Game Preview: Knicks at Celtics
BOSTON - Opposites will be attracted to one location at 7 p.m. tonight, when the slumping Boston Celtics (36-33) will host the thriving New York Knicks (42-26) at TD Garden.
The Celtics have been dealing with injuries over the past week, most notably to Kevin Garnett, and have lost four consecutive games. The Knicks, on the other hand, have found a way to overcome a list of their own injuries to win four straight games.
Although New York is playing without several key pieces, including Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire, it isn't missing anyone comparable to Garnett. The Celtics have played three of their last four games without KG and Danny Ainge announced on Monday that the future Hall of Famer is likely to miss the next two weeks with left ankle inflammation.
That's an enormous blow for the Celtics, who continue to fight for playoff position. Garnett is their emotional and defensive leader. The game changes when he is on the floor, as evidenced by the fact that the Celtics have limited opponents to 43.1 percent shooting this season while Garnett has been on the court.
Boston will now be forced to find a way to win without him. As Doc Rivers noted on Monday, that may require some creativity.
"Right now, each game we've got to pick how we want to play that night," he said. "That's hard with all of the new guys we have here, but that's how we may have to be."
Fortunately for Rivers and the Celtics, they should have all of their active players outside of Garnett ready for tonight's game. That includes Courtney Lee, who missed Saturday's game in Memphis and Monday's practice in Waltham, Mass., with a sprained left ankle. He is probable for tonight's game, which is an important fact for Boston.
Lee will team up with Avery Bradley on the perimeter to defend New York's new starting backcourt. With all of the Knicks' injuries of late, Mike Woodson has chosen to go in a new direction with his rotation. Pabloi Prigioni is now starting alongside Raymond Felton in the backcourt, with Jason Kidd coming off of the bench. That rotation has worked well for the Knicks, as Rivers indicated on Monday.
"It's been a good mix for them when they've done it," Rivers said of Prigioni and Felton starting alongside each other. "They've both played well for New York. Either guy can handle the ball, and then you have Kidd coming in and doing his thing."
That trio has helped to spark New York's offense during its four-game winning streak. The Knicks have shot 51.1 percent from the floor during those games while averaging 101.3 points per game.
Ironically, New York's injuries have helped the team locate a rhythm. The Celtics wish that they could say the same. Boston is heading in the opposite direction with four straight losses but would it love to snap that streak tonight against its divisional rival.
Jeff Green's Role
Jeff Green becomes an even more important piece to Boston's success when Garnett is out of the lineup. The Celtics need Green to perform at a high level at both ends in order to succeed.
That fact is especially true against New York. Green will be one of the primary defenders on Carmelo Anthony, who is the NBA's second-leading scorer with 27.6 points per game. Green has been fantastic this season against both Anthony and LeBron James, and Boston will need that to continue again tonight.
Additionally, the C's will seek some offense from Green, who will likely see time at shooting guard, small forward and power forward. He has been both great and mediocre in five starts this season. He scored 43 points as a starter last week against Miami, but then struggled to 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting Saturday night in Memphis. Boston would be happy with a performance that falls in the middle of those two.
Lack of Defense
Both of these teams headed into the 2012-13 season looking to hang their hat on their defenses. They have been able to live up to expectations, as they rank eighth (Knicks) and ninth (Celtics) in the league in terms of opponent scoring.
Those defenses are unlikely to be their normal selves tonight, though. The Celtics will certainly play without Garnett, which drastically changes the abilities of their defense. New York, meanwhile, may be without Chandler, who has missed the last six games with a bulging disc in his neck. Chandler is listed as questionable for the game.
If neither team's starting center is on the court for tip-off, this one could turn into a scoring battle rather than a defensive battle.
Play with Confidence
Injuries and a late-season slump have affected the Celtics' confidence despite the fact that they had won seven of their previous nine games before this losing streak.
"Kind of discouraged," Paul Pierce said of the mood of his team. "You see the look on guys faces, and I think that has something to do with the injuries. When Kevin went down and Courtney Lee going down, that's just something... sometimes it just kind of wears on you mentally."
The Celtics cannot allow themselves to be down for too long. If they do, their playoff seeding may slip. They need to enter this game with confidence and show the national audience that they can still beat the best.