The last time the Celtics came to the Garden, on Jan. 7, the Knicks struggled a bit against the physical play and keeping their emotions in check. Of course, we all know what happened during the game and afterward when Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett had words for each other on and off the court.
But recently, during their seven-game winning streak -- the longest one in the NBA -- the Knicks have not only been more aggressive defensively, but also the players have said they feel looser playing and are having more fun together. Their emotions now are coming from more intangible plays, such as putback dunks and fast-break points from making stops.
Entering Sunday night, things are also looking up for the Knicks because the Celtics have the worst road record (13-23) for any team currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Here are three main things to watch for, starting at 7:30 p.m.:
1. 30 again? Where else to start but with J.R. Smith, who's coming off three straight 30-plus point performances off the bench, which hadn't been done since March 1990 (Ricky Pierce). Smith has shot 25-for-35 in the paint during the stretch, which all started in a win over the Celtics last Tuesday, when he scored 32 points. After the game, Jason Kidd said, "Offensively, he's off the charts."
Who was the last player to continue what Smith is doing to four games? Pierce as well. Since 1970-71, when starting lineups were recorded, only Pierce has had four consecutive games of 30 points or more off the bench. Pierce is the only player in NBA history who ever got to four.
2. A hot start again? Iman Shumpert is on his own streak: two straight games of sizzling first quarters. He scored 13 points on Wednesday against the Grizzlies, and then eight points on Friday against the Bobcats. He's also collected steals, assists and rebounds, helping the Knicks control the tempo early on, score in transition and take commanding leads.
3. A more efficient Melo? In his past three games, the Knicks' star is only shooting 37.2 percent from the field (29-for-78) and 3-for-13 from 3-point range. Part of the reason for the slump is because he and the team are still adjusting offensively with Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined.
While the ball is moving better on the perimeter, Anthony is still finding his shots more in isolation and out of the low post with extra pressure coming at him. Defenses have been trying to take advantage of the Knicks' smaller frontline, which has helped Shumpert recently get open looks from downtown.
Health appears to be on Anthony's side as he's been looking quick and athletic with his turnaround jumper, getting great lift on his shot, but his teammates need to make it easier on him. Chandler's absence offensively has been more noticeable. Still, even with Anthony's recent shooting struggles, Mike Woodson isn't concerned.
"I thought Melo's offense was fine," he said after the Bobcats game. "His all-around game was fine. He had 11 rebounds, he went to the free throw line, he had a few assists. I'm pleased with the way Melo's playing. He had a few bunnies that went all the way down and came out that he normally makes."
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