Game Preview: Knicks at Celtics

BOSTON – Tonight’s 8 p.m. matchup in the TD Garden between the Boston Celtics (55-26) and New York Knicks (42-39) will be a preview of what’s to come in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

Well, sort of.

These two teams are locked into the third (Boston) and sixth (New York) seeds in the Eastern Conference and will tip off Game 1 of their first-round playoff series this weekend in the Garden. Tonight’s contest, however, is likely to look quite a bit different than that first game this weekend.

For starters, Boston is expected to play without any of its full-time starters. Doc Rivers will sit his core four of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo for the second consecutive game as they rest up and prepare for their rapidly approaching playoff run. The Celtics will also play without Delonte West, who sprained his right ankle on Monday night, and Shaquille O’Neal, who is recovering from a strained right calf and is also resting up for the playoffs.

Plans have not been made public for what Mike D’Antoni will do with his starters tonight, but the assumption is that they will play limited minutes, at best. Chauncey Billups, who is one of New York’s veteran starters, commented after Tuesday night’s loss to the Chicago Bulls about what his team is focused on heading into tonight’s game.

"We just have to stay healthy," said Billups. "Nothing we can really accomplish [tonight] to be honest with you, just kind of stay healthy. [Tonight] to me is nothing.”

The only real significance to tonight’s game would be for the Celtics to complete a season sweep of the Knicks, and New York’s opportunity to avoid such a result. Still, though, there was no significance to last night’s meeting in New York between the Knicks and Bulls, yet D’Antoni played all of his current starters their regular minutes until Chicago ran away with the win in the second half. That group of current starters did not include Amar’e Stoudemire, who has been sidelined with a sprained left ankle since April 6.

Stoudemire is likely to miss his fourth straight game tonight, but the rest of New York’s starters may see limited minutes. That means two pieces of New York’s newly-formed big three, Billups and Carmelo Anthony, could show their faces on the parquet floor in a New York uniform for the first time.

After a tough stretch in which the Knicks went 1-9 from March 10-26, Anthony and the new-look Knicks have put it together over the past two-plus weeks. They had won seven straight games prior to last night’s 103-90 defeat to the Bulls, and Anthony has been the driving force to those wins. He has scored at least 31 points in five of his last nine games and reached double-figures in rebounds in four of them. Judging by those statistics, it seems as if ‘Melo is beginning to find his niche within this current Knicks team.

If Anthony does play tonight, Jeff Green will likely be the man who is forced to defend him. Green is coming off of a monster game Monday night in Washington, where he started in place of Pierce and played a game-high 47 minutes. He tied for the team-high in points with 20 and also tied his career high in rebounds with 15. Green finally showed the level of aggressiveness Rivers wants to see out of him, as evidenced by that rebound total and his 20 shot attempts.

With limited options considering the amount of players who won’t be available for tonight’s game, Rivers is likely to send a similar starting lineup out for tonight’s game as he did on Monday. Carloss Arroyo, Von Wafer, Glen Davis and Jermaine O’Neal will probably accompany Green on the court for tip-off. O’Neal is coming off of the best game of his season, as he logged 37 minutes on Monday night and finished with season highs of 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots.

Boston’s group of reserves played very well against the Wizards despite their 38.1 percent shooting performance. The defense was strong, the energy was high and Rivers was happy with what he saw.

“Overall I just loved the effort,” Rivers said after the game. “I thought the starters tonight played terrific.”

With the talent Boston’s normal second unit, but now current starting unit, possesses, there’s no doubt that it can compete tonight against the Knicks. Those players proved their abilities Monday night, and the hope is that they continue their high level of play and roll into the playoffs with great rhythm and on a winning note.

Tonight’s game won’t mean anything in the standings, but it will most definitely mean something to the players participating. These teams are made up of professional competitors, and there is no doubt that Boston’s temporary starting group will want to finish off a season sweep against the Knicks tonight, no matter who New York sends onto the floor.

Paint Play

Oddly enough, though the Celtics played without key inside cogs such as Garnett, Pierce and Shaq, the team’s play in the paint was outstanding on Monday night. In fact, it was far better than usual.

Boston’s frontline players combined for 38 rebounds and helped lead the team to 49 boards, which is 10 more boards than the team’s season average. The Celtics also scored 44 points in the paint against a Wizards team that possesses the league’s second-leading shot blocker, JaVale McGee.

Rivers would love to see that type of inside game again tonight against a Knicks team that doesn’t exactly protect the paint with the best of them. The one area Boston would love to see an improvement on is Davis’ rebounds, as he contributed only three on Monday night.

If Starters Don’t Play, Who Will?

We all know who the Celtics will take the court with tonight, because six members of their 15-player team will almost definitely not be playing. That leaves the C’s with nine available players, with the possibility of one or two, such as Jermaine O’Neal or Davis, seeing a night off as well.

The Knicks, on the other hand, are completely up in the air. D’Antoni hasn’t been able to settle on a starting unit or rotation all season, so if he doesn’t play most of his regular starters, there’s no telling who he’ll throw onto the floor for tip off. Our best guess is that Toney Douglas would start at point guard in place of Billups, and former Celtic Bill Walker would start in place of Anthony at small forward, but beyond that there are no clues as to whose names D’Antoni will call.

It May Mean Something

Although Billups has dismissed any significance in this game, that possible season sweep for Boston still looms. The Celtics would love to head into this weekend’s playoff series with an unscathed record against New York, and the Knicks would surely love to prevent that from happening.

Winning tonight’s game between reserves and reserves would be one thing, but if the Knicks do happen to play their starters this could get very interesting. Boston’s starters tonight would be, for the most part, starters around the league. There is no doubt that they could compete with New York’s starting group, and if that winds up happening and the C’s pull out this win, that would have to hold some significance in the back of New York’s collective mind.