Arbella Series Preview: Round 1 - Celtics vs. Knicks

Arbella

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics will host Game 1 of their first-round series against the New York Knicks at 7 p.m. Sunday night in the TD Garden. The series, which has been flexed as the primetime first-round matchup, will tip off on TNT.

The Celtics organization is seasoned when it comes to preparing for a playoff series, but the same cannot be said in New York. While Boston will be looking to make a run to its third Finals appearance in the last four years, the Knicks will experience a taste of the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when their tri-state rival, the New Jersey Nets, swept them. It has been even longer than that since Boston and New York, two historically tense sports cities, have met in the postseason.

The Knicks ousted the C’s in the first round of the 1989-90 playoffs by winning the decisive fifth game on the road in the old Boston Garden. The NBA’s playoff format has since changed to a seven-game series in the first round rather than a five-game series. Still, though, if New York hopes to win a decisive final game against the Celtics, it will have to do so on the road in Boston. The Celtics hold home court advantage in the series and will host Games 1, 2, 5 and 7, as needed.

Boston and New York’s organizations are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to making the playoffs over the past seven years, but that doesn’t mean the players involved in this will be that far detached in terms of playoff experience.

With Shaquille O’Neal sidelined for at least Game 1, Boston’s 14 healthy players will combine to have played in 659 total playoff games in their respective careers. New York’s roster, led by its big three of Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, totally 356 playoff games. So yes, the Knicks organization hasn’t tasted the playoffs in a long time, but its players certainly have.

Billups, Anthony and Stoudemire can claim 226 of those 356 playoff games, and they are by far the biggest threats the Celtics must worry about in this series. All three have been known for making big shots in their careers, and all of them offer different offensive repertoires.

The Celtics, however, can counter with a big four made up of three future Hall of Famers and a two-time All-Star point guard. The foursome of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo have gotten the job done in the past against talented opponents, including this Knicks team.

Boston swept the season series against New York, highlighted by a 96-86 victory in Madison Square Garden on March 21. That victory served as the only true contest between these two teams this season, because both underwent drastic overhauls around the trade deadline.

If that hard-fought battle is any sign of things to come, this series should be a beauty. With the mixture of two talented rosters, a rivalry between two great sports cities and an opportunity at a championship, this Celtics versus Knicks first-round series should be must-watch TV.

With all of that in mind, here’s a look at how the two teams match up between the coaches, starters and benches.

Head Coaches

Statistically speaking, these two coaches match up pretty well based on their bodies of work. Doc Rivers has compiled a 507-406 (55.5 percent) record in his coaching career and won 53.5 percent of his 86 playoff games. Mike D’Antoni has won 370 of his 685 games (54.0 percent) as a head coach and led his teams to a 26-25 record in the playoffs.

However, this coaching matchup isn’t all about the statistics. Rivers has been coaching in the playoffs for four consecutive seasons now and already has a championship and two Finals appearances under his belt. He also emphasizes defense, which has long been known to win championships. On the flip side, D’Antoni has never reached the Finals and hasn’t coached in the postseason since 2007-08, the season Boston brought home its last championship. He is also an offensive-minded coach who has often been ridiculed by the media for his inability to teach defense.

Point Guard

Of the three positions that host All-Stars on each side of the ball, this might be the most interesting matchup of all. It’s the emerging, speedy youngster, Rajon Rondo, against the fading, savvy veteran, Billups.

Rondo typically has the advantage in experience against opposing point guards, but that certainly won’t be the case in this matchup. Billups has played in 129 postseason games compared to 64 by Rondo. Each player has played in two Finals, winning one championship apiece, but Billups took home the Finals MVP in 2004, an accomplishment Rondo has not achieved.

The two players are stark opposites when it comes to the way they play. Rondo will play with speed and quickness while he attempts to push the pace, set up his team’s offense and rack up assists. Billups will play with poise, post up on the block and look to score around 20 points a night.

Each player give his team what it needs, but the question is which will be more successful in doing so during this series?

Shooting Guard

The one position where Boston’s core four should have a drastic advantage is at shooting guard, where Ray Allen, the league’s all-time leading 3-point scorer, will be matched up with rookie Landry Fields. When you look at the numbers between these two players, there’s no doubt that Allen has a great advantage, but Fields’ play cannot be overlooked.

New York’s starting shooting guard averaged just 9.7 PPG tthis season, but he is the glue guy on this Knicks team. He tied with Dwyane Wade as the best rebounding shooting guard in the entire NBA, with 6.4 RPG, and he is a fantastic defender. At a long and athletic 6-foot-7, Fields has a size advantage over most shooting guards and he can bother nearly anyone’s shot.

That certainly was the case this season against the Celtics, because Allen had more below-average games against New York this season than above-average. He scored 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting on Oct. 29, and then just 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting on March 21. His only strong outing of the season against the Knicks came on Dec. 15, when he dropped in 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

Allen will have his hands full getting shots off against a great defender in Fields, but he cannot forget about the rookie at the other end of the floor, either. Fields shot nearly 50 percent from the field this season and made 39.3 percent of his 219 3-pointers.

