Friday, April 19, 2013
Handicapping Celtics-Knicks matchups
By Greg Payne
NEW YORK -- The rivalry between Boston and New York might not be as strong in basketball as it is in baseball, but the Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff matchup between the Celtics and Knicks, tipping off Saturday afternoon (3 ET, ABC), has the potential to kick it up a notch. The Knicks won the regular-season series 3-1, but as C's coach Doc Rivers likes to say, teams press the restart button in the postseason when the stakes get higher and tensions rise. With that in mind, it's time to examine where each club might hold an edge in this series. Although the Knicks' starting lineup might not be finalized, we're taking a look at each club's potential starting five, benches and coaches, to determine who has the advantage.
Avery Bradley (Celtics) vs. Raymond Felton (Knicks)
Felton gets points over Bradley for being more of a natural point guard, seeing as Bradley is better suited as an off guard but was thrust into the role in the wake of Boston's loss of Rajon Rondo for the season in January. Bradley still won't fill the role of a conventional point guard, as Boston will utilize multiple ball handlers to initiate the team's offense. Felton has posted solid numbers all season, and while his greatest contributions should come on the offensive end, Bradley holds greater potential for an all-around impact if he can emerge as a consistent source of offense (keep an eye on his corner 3-point shooting) while bringing his usual tenacious on-ball defense. Bradley's pressure defense could spell trouble for not only Felton, but New York's other primary ball handlers.
SLIGHT EDGE: Celtics
Paul Pierce (Celtics) vs. Iman Shumpert (Knicks)
Pierce and Jeff Green are interchangeable at the shooting guard/small forward spots in this lineup, but we envision Pierce seeing more time in the back court. Shumpert's athleticism could make him a difficult cover for Pierce at times, but the Celtics' captain will happily return the favor on the other end, as he'll utilize his height and strength to attack the lane and create easier shots for himself. Pierce loves playing in Madison Square Garden, and with his jack-of-all-trades kind of role (don't be shocked if he registers a triple-double or two), he could be poised for one of his better playoff series in recent memory. Without a true lock-down defender in front of him, Pierce will want to put his stamp on this series early, before an emotional return to Boston for Games 3 and 4.
Jeff Green (Celtics) vs. Carmelo Anthony (Knicks)
Anthony is arguably the best player in this entire series, and there's no doubt Green will have his work cut out for him on the defensive end. In four games against the Celtics this season, Anthony averaged 25.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists, although he shot just 35 percent from the field. As much as Green (and Pierce and Brandon Bass, who'll also spend time guarding Anthony) will need to make things difficult for Anthony when he has the ball, Green needs to channel an aggressive mindset on offense and force Anthony to work on the defensive end as well -- something Anthony most likely doesn't want to do. While Green could easily emerge as something of an X factor for the Celtics throughout their entire playoff run, there's little question that Anthony boasts the greater ability to take over a game (and potentially a series).
Brandon Bass (Celtics) vs. Kenyon Martin (Knicks)
Brandon Bass' late-season resurgence was a welcome relief for the Celtics, who desperately needed more production out of their starting power forward. Bass came through with his finest month of the season in April, averaging 13.9 points on 57.3 percent shooting to go along with 5.8 rebounds per game. The Celtics will need Bass to be aggressive in his shot selection on offense, but more importantly, they'll need him to be active on the defensive glass. Martin, despite his advanced age and missing seven of the Knicks' final 10 regular-season games due to injury, still displays a high level of energy around the basket and could give Boston fits on the boards at times. But if Bass is knocking down his midrange jump shot and can hold his own in the rebounding department, the Celtics will garner the edge here.
Kevin Garnett (Celtics) vs. Tyson Chandler (Knicks)
This is perhaps the most difficult matchup to predict, if only because Garnett and Chandler are both coming off injuries and hold similar value to their respective teams. They are their clubs' defensive anchors and best rebounders, although the Celtics rely on Garnett on offense far more than the Knicks rely on Chandler. There's no question Chandler trumps Garnett in age and overall athleticism at this point in their respective careers, but Garnett was actually a better defensive rebounder than Chandler this season. Chandler has the potential to wreak havoc on Boston's penetrating wing players with his shot-blocking ability, but Garnett can neutralize that by playing outside of the lane and drawing Chandler away from the basket. Despite Chandler's athleticism and reigning defensive player of the year status, Garnett's versatility on offense and ever-present defensive chops make this matchup too difficult to call.
The Celtics' bench is in a state of perpetual motion and could be for their entire playoff run. Injuries crippled Boston's reserve options, leaving Jason Terry -- who had a rocky regular season -- teamed with the likes of Jordan Crawford, Shavlik Randolph, Courtney Lee, Chris Wilcox and Terrence Williams. While all those players have come through with a meaningful game at one point or another, consistency hasn't yet been found, and therein lies the danger for Boston. J.R. Smith undoubtedly will serve as the backbone of the Knicks' bench effort and could even determine how far New York advances. His high-volume scoring potential could easily swing a game or two of this series in the Knicks' favor. And you can't sleep on Steve Novak's ability to affect a game with some hot 3-point shooting. But it's Smith's big-game potential that could give the Knicks a defining advantage.
Mike Woodson deserves credit for doing what no other Knicks coach could do over the past decade: get New York clicking on virtually all cylinders and guide the club to a meaningful playoff position. But can he translate that regular-season success to the playoffs? In his coaching career, Woodson has never guided a team past the Eastern Conference semifinals. Meanwhile, it's rare for a team to acknowledge its coach alongside its star players as part of the core that will lead to postseason success. But Rivers has proved to be that kind of value to the Celtics, and he's still arguably the best in the business at managing personalities and drawing up crafty plays in timeouts, particularly late in games. Rivers always seems to find a way to get the very best out of his teams in the postseason, although he faces perhaps his greatest challenge since he was without Garnett four seasons ago. Still, the history and postseason success he shares with Pierce and Garnett are enough to strike fear in any opponent.