New York Knicks (0-0) at Boston Celtics (0-0)
Playoff Game #1, Home Game #1
TV: TNT, CSN-NE
Referees: Not announced
The Playoffs are finally here and there are no more excuses for the Celtics. This is where they, as veterans, turn it up a notch and go into playoff mode. The Celtics will face their long time rival New York Knicks in what should be a very tough, physical and entertaining series. Both teams made trades at the deadline that essentially changed the complexion of the teams. Both teams have struggled at times and have had some success since the trades. This series is the ultimate testing ground for the success or failure of those trades.
The Knicks are healthy with no major injuries reported. The Celtics are still missing Shaquille O'Neal who couldn't pass a running test at Saturday's practice. Delonte West, who re-injured his ankle in the next to last game, is expected to play but won't be 100%. The Celtics will depend on Jermaine O'Neal, Nenad Krstic and Big Baby Davis in the middle to counter the Knicks trio of Shelden Williams, Ronny Turiaf and Jared Jeffries. Even without Shaq, the Celtics should have an advantage at the center position.
This will be a classic battle of offense vs defense. The Knicks score 106.6 points per game but give up 105.7 per game, a differential of +.78. The Celtics score 96.5 points per game but hold teams to a league leading 91.1 points per game, a differential of +5.37 per game. The Knicks aren't known for their defense and that can be the difference in the playoffs where defense becomes even more important. The Celtics will look to disrupt the Knicks offense on every possession and hopefully their offense will feed of their defense.
The Celtics struggled down the stretch but talked alot about being able to flip the switch in the playoffs. Let's hope the switch is now on. On the other hand, the Knicks seemed to find their stride down the stretch, winning 7 in a row before losing the finale to the Celtics in a battle of the benches. Both teams are rested and have had 3 days of practice. It's time for the real season to begin and there can be no more excuses and no second chances. It's win or go home and the Celtics should be able to get past the Knicks if they come in looking to be aggressive and to play with focus.
Probable Starting Matchups
Rajon Rondo vs Chauncey Billups
This is the key matchup for this series. As we have seen all season, as Rondo goes, so go the Celtics. When Rondo is on his game and is aggressive, so are the Celtics as illustrated by the fact that the Celtics were 36-6 when Rondo dished out 10 assists or more but they were just 11-15 when Rondo failed to reach 10 assists. On the other hand, they don't call Chauncey Billups Mr Big Shot for nothing. He is capable of hitting big shots and has played big in games throughout his career. Rondo has a speed advantage and needs to use it. If he does, this matchup is a big advantage for the Celtics.
Ray Allen vs Landry Fields
This matchup may be the biggest advantage that the Celtics have in this series. Ray is one of the best all time scorers and Fields is a second round pick who has had a good year, but is still an untested rookie. Hopefully the rest that they have gotten and the chance to practice to straighten out who sets screens will get Ray back on track for this series. For much of the season, Fields has led the league in 4th quarter 3 point percentage, but after the trade deadline, he has struggled.
Paul Pierce vs Carmelo Anthony
This is one of the marquee matchups of these playoffs. Both players are clutch and come up big for their teams when the pressure is on. During the Knicks 7 game win streak at the end of the season, Melo averaged almost 30 points and 10 rebounds. Pierce has a Finals MVP to his credit while Anthony has only made it out of the first round once in his career. This should be a fum matchup to watch.
Kevin Garnett vs Amar'e Stoudemire
This is going to be another fun matchup to watch. Kevin Garnett is all about defense while Stoudemire's forte is on the offensive end. However, KG has been very effective and efficient on offense this season but Stoudemire hasn't put much effort into playing defense. In the 3 games that these 2 have played against each other this season, KG has averaged 22.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game while Amar'e has averaged 27.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Stoudemire is younger and stronger than KG but no player in the game has more intensity or desire than KG.
Jermaine O'Neal vs Ronny Turiaf
So much for being optimistic. Shaq was unable to go through a whole practice and so has been ruled out for this game. It would have been great to have Shaq out there and know that he was going to be healthy for the playoffs, but even with Jermaine starting at center, the Celtics still have enough in the middle with JO, Krstic and Big Baby to counter the Knicks centers of Turiaf, Shelden Williams and Jared Jeffries. In fact, having more mobile centers might be a benefit in this series.
Shaquille O'Neal (calf, Achilles, age) day to day
Delonte West (ankle) probable
Key off the Bench
Big Baby has been key for the Celtics all season and will be counted on down the stretch to play with the starters as he has done all year. The Celtics need his defense and they also need him to make his shots when he is open.
When Delonte is healthy and can lead the second unit, he has been invaluable to the team. He has the ability to hit big shots as well as to drive to the basket and he also can run the team to give Rondo some rest. He is also important to give Ray some rest as he can play both guard spots.
Shelden Williams (ankle) day to day
Key off the Bench
Douglas has become the most dependable player off the bench for the Knicks. He leads the league in 3 point shots since the All Star Break. He is also one of the better defenders on the Knicks.
Walker brings energy off the bench and can hit outside shots as well as slash to the hoop. He is also a good rebounder and is also one of the Knicks better defenders.
Keys to the Game
Bench Play - We got to see the two benches go head to head in the final game of the season. The Celtics reserves got the best of the Knicks reserves and should in this series as well. The Celtics bench is deeper than the Knicks bench. The Celtics also have considerable playoff experience among their reserves while the Knicks reserves have very little. It will be key for both teams to be able to rest their starters without giving up too much.
Defense - The saying that defense wins championships is very true. The Celtics have been one of the top defensive teams in the league this season while the Knicks have been one of the top offensive teams.
The Celtics ability to get stops will be a big key in winning this series.
Move the Ball - When the Celtics move the ball and make the extra pass and find the open man, they are very tough to beat. There have been times though where the ball stops and each player tries to do too much. They must play as a team and play unselfish basketball.
Be Aggressive - The Celtics must be the more aggressive team. They have to win the 50-50 balls. They must be more aggressive in diving for loose balls, going for rebounds, and driving to the basket. The more aggressive team usually gets the benefit of the calls and also usually wins the game.
Rebound - The Celtics must make an effort to crash the boards and win the rebounding battle. The Knicks have not been a good rebounding team and so the Celtics must take advantage of that. They can limit the Knicks second chance points as well as their fast breaks by beating them to the rebounds.
The NBA usually posts the referee assignments at 9:00 am on game days. However, today they still have not posted the referees for today's games. Whichever refs are assigned, I'm pretty sure that they are going to favor Herr Stern's Knicks so the Celtics need to be ready for that and not let the refs take them out of the game.
Rondo's Play and Officiating
We don't know whether good Rondo or bad Rondo will show up for this series. In the past, Rondo has always come up big for the team in the playoffs and hopefully with the rest and practice time he will once again come up big in this series. Officiating can make a big difference in how a series comes out. If you don't think so, ask the Mavs about the 2006 series against the Heat. If the officials let them play without inflicting a bias or an agenda into the game, the Celtics should win this series in 5 or 6 games.