Posted Dec 25 2011 5:57PM - Updated Dec 26 2011 6:45AM
NEW YORK -- There are many reasons to dismiss the first game of the NBA season between the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks.
Primarily, it was the first game of the season, and there are 65 more to go. It came after a brief training camp that included only two preseason games, and it took place at noon, seven hours earlier than when players are used to lacing them up. Finally, the Celtics were missing Paul Pierce, who is dealing with a bone bruise on his right heel.
What can't be dismissed is the threat that the Knicks pose to the Celtics and their four-year stranglehold on the Atlantic Division crown. Boston has won its division by an average of 15 games since acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007, but they've never had a divisional opponent as talented the one they faced on Sunday.
The top-line talent in New York now goes three deep, with Tyson Chandler joining Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire to form the best frontline in basketball and give the Knicks a defensive presence.
Defense is the reason the Knicks acquired Chandler. And they had their defensive moments his first game.
The center, who blocked six shots in 37 minutes, was able to stymie a few of Rajon Rondo's many drives down the middle of the lane. Early in the second quarter, a sequence of defensive aggressiveness on the perimeter fueled an 11-3 Knicks run. And on a key possession midway through the fourth, Chandler and Anthony combined to stop three Boston attempts at the rim, forcing a 24-second violation that kept the Knicks within striking distance.
But signs of improved defense were few and far between. Yes, it was aggressive at times, but the Celtics were often able to counter that with ball movement, exposing a weak-side that was just that ... weak.
In reality, this victory was more about the potency of the Knicks offense (which scored 106 points on 92 possessions) than it was about their improved defense (which Rondo chewed up for most of the game, scoring 31 points and dishing out 13 assists).
While Chandler helps the Knicks defensively, they have the ability to be just as improved offensively. Anthony and Stoudemire, two of the best scorers in the NBA, played together in only 24 regular-season games together last season and never got a chance to develop much chemistry.
Chemistry wasn't all that apparent on Sunday, but Boston -- the league's best defensive team over the last four seasons -- was still only able to defend New York for one quarter, holding the Knicks to just 17 points on 25 possessions in the third. That obviously wasn't enough.
Anthony ran wild on the Celtics' defense, scoring 37 points in less than 34 minutes. He did a lot of his work from the perimeter, but also got to the line 15 times. The Celtics were a step slow all afternoon, and Anthony took advantage. Afterward, Doc Rivers shouldered the blame.
"I made a game-planning mistake," Rivers said. "We didn't get the ball out of Carmelo's hands and I thought we probably should have. We should have went and got him."
Forcing other guys to make plays would have helped, because beyond Anthony's 37 and Stoudemire's efficient 21 points, the Knicks were pretty shallow offensively. And that's the story with both of these top-heavy teams.
For both, depth will be an issue this season. The downside of a star-laden starting lineup is a scrub-laden bench. Both the Celtics and Knicks are already dealing with injuries (Iman Shumpert and Jared Jeffries were each lost for multiple games with injuries on Sunday) and are in danger of suffering huge drop-offs when their stars rest. The condensed schedule will clearly demand more minutes from players 8-12 on the roster, meaning the division winner will likely be the team that proves to be deepest.
Still, this opening-day thriller will be an afterthought come April.
"At the end of the day, it's about being ready for the run in the playoffs," Rivers said before the game.
But these first 48 minutes at Madison Square Garden did give us a taste of the Knicks' ability to challenge the Celtics for a top spot in the Eastern Conference. Chandler will help them get stops, but their offense will still carry them -- even against the vaunted Celtics defense.
"It's going to be a rivalry now," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "They are not going to back down and we are not going to back down.
"We want to get to their level, and we think we can get there."
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