- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The New York Knicks have two of the top six scorers in the NBA. They score a ton of points, shoot a ton of 3-pointers, pay little heed to the concept of defense and are in the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Madison Square Garden is once again a happenin' place (at least it is until the current season-ticket holders recover from sticker shock for the price to renew for next season). The estimable Chauncey Billups pronounced the Knicks as "dangerous." They certainly appear to be your basic "tough out."
But outside of Spike Lee and The Donald, is there anyone who thinks the Knicks have enough to upset the Boston Celtics in the first round? The 10 experts of ESPN.com all picked the Celtics to prevail. The wiseguys in Las Vegas like the Celtics.
"I feel good that our team will be ready,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after the regular-season finale Wednesday.
They'd better be.
Here are some things to look for once the ball is tossed up Sunday night:
These two teams made the two biggest deals at the trading deadline. The Knicks basically gave up half their team (including three starters) to get Carmelo Anthony and Billups from Denver. The Celtics unloaded Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, and then added three veteran free agents who they hoped would help them down the stretch. Neither team exactly took off after the deals. The Knicks finished the season 14-14 after pulling the trigger and, perhaps more revealing, were an underwhelming 8-10 in the 18 games that Anthony, Billups and Amare Stoudemire played in together. The Celtics were 16-12 after making their big trade and were just 10-10 in their last 20 games. The expectation in Boston after making the deal was that Shaquille O'Neal would not require two months to recover from an Achilles' injury, nor that he would re-injure himself in his one and only appearance since the trade. But all that did happen. None of the released-and-signed veterans (Troy Murphy, Carlos Arroyo, Sasha Pavlovic) have helped much either for the Celtics. Murphy was supposed to be the marquee addition, but he has done nothing to suggest he once was a 14-10 guy.
While Celtic Nation has been consumed with Shaq's return to action, it may turn out to be a non-story. (Or, if Shaq comes up lame again, a non-starter.) This is not going to be a series dominated by big men. The Knicks don't even have a legitimate center, although Stoudemire and Ronny Turiaf masquerade as them for lineup purposes. New York is going to go small in this series, using Stoudemire as the titular center. That will make Shaq very dispensable and probably portends to a big role for Green, as Kevin Garnett will have to deal with Stoudemire. Look for the longish Green to also help out on Stoudemire, as they know each other from their days in the Western Conference. Celtics fans may come to appreciate the trade for Green in this series. The Celtics will use their big men (both O'Neals and possibly Krstic as well) but it may turn out to be counter-productive. Rivers doesn't mind going small; he had success with that when the team won the NBA title in 2008. So, basically, if Shaq needs more time, give it to him. This does not appear to be a series where the centers are going to be much of a factor.
Here's a very interesting stat. Anthony has taken just about the same number of 3-pointers this season as a Knick (125) as he did as a Nugget (126.) And he played in 23 more games as a Nugget! He also has made more 3s in 27 games as a Knick (53) than he did in 50 games as a Nugget (42.) The Knicks love to shoot the 3, averaging more than 25 of them a game. Only Orlando shoots and makes more 3-pointers. The Knicks also convert almost 37 percent of their 3s, which is good for eighth in the NBA. But here's the rub. The Celtics are the fifth-best team in the league defending the 3-point shot, allowing only 34 percent. Boston didn't let Orlando beat them with the 3 last year in the conference finals, mainly because Rivers refused to double-team Dwight Howard. The Knicks have Stoudemire as their inside guy, but don't expect the Celtics to double-team him, either. If the Knicks are going to launch 3s with their customary abandon, a lot of them are probably going to have to come in transition. "Defending the Arc" will be high on Rivers' to-do list for this series.
Mr. Big shot
While Anthony drew all the attention in the big trade with Denver, the Knicks also got a bonus in the deal with Billups. (My guess is that George Karl misses Billups a lot more than Melo.) He gives the Knicks a solid, veteran presence at a critical position. He can make 3s. He makes almost all of his free throws. He presents an interesting matchup for the Celtics in general and Rajon Rondo in particular. "Tough matchup for both,'' Rivers said. "Listen, Chauncey's a monster; he's big, he's strong. And he's a veteran. He's been through a lot of playoffs. And that's going to make him very, very good." Billups is the only Knick with a championship ring (from the 2004 Pistons). He has some knowledge of the Celtics from his days with the Pistons. And he's exactly who you'd want to run a team that is new to the playoffs: calm, cool, cerebral.
There's no 'I' in defense
If we go by the axiom that defense wins in the playoffs, we dismiss those really good Suns teams (coached by Mike D'Antoni) that got to the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006. But they went no farther. The Celtics have been to the NBA Finals twice in the last three years. The Knicks score points; only Denver scores more per game. The Celtics prevent points; no one allows fewer per game than Doc Rivers' lads. The Celtics also are second in the NBA (behind Chicago) in defensive field goal percentage and, as mentioned above, fifth in 3-point shooting defense. The Knicks? They allow more points per game than any other team in the playoffs. They have the worst defensive field goal percentage of any team in the playoffs. While the Knicks' style makes for entertaining basketball, it doesn't necessarily translate to winning basketball. The Knicks are going up against one of the best defensive teams in the league. When in doubt, go with the team that can make stops.
After making the big trade with Denver, the Knicks' roster underwent a dramatic reconfiguration to the point that backup guard Toney Douglas, who is in his second season with the team, is now, astonishingly, the longest tenured Knick. ... While the Knicks gained a lot of playoff experience with the arrivals of Billups and Anthony, only Sir Chauncey has any legit experience. Anthony's Denver teams were one-and-done every year but one, when they got to the conference finals against the Lakers. ... The Celtics will have to control the ball. New York is third in the league in points off turnovers. ... The Knicks were 18-22 against teams with winning records. That includes, of course, 0-4 against the Celtics.
I'm not thrilled with the way the Celtics finished the season, but I also understand the difficulty of working in all the new players while waiting -- foolishly as it turned out -- for Shaquille O'Neal to return. But with three days of practice and the home-court advantage, it's hard not to like the Celtics in this series. Like last year, it would behoove them to take care of business as quickly as possible. Like five games.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.