Melo expects a very physical series

If you want a place to start to evaluate the Knicks-Celtics series, don’t make it their matchup on April 13 -- the last game of the regular season for both teams. Even though the Celtics won, 112-102, they rested their Big Four: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

Start by looking at the average scoring margin in their first three meetings: only 5.3 points. In fact, with just a feather of a timing difference in Amare Stoudemire’s last-second 3-point release on December 15, the Knicks would’ve won, 119-118, instead of losing 118-116.

Their regular season series was so close -- literally -- that when the blue and orange, and white and green collided on the court, it formed the color red -- as in blood. In the Celtics’ 96-86 win on March 21, Allen suffered a head wound that required seven stitches and Carmelo Anthony needed five of them to sew up a cut above his left eye.

That level of intensity is exactly what Melo expects in every game against the Celtics, starting with tomorrow's tip-off at 7 p.m. on TNT. But this time, the Knicks will have to be the ones making the fourth-quarter defensive stops.

“It’s the playoffs; I won’t expect anything less than that,” Anthony said. “Physical play, tough play, every possession, a hard-fought game. We’ve prepared ourselves for that. We looked at a lot of film. We looked at that [March 21] game that we played them here.”

While Melo recognizes the Celtics are the more experienced team, he is not thinking about the underdog label placed on the Knicks by nearly everyone. Even with an injured Shaquille O’Neal, who will sit tomorrow and may miss additional games with a sore right calf and Achilles tendon, Melo says the Cs will keep it competitive.

“They’re still a tough team,” Anthony said. “They played without him most of the season and they’ve been successful at it. I’m pretty sure they planned going without Shaq. But we weren’t thinking about Shaq; we didn’t know what was his prognosis, how long he was going to be out. We aren’t too concerned about that; we are just concerned about the guys that are going to be playing.”

When O’Neal finally does return, Mike D’Antoni, who coached the big fella with the 2007-08 Suns, won’t be a happy camper.

“[When he’s out], there are different things that open up and you have to exploit what they might do differently,” D’Antoni said. “But he’s a big presence in there. I’m not real comfortable with saying, ‘Wow, I wish he was playing.’ Not at all. He’s too good. I hate it for him personally, but it helps us if he doesn’t play, no doubt about it.”

With or without O’Neal, Anthony says the guys really believe they have a chance at stealing Game 1 in Boston -- even taking both games on the road before returning to MSG on Friday, April 22.

“We’re just excited to go out there and get this game going tomorrow,” Anthony said. “I feel good. I feel confident about where this team is at, how far this team has come from day one when I got here until now. We came a long way. I feel very confident about going into Boston.”

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