Game Preview: Celtics at Knicks (preseason)

BOSTON – Winning an NBA game is hard enough. Doing it without your starting five is nearly impossible.

The Celtics attempted in vain to grab a win Tuesday night in Philadelphia while their starters and Delonte West rested, and the team isn’t trying to tackle that challenge again. The starters – at least four of them – will be back in the lineup at 7:30 p.m. tonight in New York for the Celtics’ (3-1) preseason game against the Knicks (1-1).

It sounds as if Doc Rivers is going to rest Shaquille O’Neal for the second straight game, which will give Jermaine O’Neal his first opportunity to start alongside the likes of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

In his first extended minutes of the preseason Tuesday night, Jermaine O’Neal performed admirably by grabbing 12 rebounds in less than 19 minutes of play. With the talented core starting around him tonight, there’s no doubt that he’ll get some better looks at the basket against the Knicks than he did against the Sixers.

The rest of the starters will be playing in their first game since Sunday night’s win over the Raptors, so they are certainly well rested. Rivers has methodically been increasing his starters’ minutes, as all four who will be playing tonight were on the court for at least 21 minutes against Toronto. With two days of rest behind them and only three preseason games left after tonight’s contest, expect Rivers to up those minutes even more.

As for the new-look Knicks, they will be playing their first home game of the preseason, and the Madison Square Garden crowd is sure to be fired up. New York did some serious re-shaping of its roster this summer, acquiring household names like Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton via free agency and adding Anthony Randolph and Kelenna Azubuike via trade.

One of New York’s more subtle moves was signing Timofey Mozgov, a 7-foot-1 Russian center who has impressed the Knicks’ coaching staff early in the preseason much the same way that Semih Erden has done with the Celtics’ staff. Mozgov is averaging 9.0 PPG and 3.5 RPG through two preseason games and is expected to get the start tonight opposite Jermaine O’Neal.

Both of these teams added numerous pieces this offseason in an attempt to take that next step forward. For the Celtics, the next step is Banner 18. For New York, the next step is the playoffs. They’ll battle each other in Atlantic Division games four times this season en route to those goals, and this will be our first preview of what’s to come in the regular season.

Outside Shooting

New York’s offense is predicated on the ability to hit outside shots, and coach Mike D’Antoni is known for giving the green light to almost any player on the roster, with the exception of his centers. The Knicks are currently attempting 28.5 3-point shots per game through two preseason contests.

Their main sharpshooter is up-and-coming forward Danilo Gallinari, who has taken 19 of the team’s 57 3s. He was second in the league last season in 3-pointers made and attempted, behind only Aaron Brooks in both categories, and lit the C’s up for a career-high 31 points April 6. He and his fellow guards and forwards will be chucking them up from the perimeter all night, and Boston will need to do everything it can to close out on those shots as best as possible.

KG vs. Amar’e

If there was ever a preseason game for the Celtics to gauge Kevin Garnett’s level of “I’m back,” this has to be it. The Knicks are a run-and-gun team who will play at a fast pace and run the break as often as possible. And their brand new, All-Star power forward, Amar’e Stoudemire, thrives in that setting. He has shown that through two preseason games, averaging 21.5 PPG on 58.3 percent shooting.

Garnett has drawn rave reviews from his peers and coaching staff this preseason for his explosiveness and his return to old form. He’s going to need to be that explosive defensive player we’ve come to know when he takes on one of the quicker, more athletic power forwards the NBA has to offer tonight.

Shaking Off the Rust

As previously noted, Boston’s starters haven’t played a whole lot of minutes this preseason, and they haven’t played since Sunday. When they have been on the court, however, they have shown some forms of rust, most notably a high turnover rate.

Turnovers are expected in the preseason, so that’s fine, but the regulars need to shake that offseason rust as quickly as possible before the regular season arrives. An up-tempo game against New York usually calls for extra possessions and, in turn, extra turnovers, so if the C’s can limit those mistakes tonight it will be a great sign.

The Knicks will be experiencing a whole different type of rust. Due to their trip to Italy for a portion of their training camp as well as their first to preseason games, the team has not played a game in exactly a week. Since they had only played two games to this point, and only one being against an NBA team, they haven’t had much live practice against another color. That lack of game experience will often result in sloppy play, so expect the Knicks to show some signs of rust tonight in numerous areas, from turnovers to defensive rotations.