In what will surely be anointed by the national media as the premiere match-up of the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the Boston Celtics will square off against the New York Knicks in their first step to returning to the NBA Finals.
Looking back, both of these teams have experienced a rollercoaster ride during the 2010-11 season.
For the Knicks, the fun began when they failed to lure LeBron James to New York -- only to settle for a very solid consolation prize in Amare Stoudemire. Then the club proceeded to go on a season-long mission to pry away Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets in an effort to establish a one-two punch that would make them legitimate championship contenders. And while they were eventually able to get the piece they wanted, it remains to be seen whether or not they will be able to ultimately deem their big-picture mission “accomplished.”
The Celtics, meanwhile, threw the entire NBA universe for a loop when they sent their rough-and-tumble (albeit oft-injured) center, Kendrick Perkins, to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the forgettable package of Jeff Green and a few shiny pennies. It was a decision met with almost universal disgust, and seen as the move that demoted Boston from surefire championship contention to one of the teams in the running.
The worst part about everything that these two teams have done is that neither one has been particularly successful after their moves.
While New York shined with Stoudemire at the helm as he became the star that the franchise desperately needed him to be, he hasn’t particularly meshed with Anthony. The two seem to have styles of play that don’t go well together, and as such, the Knicks have experienced some growing pains since the move. So, despite a mini-run during what can only be described as the “garbage time” of the NBA season, there are still a lot of questions about how good team really is.
For Boston, this is the year of the Shaq. Everything, and I mean everything that this team hopes to achieve is supposedly completely and totally dependent on the same Shaquille O’Neal who has played a total of 37 games this year. If, by the grace of God, he can step in do his best Perkins impression, then O’Neal may add another thrilling chapter to his storied career. The smart money, though, says that it’s not going to happen.
And so, most of Boston’s success then falls onto the shoulders of the Big 3 + Rajon Rondo. At one point in time, many were calling it the “Big 4” – however, ever since the Perkins trade, Rondo has seemingly collapsed both mentally and physically. Between his inability to effectively run the offense, never-ending awful shooting streaks and lackadaisical defense on opposing point guards, Rondo's become more of a liability than an asset in the second half of the season.
That’s why, at the end of the day, the Celtics’ championship hopes ultimately hinge on the play of the originals, the guys who made them the Celtics – Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. This threesome struck gold once with a championship run and once with a finals appearance, and when it’s all said and done, these guys will be the ones who decide whether or not their team will raise another banner.
Fortunately for the Knicks, they match up very well against the Celtics.
Chauncey Billups, the wily veteran that he is, is no longer physically capable of staying in front of speedy point guards like Rondo. That being said, his basketball IQ and size-advantage over his smaller opponent may prove to be key against a seemingly shaken Rondo that doesn’t exactly look like the All-Star player he’s been acknowledged as in the past.
Pierce versus Anthony will be another thrilling showdown. Anthony has yet to completely find his groove with New York, something that no doubt has gone a long way in hindering the team’s late-season attempt at making a run up the standings. Nevertheless, he has the size and the offensive repoitore to do some serious damage against a Celtics team that no longer has a big, strong body patrolling the paint. Then again, Pierce is a proven, clutch playoff performer, and never someone you want to bet against. While not the most important match-up of the series, this one may be the most entertaining.
The Stoudemire-Garnett battle will likely determine this series. The former has had a bit of trouble adjusting to the arrivals of Anthony and Billups, and that in turn has seemingly hurt his confidence and intensity out on the court. However, earlier in the year, the former Phoenix Suns star was playing the best basketball of his career. If he can return to that MVP-like form, the combination of his unquestionable talent and Garnett’s creaky knees/noticeable wear-and-tear may change the entire look of this series.
Most analysts are giving this series to Boston, albeit in as many as seven games. I’m not so sure. Stoudemire has the ability to explode at any given time, and Garnett is simply not the same player anymore. Further, the wash in the Pierce-Anthony match-up coupled with the advantage that Stoudemire has on Garnett at this respective point in their careers, leaves Boston’s hopes entirely hinging on Shaq and Rondo. One, of course, is unstable physically, the other mentally.
More than any other series in the first round, this is about as balanced a battle you will see in the coming weeks.