Editor’s note: From Dec. 12-23, we counted down to the Celtics’ Christmas matchup with the Knicks (Dec. 25 at 12 p.m. ET) by hitting on 12 big topics facing the Green this season.
WALTHAM, Mass. -- Ready or not -- and, well, Celtics coach Doc Rivers admits his team is probably not -- it's time for real basketball.
After a five-month lockout, NBA regular-season action returns Sunday in the Big Apple when the Celtics and Knicks battle in the first of five Christmas Day games. After a 149-day lockout, the Celtics will cram 66 games in 124 days. But the only one that matters at the moment will be between two teams that should vie for Atlantic Division supremacy. Here's what to watch for in Broadway's other holiday spectacular:
A Pierce-ing presence for Celtics?
Rivers insists Paul Pierce is questionable. Everyone else knows better.
Pierce has saved some of his grandest theatrics for the big stage at Madison Square Garden in recent seasons. It's our guess that it'll take a heck of a lot more than a bone bruise on his right heel to keep him off the floor and out of the spotlight. Pierce has shut it down for much of training camp, but we expect he'll be out there -- even if it's in a diminished, reserve role -- for Sunday's game. As Rivers himself noted this week, Pierce is a gamer and even on one good leg he can still go out there and make shots.
The question is whether the Celtics can get away with Pierce at anything less than 100 percent, particularly when he'd likely be matched up against Carmelo Anthony. Pierce's presence and production will go a long way toward determining how this one plays out.
And if Pierce can't get on the court Sunday, that could be a somewhat troubling sign for Boston, because then you really have to wonder how bad that injury is to keep him sidelined in a game of this magnitude (even if another blockbuster with a true rival -- the Miami Heat -- looms next on the schedule). One thing to keep in mind there, Rivers stressed Friday that Pierce's availability would be judged fully on medical clearance because the team doesn't want to risk him aggravating the injury and missing extended time in a shortened season. In a way, it might be better safe than sorry for a team whose goals can only be accomplished in June, not December.
Will Chandler bring big D to New York?
The Knicks made one of the offseason's biggest splashes in signing Tyson Chandler. He'll bring his double-double production and championship know-how to the Big Apple, but Rivers said those two things are hardly his biggest contribution.
"A conscience," Rivers said when asked what Chandler brings to New York. "He does. He brings that guy that's going to play on both ends, and he'll bring accountability to [New York's defense]. He'll change their culture. He'll be like what Kevin [Garnett] was for us. Because when we had Ray [Allen] and Paul, we had a lot of offense. Then when we brought Kevin in, we had a lot of offense, but we became a defensive team. To me, that’s what Chandler will do for the Knicks."
The Knicks ranked second in the league in points per game last season (106.5) ... and 28th in points allowed (105.7). Expect that number to drop with Chandler around and that could truly make New York a legitimate contender in the Atlantic Division for the first time in Boston's Big Three era.
Matching up with New York's size
By just stepping on the court, Chandler adds a 7-foot-1 presence to the Knicks' lineup, and when combined with Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, that makes for an a rather daunting frontcourt -- one Rivers fully acknowledged is imposing on paper (like a certain team out West used to be).
"They’re really good, they really are," said Rivers. "They’re long. To me, they remind me of the [2010-11] Lakers in some ways. They go with their Bynum (Chandler), Gasol (Stoudemire) and Odom (Anthony) almost -- because that’s a big lineup. Carmelo is huge; I don’t think people realize how big he is. Then you have [Chandler and Stoudemire] so they have length now. And that’s something they didn’t have. They were small last year, now they’re big."
Rivers and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have stressed that Boston has enough size to match up with any team in the league, and that'll be put to the test early. The Celtics will start Jermaine O'Neal and Kevin Garnett up front, but will lean heavy on the likes of newcomers Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox to play bigger than they are when they come off the bench.
Exploiting the point guard matchup?
Especially while the Knicks wait for Baron Davis to get healthy, the Celtics have a glaring advantage at the point guard position. Can Rajon Rondo exploit his matchup with Toney Douglas? You'll remember Rondo running amuck after Chauncey Billups injured his knee at the start of last year's playoff series. Depending on Pierce's status, the Celtics might really need Rondo to come out of the gates flying and quarterback this team on opening day.
What about if the Knicks utilize Anthony at point forward? Rivers is fine with that.
"[Anthony is] still going to shoot the ball," said Rivers. "I’ve never really minded when a shooter runs the offense because he runs the offense and that means he’s not shooting. I would prefer that [with Anthony]."
Hop HERE to check out ESPN New York's take on W2W4 from a Knicks perspective.