Resilient Celtics Look to Overcome Star-Powered Knicks
The Boston Celtics have overcome adversity this year to find themselves in the NBA postseason for the sixth consecutive season. The Celtics lost their All-Star point guard, Rajon Rondo, to a season-ending torn right ACL in a January 25th double overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Rookie forward Jared Sullinger was forced to undergo surgery on his back in February that ended his season. Reserve guard Leandro Barbosa suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the third quarter of the 94-91 loss against the Charlotte Bobcats on February 11th. In a matter 17 days, the Celtics lost three key players in their rotation.
This season has been split into the team with Rondo and the team without Rondo. Prior to Rondo’s injury, the Celtics were 20-23 and they had lost six consecutive games. Then the team improved their play and appeared to rally around people calling for their demise. They won their next seven contests, including a 100-98 overtime victory over the top team in the NBA, the Miami Heat, and were 14-4 in their initial 18 games without their floor leader. The team played well defensively and they spread the ball around. Jeff Green became the player that Danny Ainge hoped he was getting when he sent Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011. Green was more aggressive on the offensive end and his speed and length provided fits for the opposition. At one point the team was down to nine active players because of all the injuries. Ainge traded Jason Collins to the Washington Wizards for Jordan Crawford before the trade deadline ended on February 21st. He signed TerrPence Williams, Shavlik Randolph, and D.J. White. All three of these players came from the Chinese Basketball Association and had been unable to stick with a team in the NBA.
The Celtics are still led by their aging stars in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. In 77 games, Pierce led the team with 18.6 points per game. Garnett is the defensive and emotional leader on the floor. The team took Garnett off the floor in 10 of their last 13 games in the regular season because of inflammation of his left ankle. This year’s team has more balance with four active players who average double figures in scoring. There are four other players who are scoring 7.8 points or more per game.
Despite all of this adversity, the Celtics clinched the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. They will have to take on the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the tipoff at 3 P.M in New York. The Knicks beat the Celtics three out of four games this year, but in two of those games the Celtics were without Garnett in the lineup. These Knicks are different than the past few years. They have shown more commitment on the defensive end. Their center, Tyson Chandler, is one of the best interior defenders in the league. Chandler has been dealing with a bulging disk in his neck that forced him to miss the final six games of the season, but he has declared himself ready to play. The Knicks are already without Amar’e Stoudemire (knee surgery) and starting guard Pablo Prigioni (sprained ankle). Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring with 28.7 points. They might have the Sixth Man of the Year in J.R. Smith. Smith is the second leading scorer on the Knicks.
Here are three of the biggest keys in this series:
- Perimeter shooting – The Knicks have a load of shooters on their team. Anthony, Smith, Raymond Felton, and Jason Kidd (even though he is more of a spot-up shooter at this point in his career) can all shoot off the dribble from beyond the arc. Steve Novak is one of the best spot-up shooters in the league. The Knicks can drive and kick the ball out to open shooters or they will get the defense on its heels with their ball movement around the perimeter. They topped the league in 3-point attempts (2371) and 3-pointers made (891). Overall, the Knicks shot 37.6%. Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee’s perimeter defense will be needed to stop the Knicks from scoring at will on the outside. They must force the Knicks off the three-point line. Bradley must adjust to how the officials call the game because his on-ball pressure is too important to be sitting on the bench. The Knicks have several guards who can score. Meanwhile Jason Terry struggled with his shooting down the stretch and Bradley had a late-season slump on three-pointers. The Celtics don’t throw up many treys as they are among the lowest in the NBA in both attempts and shots made from beyond the three-point line. When the Celtics do have opportunities to shoot from the perimeter, they must perform this task with efficiency. The Celtics have more players who will drive to the basket in the half-court offense in Pierce, Green, and Garnett. Their guards like Bradley and Lee will cut to the basket if the defense falls asleep.
- Like Allen Iverson, make Anthony work for his points – In the late 1990’s and early part of last decade, Iverson was one of the perennial scorers in the league. Teams liked to force Iverson to work for his points. The Celtics must do the same with Anthony. There will be as many as three defenders (Brandon Bass, Green, and Pierce) as well as an assortment of double teams. When Terry is on the floor, Doc Rivers will mix in zone defense to mask Terry’s defensive weakness. In the first meeting on January 7th between these squads, Anthony scored 20 points, but he shot 6-of-26 from the floor. Anthony was rattled by Garnett’s trash-talking on the floor. Both received technical fouls and after the Celtics’ 102-96 win at Madison Square Garden, Anthony confronted Garnett to continue the verbal altercation before Garnett boarded the team bus. Anthony may have learned from this incident. He has been a star in the league since he was drafted third overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2003 Draft. This will be Anthony’s 10th appearance in the postseason and his teams have only advanced beyond the first round on one occasion when the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2008-’09 when they were eliminated by the Los Angeles Lakers. In his year and a half with the Knicks, the Knicks were defeated by the Celtics in 2011 and the Heat in 2012. Anthony was on a hot stretch to conclude the season, but can he lead this team on a deep playoff run?
- Second-chance points – The Knicks scored 29 second-chance points in their 100-85 victory over the Celtics on the road on March 26th. Chandler, Kenyon Martin, Anthony, and Iman Shumpert are all capable rebounders. In fact, Anthony and Smith were getting third chances at the glass. Felton and Shumpert were beating Bass and Green to loose balls on the boards in that game. This game was significant because Rivers scrapped his small lineup and inserted Chris Wilcox into the starting lineup since Garnett was out with inflammation in his ankle. Rivers likes using the lineup of Garnett, Bass, Green, Pierce, and Bradley. The only issue is this lineup could be susceptible to small, quick guards like Smith. The Knicks hold home-court advantage and they cannot allow the New Yorkers to get loud by the Knicks getting hustle points. When this team gets the rebound if they don’t have the shot inside, they can kick the ball out to an open shooter on the perimeter if the defense collapses.
Prediction: Knicks in 7. The Celtics, like their fans, will show resiliency and go toe-to-toe with the Knicks. This year the Knicks have home-court advantage. They have the best player on the floor, and they have been hot. When a team has its home crowd and one of the best players, it is hard to overcome that in Game 7’s. This series could go either way, but favors the Knicks since the Celtics have so many injuries and lack depth.