Game Preview: Knicks at Celtics (Preseason)

BOSTON – More than two weeks into training camp and the Boston Celtics (1-1) can finally face off against an NBA opponent. The C’s went 1-1 during their Eurotrip and will play their first game in the States against the New York Knicks at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Hartford, Conn.

Boston hasn’t played in a game since Oct. 7 when it dominated EA7 Emporio Armani in Milan, Italy, by a score of 105-75. The Knicks, meanwhile, are less than 48 hours removed from their 108-101 triumph over the Washington Wizards on the road.

While the Celtics have had more time off, they must be happy with where they stand heading into tonight’s game. They dismantled an Italian professional team and have had three days of solid practices leading up to tonight’s matchup. More importantly, the team hasn’t suffered any major injuries thus far during training camp. Chris Wilcox, who is dealing with a sore back, is the only Celtics player who has suffered a tough injury during camp.

New York cannot say the same. The Knicks opened up their preseason without several of their key players thanks to a slew of injuries. Amar’e Stoudemire is nursing a bruised left knee, Marcus Camby has a strained left calf, Iman Shumpert hasn’t returned from last season’s torn ACL, and Ronnie Brewer has a torn medial meniscus. Additionally, former Celtic Rasheed Wallace did not participate in Thursday’s game as he is still working himself back into game shape.

According to the Knicks’ game notes, Stoudemire is the only one of those players who may return for tonight’s game. He is listed as questionable, while the other three players are listed as out.

Boston will still have quite a bit to deal with despite all of New York’s injuries. The trio of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton all had very productive performances for the Knicks Thursday night. Anthony scored 17 points on only nine field goals, Chandler scored 13 points and grabbed four boards, and Felton logged eight points and eight assists. New York also received strong performances off of the bench from sharpshooters Steve Novak (21 points) and J.R. Smith (20 points).

The Celtics haven’t had any of their players go off for 20 points yet but many of them have played very well. Jeff Green is leading the team in scoring with 16.5 PPG off of the bench, and Darko Milicic and Jared Sullinger are each tied for the team high in rebounding with 7.5 RPG. That trio has been given ample time on the floor thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett playing very limited minutes. The two future Hall of Famers have averaged only 21.5 and 14.0 minutes a game, respectively.

Doc Rivers may feel inclined to change that strategy tonight. This contest against New York marks the onset of Boston’s true preseason, where Rivers and his staff can evaluate their players against actual NBA talent. With only six preseason games remaining on the schedule, look for Boston’s big names to get a little more run against this depleted Knicks roster.

The Starting Lineup

Rivers and his players have been preaching throughout training camp that they have an incredible amount of flexibility this season when it comes to lineups. Rivers is actually contemplating a rotation of starting lineups depending on the team in which the C’s are playing on any given night.

Which leads us to wonder who will start tonight’s game for Boston. It sounds as if Jason Terry will get the call again to start at shooting guard, but who will start at power forward? Rivers has said that he may alter his starting lineup based on matchups. If he uses that strategy tonight, one would think that he would start the more athletic Brandon Bass at power forward if Stoudemire does, in fact, play. If Stoudemire doesn’t play and the Knicks use a frontcourt tandem of Chandler and Kurt Thomas, the C’s may opt to start Jared Sullinger at power forward.

Slow the Rookies Down

This will be the first real (or at least close to real) NBA game for Boston’s six rookies. Sullinger, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph, Dionte Christma, Jamar Smith and Micah Downs have played in summer league games and two preseason games in Europe, but this will be a totally different story.

Tonight, there will be true NBA talent on the other bench. The teams will also play under a full NBA rulebook, which was not the case for Boston’s first two preseason games.

With these facts in sight, Garnett understands that his young teammates will needs to take a deep breath and slow things down.

“For rookies, it can be fast,” Garnett said. “So you want to try to get them acclimated as quickly as you can, and that’s what preseason is for.”

This should be a game in which Rivers and the coaching staff will want to evaluate those rookies, who, outside of Sullinger, didn’t see much extended playing time in the first two games. If they get in for a solid chunk of time, they’ll need to adjust quickly and be sure not to rush themselves.

Home or Away Crowd?

Tonight’s contest is technically a home game for the Boston Celtics, but no one knows how the crowd will play out in the XL Center. Hartford is essentially the midway hub between Boston and New York.

We’ve seen in recent playoff series’ that Knicks fans travel very well. They have been clearly audible and very visible in TD Garden during meetings between these two teams. However, Connecticut is part of New England and Hartford is associated much more with the C’s than it is the Knicks.

It will be very interesting to see which team has the stronger following tonight. Will Knicks fans travel strong to the north, or will Celtics fans travel strong to the south? The answer to that question could make for an interesting dynamic in the arena.