Tonight Could Set off Domino Effect for C’s

BOSTON – We all know that every game from here on out is critical for the Boston Celtics. Although tonight’s game in Charlotte is against one of the league’s bottom-dwellers, this contest is of the utmost importance to Boston.

This team is in the midst of an uphill climb in the Eastern Conference standings as they attempt to secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Shockingly, though, if the Celtics handle their business during the dog days of this week, they position themselves for a run at their sixth consecutive Atlantic Division title.

You read that correctly: A division title is a real possibility for the Celtics in 2012-13.

The fact that we can make that statement with a straight face is astonishing. The New York Knicks have been in control of the Atlantic Division since the season began and led the Celtics by 7.5 games as recently as Jan. 26. New York has never truly felt any pressure from the teams that have been chasing it this season.

Until now.

The truth of the matter is that the Knicks are struggling. Badly. New York has lost seven of its last 13 games and is staring down a couple of injuries that could potentially be game-changers.

First off, Amar’e Stoudemire is out for the foreseeable future after undergoing a procedure termed by the Knicks as a “right knee debridement.” It is rumored that he will be out six weeks from the surgery date, which would cost him the remainder of the regular season and potentially the start of the postseason. Stoudemire’s loss is a big one for the Knicks, but they can get by if their other star, Carmelo Anthony, is healthy. Such isn’t the case, and that poses major problems for the Knicks.

Anthony, who is New York’s best player and was in the MVP conversation during the opening months of the season, has missed three games with a right knee injury that doesn’t sound promising. He returned to New York’s lineup Monday night and sputtered through an ugly performance that consisted of 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting. Following the game, he stated that he doesn’t anticipate the knee improving as the season wears on.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent, to be honest with you,” Anthony said after the blowout loss in Golden State.

That was a startling statement, but Anthony’s next comment was even more worrisome for Knicks fans, as the forward revealed what doctors have told him about the injury: “Nobody can really give me an exact answer on it.”

Yikes. Everyone in New York knows that the Knicks go as Anthony goes, and if he’s hurting that badly for the rest of the season, they’re in trouble.

As the Knicks are dealt blow after blow, the Celtics continue to deal blow after blow. Remember that date that was mentioned earlier, Jan. 26? Boston trailed New York by 7.5 games in the Atlantic on that day but the Celtics have gone 14-5 since. As they enter tonight’s game in Charlotte, they trail the Knicks by four games. The Knicks are off tonight, so a win for Boston would bring them to within 3.5 games of the division leader with exactly five weeks remaining in the regular season.

No one in their right mind could make the case that gaining 3.5 games on a division leader in five weeks is easy. That being said, this is absolutely doable.

A win tonight would set the Celtics up well for the final five weeks, and particularly for tomorrow night. Boston returns home on Wednesday to host the Raptors, who have lost six of their last eight games. A victory over Toronto could help the C’s gain yet another game on New York in the standings.

Why, you might ask? Well, the Knicks are currently in the midst of a five-game road trip out West. They play tomorrow night in Denver, where the Nuggets are 29-3 this season. Denver has also won nine in a row by an average of 11.7 points per game. Those numbers, coupled with the challenges of a West Coast trip (which we’ve seen affect the Celtics), don’t put the odds in New York’s favor.

On the contrary, the odds may be shifting into Boston’s favor. The Celtics can tip the first domino tonight with a win, which will bring them within 3.5 games of New York. One night later, the next domino could fall while allowing the C’s to shave another game off of their divisional deficit. And let’s not forget, the C’s and Knicks still have two meetings remaining on the schedule.

New York may be at the front of the Atlantic Division, but they have good reason to be looking over their shoulder.