With the Heat clinching the #2 overall seed in this year’s NBA playoffs, the Knicks are heading towards a first round matchup with the rival Boston Celtics. While this is not Yankees – Sox, the typical New York – Boston atmosphere should be in full effect starting this weekend. However, no matter how hard MSG will try to spin this series like the teams are squaring off like gladiators in some ancient Roman combat, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The Knicks have not earned the right to be put into the same class as the Celtics.
With the Knicks drawing the Celtics in the first round, make no mistake, they will have their hands completely filled. Simply put, the Celtic team is built to win. The team defends. The team plays tough. The team never gives us when they are down. The team does not stop fighting until the final buzzer sounds. Credit Doc Rivers. Credit Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett. Rajon Rondo. Ray Allen. All of them have helped to restore the winning culture and the winning tradition of the great franchise that has championship banners spanning the TD Bank Garden rafters.
But does all of that mean that the Knicks have no shot against them? The answer is no.
Perhaps this is my bias as a Knicks fan speaking, but I will admit in this space that the C’s are a better team than the Knicks. Not only did they have a stronger regular season, but their players have the pedigree on champions. Hard to argue with that. But lately, it has been tough to ignore some of the holes in the Celtics. The Big Four will be the Big Four regardless of who they play. But their team is missing something that pushed them ahead of their opponents in the past – toughness in the paint. Plenty of people wanted the Knicks to face the Heat because they felt as though the matchups were better. Plenty clamored that the Heat have no interior presence. But does a frontline of Jermaine O’Neal, Nenad Kristic, and Glen Davis invoke the same nauseating feeling that a healthy Shaq and Kendrick Perkins would have? Say what you will about the likes of Paul Pierce, Allen, Rondo and Kobe Bryant, but what has really driven the success of both the Lakers and the Celtics in recent seasons has been their respective front lines. With Perkins gone (and we are seeing the impact that he is already having out in OKC) and with Shaq hobbled, am I crazy to think that guys like Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams and Ronny Turiaf can hold their own against the remaining Celtic towers?
If the Knicks can manage to maintain the other Celtic big men not named Kevin Garnett, then all of a sudden there is a different outlook on the series. Sure Kevin Garnett is having himself another outstanding season. But let’s not forget, the Knicks do have Amare Stoudemire who at this point in his career should be able to outplay KG. In their three matchups this season, Amare has poured in averages of 27 ppg and 9 rpg playing heavily against Garnett. If Amare’s ankle is healthy and I have a feeling it will not affect his play once the adrenaline kicks into high gear, I have confidence that he can outplay his counterpart. Again, maybe that is my Knicks bias.
Then of course are the Billups-Allen and the Melo-Pierce matchups. With Billups and Allen, I expect both players to have good series doing the things they do best. The far more intriguing bout is the other one I mentioned. Melo-Pierce will be an epic battle between two small forwards that have knacks for hitting big time shots in big time situations. At this point in his career, Melo is the more prolific offensive player, but Pierce can put a dagger into the opposition unlike anyone in the league. That said, Melo is playing as well as anyone in the league right now. There is a reason why his trade chatter dominated the NBA press from September through February. He is that good and I expect him to prove it come playoff time. To take words from ESPN’s Tim Leger, Melo has been the best closer in the game of late (hat tip to Tom Gaudio on the reference). Let’s hope that remains the case.
The “X” Factor then becomes the Knicks’ game plan against Rajon Rondo. I wrote above that the Celtics are a better team than the Knicks and a big reason for that is #9 in the Green and White. Rondo plays a brand of basketball that spells out the recipe for success against the Knicks. His quickness and ability to penetrate the lane can sink the Knicks if they cannot figure out a way to contain him. Look at Rondo’s obscene three game average of 16 apg against the Knicks as proof of his ability to be New York’s kryptonite.
At this point in his career, all Billups can try to do to slow down Rondo is to bully him with his size and strength. However, Rondo is as tough as nails and will not allow Billups to do that. Both Anthony Carter and Toney Douglas should see time against the speedy PG during the series with Douglas seeing a lot of action in that spot. To me that makes sense, but I do not think that Douglas will be able to consistently contain Rondo. Douglas is quick. Rondo is quicker. Enough said.
Instead, I have a feeling that D’Antoni will revert to a strategy that he employed last season against Rondo. To me, this was one of his more ingenious coaching decisions of his Knick tenure. Do not be surprised to see Jared Jeffries see action defending Rondo. The book on Rondo is that the only way to truly contain him is to keep him out of the paint. Once he is able to penetrate, he is able to break down the interior defensive front and either put in the layup or dish for an easy look for a teammate. Last season, Jeffries was brilliant with his spacing against Rondo, keeping him out of the lane and forcing him to make plays from the perimeter. Without a consistent jump shot, Rondo’s play diminishes when he cannot get into the paint on a consistent basis. Now I’d be crazy to think that the Knicks can keep him out of the paint throughout the playoffs, especially with their putrid defense against high screens, but if they can simply do it half the time, the series can take on a drastically different look.
All in all, the Knicks’ stars will have to step up and play at the level we all know they can play at. As in any series, the role / bench players will have an impact. it is up to the Knicks’ crop of role players to hold their own against the likes of Jeff Green (who has not looked comfortable with the C’s aside from his breakout performance tonight), Glen Davis, Kristic, Delonte West, etc. If they can do that and put the series into the hands of the stars, we as Knicks fans have to hope that Melo and Amare can be dominant even against HOF opponents in Paul Pierce and KG.
It should be a fun series. At this point, you have to give the Celtics the edge, even with their recent struggles. But the Knicks have a shot to not only make this a series, but to even take the series. Take one in Boston and come home to a ravenous home crowd that has foamed at the mouth for meaningful playoff hoops for over a decade.
Let’s get it!
Let’s go Knicks!