Celtics-Knicks has plenty of intrigue

The Boston Celtics visit the New York Knicks on Monday night at Madison Square Garden for a game that could answer some lingering questions.

Are the Knicks for real? Has Boston's defense turned the corner with the return of Avery Bradley? Which team is better positioned for the postseason?

Here's what we know so far: The Knicks boast the second-best record in the Eastern Conference (essentially tied with the defending champion Heat) with a 23-10 mark. And New York already has quality wins in both conferences against the likes of Miami (twice) and San Antonio (twice) and owns a seven-game cushion over Boston in the division (an overtime loss to Brooklyn is the Knicks' only Atlantic blemish).

The Celtics have owned the Atlantic Division so long now they've practically paid off their mortgage on it. But for the first time in a while, there's legit competition (despite Brooklyn and Philadelphia's own inconsistencies, Boston is a mere 3-4 in the division this season). When asked about the increased competition in the division this season, Celtics coach Doc Rivers likes to joke that he was just fine with the way it was taking advantage of a bunch of doormats.

The Celtics have seen what the Knicks have accomplished thus far, but Boston likely needs to see this Broadway show in person to believe the hype. We've heard this sort of buzz about the Knicks in the past and Boston has emerged from MSG with inspiring wins that have culminated with midcourt bows from Paul Pierce (and Nate Robinson falling on his head).

Fortunately for the Celtics, this matchup comes as they are playing their best basketball of the season. Despite a 14-17 start, Boston has put together perhaps its two finest defensive efforts during wins over the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, a pair of likely Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The return of Bradley this month has given Boston's defense a much-needed jolt. The question for the Celtics is whether the past two games are an indication that they have found their missing defensive identity.

The Knicks and their ultra-efficient offense should provide a fairly definitive answer. New York ranks fourth in the league by averaging 0.989 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. What's more, the Knicks are second overall in half-court offense, experiencing little drop-off in production (0.965 points per play).

New York is thriving in large part because of Carmelo Anthony's exploits. He accounts for a whopping 21.3 percent of the Knicks' total offensive plays, but is averaging 1.089 points per play, while shooting a ridiculous 47.7 percent from the floor (including a career-best 43.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc). Melo is third in the league in player efficiency rating (PER) at 26.7 and essentially is doing superstar-like things.

The daunting part for Boston is that Melo has a supporting cast that is taking advantage of all the open looks he's helping to generate.

Four of New York's top six offensive options rank in the 93rd percentile or better in terms of points per play, including Tyson Chandler (100th), Jason Kidd (93rd) and Steve Novak (99th). In fact, if you set a 200-play minimum, Chandler and Novak are Nos. 1-2 in terms of points per play, while Anthony is eighth and Kidd is 15th. By comparison, Boston's first player on that list doesn't appear until Jason Terry at 36th.

The Knicks generate a whopping 33.2 percent of their points off 3-pointers (easily tops in the league) and rank last in the league in points in the paint (and percent of 2-point field goals generated overall). The question is whether New York can live and die by the 3-pointer moving forward, but nothing has deterred it through the first 40 percent of the season (even as its defense has regressed from last season's level).

After locking down the likes of Memphis, Indiana and Atlanta last week -- admittedly only the Hawks can lay claim to being an above-average offense -- the Celtics will get a true test of their Bradley-infused defense. Can Boston maintain its strong numbers against a group with so many weapons and, after struggling at times this season, can the Celtics defend the 3-point line against New York?

Boston hopes to emerge from Monday's game with more answers than questions. The up-and-down Celtics can match their season-long winning streak (three games) with a victory. Which might answer their most pressing question of all: After inconsistent play through the first 30 games, is Boston finally finding its identity and playing the brand of basketball it expected to when the roster was put together this summer?