Game Preview: Knicks at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The very first game of the 2011-12 NBA season resulted in a Christmas Day loss for the Boston Celtics (11-10) at the hands of the New York Knicks (8-14). Boston will have its first opportunity to avenge that loss when the two teams meet again at 8 p.m. tonight in TD Garden.

New York was impressive in these teams’ first meeting of the season, winning 106-104 at home and leading by as many as 17 points. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks’ scoring barrage with a season-high 37 points in that contest.

Since that game concluded, the Celtics and Knicks have been drifting slowly in opposite directions. That drifting has picked up the pace over the past few weeks.

Boston has turned its season around and is now performing like the dominant force it expected to be when the season opened. It has won six of its last seven games and seven of its last nine overall. Opponents are scoring an average of just 79.3 PPG against the Celtics over their past nine games.

While Boston has been making its way up the ladder, New York has almost fallen off. The Knicks have been terrible for more than three weeks now, having dropped 12 of their last 14 games. The only wins during that time frame came against cellar dwellers Charlotte and Detroit, which have combined to win just seven games this season.

They keys to these teams’ opposite trends are their starting small forwards, Paul Pierce and Anthony.

Pierce missed the entire preseason and the first two games of the regular season, including Boston’s Christmas Day loss, due to an injured heel. He returned to the lineup on Dec. 30 but simply was not himself for his first two weeks of action. Since then, though, he has been fantastic and has been the leader of his team’s resurgence.

Meanwhile, Anthony has been trending in the opposite direction. Anthony, who will start at small forward for the East in the All-Star game, is in the midst of the worst season of his NBA career. He is putting up 23.8 PPG, but those might be the most inefficient 23.8 PPG in NBA history.

Anthony has been terrible shooting the basketball this season and is shooting a career-low 40.3 percent from the field. He is also committing 3.26 turnovers per game, a number he has surpassed just twice in his previous eight seasons.

As recently as last night, Anthony put up a solid 26 points against Chicago, but they came via an ugly 10-of-26 shooting performance that was coupled with four turnovers. Anthony has been nagged by injuries throughout the season and they have turned him into a very inefficient player.

The make-up of these two teams, led by their All-Star small forwards, will always make them a formidable opponent on any night of the season. However, at this moment in time Pierce and the Celtics are the ones striking fear in their opponents’ eyes.

There was no fear in the Knicks’ eyes on Opening Day, but they sure might show some fear tonight. Boston is rolling and may play at 100 percent health tonight for the first time in weeks. That’s positive news for the streaking Celtics, but not so great news for a reeling New York squad.

Rondo’s Possible Return

As referred to above, the Celtics will return to full health tonight if Rajon Rondo becomes available for the first time in more than two weeks. He sprained his right wrist on Jan. 18 and has been out of the lineup ever since.

Doc Rivers has been teasing us since then with comments along the lines of “maybe tomorrow” and “possibly the next game” regarding Rondo’s return. The tone of those comments has become much more serious over the past few days, with Rivers indicating that Rondo would likely return to the lineup tonight against the Knicks.

If Rondo does play for the first time since Jan. 18, questions will be abound. How will this Celtics team, which has turned its season around without the services of Rondo, perform on the court with him? How will the Knicks, who are depleted at point guard and were lit up by Derrick Rose last night, slow down Rondo?

We might find the answers to those questions and many more when the ball is tossed up at 8 p.m.

Ripe for the Picking

There is one thing, outside of injuries, that a coach doesn’t want to witness when his team is saddled with a challenging back-to-back. He does not want to see his team fall behind early in the front end of that back-to-back, only to surge back in the second half, make it a game but eventually wind up losing in the final seconds of the contest.

That’s exactly what happened to the Knicks last night in New York when they trailed by as many as 13 points to the Chicago Bulls before fighting back and missing a 3-pointer in the final seconds that would have sent the game to overtime.

As a result of that contest, the Knicks will not be playing with a full tank of gas tonight. Each of New York’s five starters logged at least 36:24 of playing time and they relied on Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, who combined to take 53 shots and score 60 points, to carry them.

That’s a difficult way to open up a back-to-back, and probably the last thing Mike D’Antoni would have liked to have witnessed the night before taking on a streaking Celtics team.

Dominate Their Bench

The reason D’Antoni had to rely on his starters so much is because his bench was nonexistent. One of the issues with having three max or near-max players on your roster is that you can’t bring in solid players to come off of the bench, and the Knicks are living with that predicament right now.

New York’s reserves combined for six points, seven rebounds and three assists last night against the Bulls. Only four reserves made it into the game, and the most any of them played was the 15:09 of playing time Toney Douglas received.

Those numbers will tell you two things: First, D’Antoni doesn’t trust his bench; Second: D’Antoni’s bench is relatively incompetent. Boston’s second unit, which is led by the likes of Mickael Pietrus and Brandon Bass, should have a field day tonight.