A reeling Celtics club, a rolling Knicks club, two storied franchise histories, and plenty of talent on both sides makes this first-round series one of the good ones.
It is no surprise that the three first round series most worth watching this spring also happen to be the three in which the lower seed has the best chance to advance. Oklahoma City-Denver, the West’s 4-5 matchup, promises a bunch of entertaining, high scoring games including some of the league’s best young talent in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Dallas-Portland, the 3-6 matchup in the West, is the hardest series to pick on paper. The Blazers have become a trendy upset pick after acquiring Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline, but those picking Portland in the series are underestimating just how good Dirk Nowitzki’s been this season. He shot a career-high 52% from the field and is one of only two reliable scorers on the Mavs (with Jason Terry being the other). No matter who wins, that series is going to be great to watch.
But the series I’m most intrigued by is the Celtics-Knicks 3-6 matchup in the East. While the Knicks’ chance to spring an upset is not nearly as good as the Nuggets’ or Blazers’, the Celtics have looked extremely vulnerable in their 10-10 stretch to close out the season. The Knicks, on the other hand, have begun to put things together, winning seven in a row before closing the season with losses to Chicago and a meaningless game to Boston, in which both teams rested their starters. Boston is too experienced to let a team like the Knicks get the best of them, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t drop a few games, especially in what figures to be a revitalized Madison Square Garden.
For me, that is the most important storyline in a series chock full of them: basketball matters in New York again. It began with the Knicks’ hot start with Amar’e, and it ratcheted up a notch after they traded for Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups at the deadline. It doesn’t matter if New York’s not a real contender, or that their team is full of holes. What matters is that 20,000 fans will be screaming in MSG come Games 3 and 4, finally being able to root for a real team in games that matter. Of course it’s nice to see basketball take off in small markets like Oklahoma City, but it’s always going to be more special when a marquee team in the league’s biggest market playing in the country’s most famous arena faces off against another traditional power like the Celtics. There’s history in MSG; Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bernard King, and Patrick Ewing have all owned the building. It’s just not the same when the Thunder prepare to face the Nuggets at the Ford Center. The 2010-11 Knicks might not be the same as the Knicks’ teams of old, but they still have the star power that is so vital to a New York team’s success. New York has always rallied around its superstars, and being able to root for an Amar’e or a Carmelo pushes the series to another level for Knicks fans. Whether or not the two will be able to handle the added pressure is another question completely.
The star power is what hits you immediately looking at this series. You have six 2011 All-Stars in this series alone; each conference only gets 12, total. And that’s not even counting the player with the greatest career of anyone in this series, Shaquille O’Neal, who may or may not suit up depending on the severity of his Achilles and calf problems (he’s already been ruled out of Sunday’s Game 1). The matchups of Kevin Garnett vs. Amar’e on the low block and Paul Pierce vs. Carmelo Anthony on the wing will be must-see TV. But for the Knicks, two superstars may not be enough against a veteran Celtics squad. Landry Fields needs to do a good job guarding Ray Allen, while the Knicks need to find someone on their bench to take care of Glen Davis. And then there’s the point guard matchup, which could end up swinging the series.
Eight months ago, when Team USA was fine-tuning its roster for the FIBA World Championships, it was clear they had a surplus of point guards. Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chauncey Billups, and Rajon Rondo all tried out for the team. When it became clear that Rondo was going to be the odd man out, he withdrew his name from consideration and took the slight out on the rest of the NBA for the season’s first two months. Then, midway through the season, disaster struck. Rondo’s best friend on the team, Kendrick Perkins, was traded. Perk was just a year older than Rondo, the only other starter that he could relate to. Suddenly, Rondo was in a tailspin. He stopped getting into the paint. He stopped playing with the swagger that he earned as the starting point guard on a title team. He regressed into that younger version of himself, the one that came before the Big 3 when no one knew what he was capable of. It affected the Celtics, too. They just haven’t been the same since the deadline. Now, facing another title-winning point guard with no shortage of confidence, Rondo must regain his form for the Celtics to do anything this postseason. Billups may be 34, but he still believes in his “Mr. Big Shot” nickname and is exactly the kind of player that could capitalize on Rondo if he remains in bad spirits. If Billups controls this matchup, the Knicks’ chances for an upset jump from “no way in Hell” to “if a few breaks go our way, we can win this thing.”
My advice to Rondo: remember Team USA. Forget about management, Perkins, or any of that other stuff. Go out there knowing you’re the best point guard on the floor, and don’t be afraid to take the big shot. When the ball’s in your hands at the end of the game, don’t shy away from the moment. Embrace it. Pretty soon, this team will be completely in your hands. If you can’t do it now, with three All-Star teammates, how will you be able to do it when they’re gone?
The Perkins trade was the first real adversity he’s faced. After all, how many second-year point guards suddenly gain two future-Hall-of-Fame teammates, turning one of the league’s worst clubs into the league’s best in one year? How Rondo responds in this series and these playoffs will be critical to the Celtics’ fate, both in 2011, and for the next several years. Ultimately, I think Rondo will be steady enough to win this series, but the Celtics will have serious problems against Miami and/or Chicago if he doesn’t turn things around.
In order to win the series, New York will need to push the tempo, something that’s hard to do in the playoffs, especially against the slogging Celtics (90.4 possessions per game, 22nd in the league). Though the Knicks did not beat the Celtics in the regular season, they were close on December 15, a 118-116 Celtics win in New York. Both teams were as hot as they would be all season; the Knicks entered having won 8 in a row, the Celtics, 10 in a row. New York took a lot of shots and didn’t let the Celtics rest on defense, creating a high-scoring matchup. Not only was it one of the best games of the regular season, but it showed that NY could have success against some of the top teams in the league if they could impose their style on them. This will be far more difficult in the playoffs, but New York has to at least try; they’re not winning this series any other way.
Once you get past all the hoopla and look at the two teams themselves, the Celtics are clearly superior. Moreover, they’ve shown that they don’t lose series they’re not supposed to in the playoffs; their exits over the past years have been to a 59-win Orlando team without KG and to a 57-win Lakers team in Game 7 without Kendrick Perkins. Boston’s stars are proven in the crucible of May and June, whereas Amar’e and Carmelo have a combined zero games of Finals experience. While Billups has been to the Finals twice, he’s not a star like the other two. Whether Amar’e and Carmelo can conquer their playoff demons would be a nice storyline, if they actually had a realistic chance to do so. Even if they upset Boston in round one, they would still have too much work to do. This Knicks roster as currently constructed can’t win a championship; they need another big addition along the lines of Chris Paul or Deron Williams as well as a legitimate big man who plays both sides of the ball. Carmelo and Amar’e’s all O, no D approach might make for exciting basketball, but it certainly doesn’t make for playoff success.
Ultimately, the Celtics should take care of business and advance to play in what will likely be the most intriguing series of the second round against Miami. But there’s always the chance that the Knicks could steal one in TD Garden and find themselves up 2-1 in the series heading into a raucous atmosphere at MSG in Game 4. That’s a scenario Knicks fans have envisioned ever since the days of Ewing, and though it might not come about this year, that scenario is the closest it’s been to fruition in a decade. NY-Boston could end up going 5 games, putting all our questions about the Celtics on hold. But the chance, however slim, of this series becoming a six- or seven-game masterpiece, with two storied franchise and two of the league’s most intense fan bases, puts it over the top for me. That’s what’s so appealing about the 2010-11 Celtics as well as this series: the potential for greatness.