When the Celtics and Knicks meet Thursday night at TD Garden, most eyes will be locked on Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony after their on-court trash talk -- and postgame bus-side confrontation -- highlighted Boston's win in New York earlier this month.
Although it has been only two and a half weeks since Boston's 102-96 triumph in New York, it probably feels like a lifetime ago for the Celtics. Boston's roller-coaster season peaked that night at Madison Square Garden, the gritty victory becoming the centerpiece of a season-best six-game win streak. But the Celtics (20-21) soon plunged back down and have dropped four straight to fall a game under .500 at the midpoint of the 2012-13 regular season.
If Anthony is on Garnett's mind, it should be for no other reason than Boston must absolutely find a way once again to bottle up and frustrate New York's star forward. With the Celtics desperate to get their season back on track, Garnett cannot get caught up in any sort of individual drama.
Tempers flared and trash talk flowed during the Jan. 7 meeting in New York. An enraged Anthony pursued Garnett after the game, culminating with a confrontation near the Boston bus that led to a one-game suspension for Anthony.
The incident took on a life of its own when a rumor spread that Garnett used a cereal-themed insult directed at Anthony's wife as part of the in-game trash talk. Garnett and the Celtics staunchly denied the allegation and, after both Garnett and Anthony were voted All-Star starters for the Eastern Conference frontcourt last week, Garnett -- largely mum on the incident -- suggested there would be no lingering fallout.
For his part, Anthony noted after the Knicks' practice on Wednesday that "it's no bad blood, no grudges between us [or] anything like that. I don't hold no grudges or have any bad blood toward [Garnett]."
That doesn't mean things won't get feisty again Thursday; that's pretty much par for the course when the Celtics and Knicks meet lately. But Boston simply isn't playing well enough for any of its players to be sucked into extracurriculars.
Anthony should brace himself for a hostile environment. He'll hear plenty of unkind chatter from Boston fans reminding Anthony how he lost his cool earlier this month.
But the Knicks have lost four of their last six and hold a mere half-game lead over surging Brooklyn atop the Atlantic Division (though New York is still a comfortable six games ahead of Boston). That should keep both sides focused on the task at hand Thursday.
"We want to win," Anthony said. "Do we owe them? Yes, they came [to New York] and beat us. We want to go there and return the favor on their court."
After the Celtics dropped a 103-88 decision in Detroit on Sunday, coach Doc Rivers threatened a possible roster overhaul if his team didn't start playing a more consistent and inspired brand of basketball. Boston responded by watching Kyrie Irving erupt for 40 points in a 95-90 loss to the woeful Cavaliers on Tuesday.
That's not the response Rivers was looking for.
Thursday kicks off a monster stretch for Boston that will feature three East playoff opponents over a four-day span, including a grueling back-to-back Friday in Atlanta and a visit from the conference-leading Heat for a Sunday matinee.
The Celtics typically play up to the level of their competition, but it's particularly imperative for them to do so during this stretch -- one that could define the activity level for president of basketball operations Danny Ainge at next month's trade deadline.
Boston has been an inconsistent mess lately, but it's not hard to pinpoint the main trouble: offense.
Over the past four games, the Celtics have shot a mere 41.3 percent from the floor and 28.1 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. After a strong start to the new season, Boston's offense has regressed to familiar levels of feebleness. The Celtics are averaging a mere 90.8 points per 100 possessions over their last four games, nearly 10 points below their season average.
Dig deeper and the offensive numbers are even more concerning. Boston is averaging a mere 0.816 points per play over the last four games, and that number plunges to 0.753 points per play in half-court sets, according to Synergy Sports data. By means of comparison, the Washington Wizards are 30th in the NBA averaging 0.859 points per play for the season, including a league-worst 0.829 points per play in half-court sets.
Boston's offensive numbers aren't just bad, they are frighteningly anemic.
The Celtics will need more offense against a Knicks team that is fourth in the league at 0.976 points per play (and that number dips to only 0.954 points per play in half-court sets). New York isn't afraid to launch 3-pointers in bulk and will put points on the scoreboard.
Containing the Knicks is imperative, otherwise Anthony & Co. will be able to laugh off the trash talk if they escape TD Garden with a win.
Information from ESPN New York's Ian Begley was used in this report.