Game Preview: Celtics at Knicks

BOSTON – When the New York Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony in late February, it not only put New York basketball back on the map, it also brought life to the Atlantic Division. The duo of Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire is the first combination of stars to join forces in the division since the Boston Celtics’ Big Three came together in the summer of 2007.

Since those league-shaking acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston has been the king of the Atlantic and won every divisional crowd with ease. The Celtics (49-19) will get their first taste of the new-look Knicks (35-34), who are looking to eventually change that trend, at 7:30 p.m. tonight in New York.

Let’s not forget, though, that the Knicks aren’t the only team that has a new look. Boston also reshaped its roster at the trade deadline, but neither the Celtics nor the Knicks have seen the immediate results that they expected from their roster overhauls.

Boston is 8-5 since the deadline but has not won consecutive games since March 4 and 6. It was blown out by the Rockets on Friday night in Houston and then fell behind by as many as 15 points to the Hornets on Saturday in New Orleans. The team eventually stormed back for the win in the second half thanks to great bench play, but experiencing double-digit deficits in two consecutive games certainly wasn’t encouraging.

The Knicks’ play hasn’t been encouraging either. They have grabbed signature wins since the Anthony trade against playoff-destined opponents such as the Heat, Hornets, Hawks and Grizzlies, but the team is just 7-8 overall since Melo’s debut. New York has lost five of its last six games, including a 100-95 defeat to the Bucks last night in Milwaukee.

Neither team is playing great basketball at the moment, but that doesn’t take away the luster of tonight’s matchup. These are two teams headed for the playoffs, they’ve played two nail biters already this season, and they could easily be on track for a head-on collision in the first round.

The Celtics have grabbed wins in both meetings between these two teams this season, but the average margin of victory in those contests is just 3.0 PPG. Boston won 105-101 back on Oct. 29 in the TD Garden and then used a buzzer-beater from Paul Pierce on Dec. 15 to knock off the Knicks, 118-116, in New York.

Both teams have changed dramatically since those contests, but the two constants from those games are likely to remain: each team can put up a ton of points against each other, and Pierce and Stoudemire love this rivalry.

Neither team failed to break the century mark in scoring during either of those contests, and Pierce and Stoudemire were the main reasons why. Each of those players led their team in scoring in both games, with Pierce averaging 28.5 PPG and Stoudemire putting up 33.0 PPG. They also attacked the glass consistently, with Pierce pulling in 12.0 RPG and Stoudemire averaging 9.0 RPG.

Interestingly enough, both of those players will likely be facing new defenders tonight.

The Knicks’ starting lineup has been inconsistent in terms of who fills the fifth spot alongside Stoudemire, Anthony, Landry Fields and Chauncey Billups, but one way or another there will not be a typical center starting in that open spot. This means that Stoudemire is usually their biggest player, which leads to Boston’s center being forced to defend him. Tonight, that will probably be Nenad Krstic instead of Shaquille O’Neal.

As for Pierce, he will likely be facing off against Anthony, one of the league’s most difficult covers. Doc Rivers said back in December, when Anthony was in town with the Denver Nuggets, that it’s not just Anthony’s scoring ability that makes him difficult to defend. Rivers noted that Anthony’s size is deceptive, and that he’s a very large body for Pierce to bang around with for an entire game. Still, though, Anthony’s defensive abilities have been questioned throughout his career, so Pierce shouldn’t have too much trouble getting his shots off tonight.

The question is, will he make them?

Pierce, like many of his teammates of late, has been in a scoring rut and has scored more than 14 points in only one of his past six games. Two of those games have featured single-digit scoring performances, and his shooting percentage during that span is just 34.6 percent. Taking on a subpar defender in Anthony, and a subpar defensive team overall in the Knicks, might be just what the doctor ordered for Pierce to help him get out of this scoring drought.

This game may also be what each team needs to get out of its respective winning drought. Madison Square Garden is sure to be overflowing with energy tonight and that will surely amp up each team prior to tip off. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ll be getting their first taste of a star-studded Atlantic Division game for the first time in years.

Scheduled Loss?

Rivers coined a new phrase just over a week ago when he claimed that Milwaukee’s record-setting loss to the Celtics, in which it scored just 56 points in the game, was essentially chalked up before the teams even took the court.

“I really thought this was one of those scheduled losses for Milwaukee,” said Rivers. “I just thought this was very similar to the game we had against Phoenix where you play a game and you lose an hour going backwards.”

The Knicks are in a similar predicament tonight. They played last night in Milwaukee, which is in the central time zone, flew back to New York overnight, and will now play the C’s tonight. That’s not an easy schedule to overcome, particularly when your two best players, Anthony and Stoudemire, played 36 and 40 minutes, respectively, against the Bucks.

Doctor’s Orders

As we previously mentioned, facing off against Anthony’s lackluster defense may be just what Pierce needs to get his offense back in rhythm. Overall, though, facing the Knicks might be just what the Celtics need as a whole.

Boston’s offense has been asleep for more than a week now, as it has not managed to score more than 92 points in any of its last six games. When 92 points is your high mark, you know something is wrong.

The Celtics’ only big performance out of a starter of late came from Ray Allen on Saturday, as he exploded in the second half of the Hornets game and finished with 20 points while helping to lead his team to victory. That was a great start to getting his team’s offense going, and facing off against a winded – and terrible – Knicks defense tonight might be exactly what the doctor ordered to get Boston’s offense back on track.

Post, Post, Post

The reason why Boston is so successful in the playoffs every season is because it identifies its advantages against an opponent and exploits it throughout the series. The Celtics know that they have an advantage in the post against an undersized and underwhelming defensive team like the Knicks. They will try to take advantage of that tonight.

Everyone from Garnett to Pierce to Krstic to Glen Davis will see time in the post tonight, and that doesn’t necessarily mean those players must score on those post ups. Boston will go to those players on the block simply to initiate the offense. If the shot is there, they’ll take it. However, if they see a double-team coming at them, which is highly probable, they will look for the open man and hopefully initiate an assisted basket for their team.

This strategy should be apparent throughout tonight’s game, and if it works in a similar fashion to the first two contests against the Knicks this season, Boston should put plenty of points on the scoreboard.