Small Forward

When two objects of equal force collide, they often bounce off each other, with neither gaining an advantage. That might be the case at the small forward position in this series, because two of the game’s best will be facing off.

Paul Pierce, Boston’s captain and leading scorer, will be forced to defend Anthony for however many games this series lasts. Anthony is one of the game’s elite scorers, and his size is a main reason why. He is one of the most physical small forwards in the game and Rivers has always noted that defending that big, strong body is certainly not easy for someone like Pierce. Although Pierce and Anthony are nearly identical in terms of height and weight, they usually have a size and/or advantage over their opponent. That won’t be the case in this series.

One of the reasons New York wanted Anthony so badly is because he is a game-changer and a closer. He plays big in big games, as evidenced by his career average of 24.5 PPG and 7.1 RPG in the playoffs. He is fresh off of a six-game postseason with Denver last season in which he put up 30.7 PPG and 8.5 RPG.

Pierce will certainly have his hands full defensively throughout this series, and as a result the Celtics will likely take much of the burden off of his hands at the offensive end of the floor. Look for Pierce to use up the majority of his energy at the defensive end attempting to slow down Anthony’s scoring.

Power Forward

The Knicks came up empty on their attempt to lure Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to New York, but they hit a home run in snagging Stoudemire. He has been one of the greatest leaders in the NBA all season long, both vocally and by his play, and he has led the team to its first playoffs in seven years.

That sounds a whole lot like the first season of Kevin Garnett’s career in Boston. The Celtics had been struggling before his arrival, and when he joined the green and white a new business-like approach came with him. His defense and leadership has been the key cog in Boston’s ability to compete for a championship four years in a row.

It will be incredibly entertaining to see two great leaders use their strengths against each other in this series. Stoudemire is a scoring machine and averaged 25.3 PPG this season. He has averaged at least 22.2 PPG in his last two playoff appearances. Garnett, known much less for his offense nowadays, is a defensive stalwart who will certainly look forward to the challenge of defending Stoudemire. Also be prepared for either or both of these guys to slide over to the center position for long stretches during this series.

Center

The center position is by far the largest question mark for both of these teams.

The Celtics believed they were set at center with Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal, so they traded away Kendrick Perkins in order to acquire a legitimate backup for Pierce in Jeff Green. Now that we know Shaq won’t play in at least Game 1, Boston is left with Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic as its combo of centers. J.O. will likely get the start, and he is coming off of the best performance of his season on April 11, when he notched 15 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks against the Wizards. He understands and accepts that he will be looked upon as a player who rebounds and protects the paint during this postseason.

He should be able to accomplish both of those goals, because New York does not have a legitimate center on its roster. Ronny Turiaf has been their most consistent starting center this season, but his numbers are modest at best. He stands 6-foot-10, so he is clearly undersized at the position. Turiaf is known more for his hustle and defense than his scoring and rebounding. This is why the Knicks often go with a small lineup, where Stoudemire or Shelden Williams hold down the center position.

Both teams will look at their centers to provide defense and rebounding more so than points. However, Boston’s center certainly has more of an ability to provide a punch at the other end as well. Without Shaq in the lineup, Jermaine O’Neal could see consistent big minutes in this series.

The Benches

How could the Knicks, with three great players like Anthony, Billups and Stoudemire, be just a sixth seed in the East and not picked to advance? There’s a two-word answer to that question: their bench.

New York has only one legitimate player on its bench and his name is Toney Douglas. Douglas is in his second year out of Florida State and has become a scoring sparkplug off of the bench. He finished the season averaging 10.6 PPG and scored at least 10 points in six of his final seven games of the regular season.

Beyond Douglas, the Knicks’ bench is made up of underwhelming role players. They have two Williams, and one of them, Shelden, barely sniffed the floor for Boston last season. The other, Shawne, has become a solid player in New York’s rotation by averaging 7.1 PPG and 40.1 percent shooting from downtown, but he’s certainly not a game changer.

Boston, however, has several players who are starter-quality. Glen Davis finished fourth on the Celtics in scoring with 11.7 PPG this season and he was followed closely by Jeff Green (9.8 PPG as a Celtic) and Nenad Krstic (9.1 PPG as a Celtic). Green and Krstic were starters for an Oklahoma City squad that nearly knocked out the eventual champion Lakers last season, so they’re certainly no slouches. The Celtics will also use Delonte West, a playoff-tested veteran, at both guard positions.

The Celtics clearly have the advantage in terms of available bench players, and that should be a huge boost to them in this series. For the Knicks to advance in the playoffs, they will need to play their starters nearly 40 minutes a night, every night. If any of them get in foul trouble and New York is forced to play its reserves for long stretches, Boston’s bench should be able to take advantage.