Game Preview: Celtics at Knicks

BOSTON – There’s nothing better than the luster of a primetime matchup between Boston and New York in the sports world. For the first time in years, such a game will return to the NBA tonight.

The Boston Celtics (19-4) and New York Knicks (16-9), two of the hottest teams in the league, will collide at 7 p.m. tonight in Madison Square Garden. This will be the first meaningful game between the two teams in nearly a decade.

“We both had been bad for a while, (now the Celtics have) been good for a while,” Doc Rivers said at Tuesday’s practice. “The two teams haven’t exactly matched for a long time, and you know when they do, it will be great.”

That’s exactly what the league when thinking when it scheduled this as its 7 p.m., Wednesday night game on ESPN. After all, the Celtics restocked their roster this summer while the Knicks remade theirs with the signing of MVP candidate Amar’e Stoudemire.

The unexpected storyline, however, is that we’re more than a quarter of the way through this season and these two teams are separated by only four games in the Eastern Conference standings. No one saw this coming.

After narrowly missing the team’s second championship in three seasons, Boston was expected to be one of the top teams in the league again this season. Despite a plethora of injuries, it has managed to win 19 games and will take a 10-game winning streak into tonight’s game in New York.

The Knicks, who have not participated in the playoffs since 2004, were expected to be an improved team with the signings of Stoudemire and Raymond Felton, but they have already surpassed early-season predictions. New York has won 13 of its last 14 games, including eight in a row, since beginning the season with a 3-8 record.

With each team streaking into MSG tonight, we’ve got a legitimate game on our hands that holds conference and divisional implications. Boston continues to be cream of the crop in the Atlantic Division, but New York is beginning to make its challenging move. That’s something the C’s aren’t used to, and Doc Rivers, hopes that the Knicks’ challenge won’t pack much longevity.

“I kind of liked it the other way, quite honestly,” Rivers joked about the newly-challenging divisional games. “Let’s hope it goes back that way.”

Considering the way both of these teams have been playing for a solid month now, the assumption is that it won’t go back that way any time soon. Boston is playing fantastic basketball with a limited group, while the Knicks are evolving into a deep team thanks to some surprising young talent.

Outside of Stoudemire, who enters tonight’s game having scored at least 30 points in a franchise-record eight straight games, New York has leaned heavily on Felton, Wilson Chandler and rookie shooting guard Landry Fields. Felton has teamed up with Stoudemire to dismiss the team’s leadership woes and is easily playing well enough to garner his first All-Star appearance. Chandler came into the league as an athletic wing player with great length, but he is now soaring at new heights thanks to the dramatic improvement to his shooting ability. Fields has become New York’s “glue guy,” and drew plenty of raves from Rivers on Tuesday.

“He’s terrific. I had no idea that he was going to be this,” said Rivers. “I mean he’s just been terrific for them. He does so many of the little things; he does the dirty work. It’s rare that you find a rookie that they have guard the best guard – he’ll guard Rondo for most of the game – he just does so many little things for their team: the rebounding, the defensive assignments, the running the floor. And he enjoys it.”

It sounds as if Rivers and the Celtics have a pretty solid scouting report on Fields and the rest of the new-look Knicks. What Boston saw out of New York on Oct. 29, in the Celtics’ third game of the season, can essentially be thrown out the window. This Knicks team is drastically different, and that’s why this game is rightfully gaining plenty of national attention.

Get Ray Allen Going

As mentioned above, the Celtics expect Fields to defend Rondo for the majority of tonight’s game. In other words, the Knicks will be choosing Ray Allen in a pick-your-poison situation.

Rivers pointed out on Tuesday afternoon that Fields defended Rondo for the majority of the first matchup between these teams on Oct. 29. He’s expecting the same tonight despite the fact that Rondo recorded 24 assists in that game. Electing to put Fields, who is New York’s top perimeter defender, on Rondo means Mike D’Antoni will be choosing to put someone of a lesser quality on Allen. That someone will be Felton, who stands at 6-foot-1.

Allen will have the clear advantage over Felton every time they are matched up. Boston’s sharpshooter managed only 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting the first time these teams met, but expect those numbers to increase tonight if he has New York’s point guard defending him for the majority of the contest.

Keep Stoudemire Off the Line

Stoudemire’s ascension into the MVP race has been quick and decisive. It’s impossible to ignore his eight straight 30-point games, his 9.1 RPG and his 53.3 percent shooting from the field. According to Rivers, a new wrinkle to Stoudemire’s game has assisted him in achieving such numbers.

“I think one thing he’s doing more than I’ve seen in the past, you know, is he’s putting the ball on the floor and scoring off the dribble,” Rivers said. “And when you’re at [center] doing that, that’s difficult.”

It sure is, and as a result the Celtics might be forced to do something they typically hate – adjust to the opponent, rather than force the opponent to adjust to them.

If Stoudemire mans the center position for the majority of tonight’s game, Boston may have to play small with the combination of Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis up front. That duo would match up much better defensively against the Knicks compared to having Shaquille O’Neal, who is questionable for tonight’s game, or Semih Erden in at center.

Either way, the C’s are going to need to do their best to stay in front of Stoudemire defensively. His newfound knack for attacking the basket off the dribble has resulted in him being ranked ninth in the league in free throw attempts per game with a 7.9 average. That’s the type of number that launches you into scoring title and MVP contention, and Boston will need to limit it tonight.

Use Size and Strength to Advantage

Stoudemire’s minutes at center may be a determining factor in what Boston elects to do defensively, in terms of who plays most of the minutes at center, but it won’t affect what the C’s do at the other end of the court. They will have a distinct size and strength advantage at numerous positions, especially if Shaq plays, and they will look to use it to their advantage.

“They’re a small-oriented team, the way they play the game…” said Glen Davis. “I think we can just use our power, our bigs, to create easy buckets.”

There’s no doubt that Boston will try to do just that tonight, much the same way it did in the first meeting of the season. In that contest, Garnett, Shaq and Davis combined to score 50 points on 24-of-36 shooting.

Yes, the Knicks’ mindset may have changed since then and they may be winning games, but they haven’t gotten any bigger. The Celtics will hammer that fact home tonight.