the toughest Atlantic Division opponent in the playoffs: the Nets, Celtics or Sixers?

Looking ahead to this week's opponents, the Nets, Celtics and 76ers, Amar'e Stoudemire called it a "big, big, big stretch for us."

"Those are three tough games," he said after Sunday's practice.

With that noted, there's a good chance the Knicks will face once of these three rival teams in the first round of the playoffs. So let's briefly examine the matchups:

None of them have a scorer quite like Carmelo Anthony. What's especially great having him on your side is that he starts and finishes games strong. This season, he's tops in the NBA in first-quarter scoring (9.2 points average) and third in fourth-quarter scoring (7.9).

It goes to show how good of a scorer he is and what good shape he's in. His MVP-like play also emphasizes the significance of the team's veteran "pieces to the puzzle," as Mike Woodson always says, that have helped everyone get easier shots and play harder on defense. In fact, Melo said no other team he's been on compares to this season's Knicks.

"By far," he told reporters in London. "As far as being a complete team from top to bottom, this is the best team I've been a part of."

The Knicks were simply missing perimeter playmakers last season, which showed in last year's first-round series against the Heat, who were able to throw more bodies at Melo, taking him out of his game. The Knicks didn't have enough offensive firepower to balance out the court. Now, that's not the case with the additions of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Chris Copeland and the return of Iman Shumpert. Where they're lacking is with their frontcourt depth defensively.

When it comes to the Nets, Celtics and Sixers, it all starts with their star point guards: Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday. These kinds of players have given the Knicks fits all season. Entering the new year, in terms of points per play allowed, the Knicks ranked 22nd defending the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 21st defending the roll man.

We'll first see on Monday if Shumpert can help rattle the Nets' pick-and-roll featuring Williams, which has facilitated their recent 10-2 stretch. Shumpert could be the most important Knick after Anthony, strictly for his perimeter defense.

The Nets also have depth like the Knicks, but the Knicks' bench is more experienced, anchored by Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith and Stoudemire. Also, whether they play at MSG or Barclays, the Knicks have the homecourt edge.

With the Celtics, you know they'll hang in games no matter what, so consistency, rebounding and matching their physical play will be keys for the Knicks. This could be their toughest matchup. Meanwhile, the Sixers are still without an elite wing scorer, as Evan Turner hasn't yet emerged. On the flip side, the Knicks, Nets and Celtics all have one in Anthony, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce, respectively.

Who do you think will be the toughest Atlantic Division opponent? Leave us your comments below.

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