BOSTON -- It's hard to believe that it was a little more than two years ago that the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks were jousting in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It was the Knicks' victory in six games during that 2013 postseason clash that might have encouraged the Celtics to swallow hard and move on from the Big Three era (a little over a month after Boston's elimination, the Celtics traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn while ushering in the Brad Stevens era). Both the Celtics and Knicks dipped their toes in the low-lottery waters in recent seasons, but there's reasons for both sides to be optimistic moving forward.
ESPN.com beat writers Chris Forsberg and Ian Begley went back-and-forth to preview Sunday's Celtics-Knicks matchup, the first of four regular-season meetings between the two teams this season.
Forsberg: Ian, the Eastern Conference is a logjammed mess with teams in spots 2-11 separated by only four games. The Knicks linger a few car lengths back of that pack, but I think most Celtics fans were expecting New York to be in the breakdown lane with the other Atlantic Division disabled vehicles (Nets, 76ers). Give me the 102-story view from the Empire State: How is the 2015-16 season going for the Knicks?
Begley: Knicks fans who've watched this team lose three straight won't want to hear this, but the season is going better than expected thus far. The players the Knicks brought in -- starting with Kristaps Porzingis, Arron Afflalo, and Robin Lopez -- have helped the team put last season's 17-win disaster in the rear-view mirror. This team probably isn't going to accomplish anything of significance this season. But if the Knicks are in the hunt for a playoff spot in mid March, that would be a step in the right direction following last season's nightmare.
What do you make of what you've seen in Boston thus far?
Forsberg: Celtics fans are a little sea sick, but have been willing to take their daily dose of Dramamine because the ups have outweighed the downs. In his third year on the bench, Stevens has molded this superstar-less Boston roster into a defensive pest (the Celtics are third in the league in defensive rating behind only the Spurs and Warriors) and that gives Boston a chance most nights. Now, the Celtics are still a roller coaster, a team that hasn't won (or lost) more than three games in a row (though they've had four such streaks in one direction or the other). Winners of three straight at the moment, and with the Knicks, Lakers, and Nets visiting this week, there's finally a chance for Boston to get some momentum. But even on the playoff fringe in the overcrowded East, Celtics fans are encouraged by their team.
The Celtics might still be looking for a superstar, but the Knicks, in my mind, have two: Porzingis and Anthony. Let's start with the former, what it's like covering Year 1 of PorzingisMania?
Begley: Porzingis has handled all of the attention well for a 20-year-old, particularly one spending his first months in America under the microscope of the New York media/fan base. He hasn't had any public missteps and has endeared himself to fans and, more importantly, his teammates. Porzingis has struggled of late, shooting just 36 percent in his last five games. It seems as if defenses have adjusted to his early-season success, so it will be interesting to see how the rookie adjusts on Sunday against the Celtics and in the coming weeks.
What about your group? What's surprised you most about the Celtics thus far?
Forsberg: The biggest surprise is probably that Boston is 9-6 away from TD Garden. These young Celtics have inexplicably been road warriors since the end of last season. What's more, Boston won 10 consecutive games on the second night of back-to-backs that closed on the road before finally falling in Detroit earlier this month. That makes little sense for a young, inconsistent team, but Stevens has implored his team to embrace a no-excuse mindset. Will that help them playing Night 2 of a back-to-back in Boston against the Knicks? It's impossible to know given Boston's consistency issues.
About New York's other star. What's your thoughts on the best path forward for the Knicks? And how do they balance building for the future without wasting the back side of Carmelo's prime?
Begley: It's a difficult line to toe. It seems unlikely at this point to expect the Knicks to land one of the top stars in free agency this summer. So, to me, the key for Phil Jackson and the Knicks is to add veteran players like Afflalo and Lopez to fill out the roster this summer. As far as dealing Carmelo, I don't think that will happen this season. Anthony has a no-trade clause and, by all accounts, is committed to New York at this point. Maybe a team with cap space this summer that can't land the free agents it targets would be interested in Anthony. That could change the calculus on Anthony deal for the Knicks. As of right now, I don't see it happening during the season.
Speaking of trades, do you see the Celtics making any moves at the deadline? What do they need to address?
Forsberg: The Celtics, with their pile of future draft picks and some intriguing young talent, have all the parts necessary to inject themselves in the conversation for any big-name player that becomes available. They'd love to find a true star to pair with Isaiah Thomas (maybe the team's best chance at an All-Star) and make Boston a legitimate contender again. Alas, the market might dictate just how big of a move Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge can make. He's been patient through the process and won't rush now. The Celtics would probably settle for adding a decent offensive threat, particularly if one was available at a big-man spot.
Final question: The new year is right around the corner; give me one resolution the Knicks should make in 2016.
This club needs consistency from its bench. Maybe that means an upgrade via the trade market? Maybe it means Derek Fisher figuring out a regular rotation? Either way, it seems clear that the Knicks won't have much success without regular production from their second unit. Case in point? The Knick were up 15 in the first half against Atlanta but the Hawks bench dominated New York early in the second half and Atlanta won by 19. New York can't afford performances like that if it hopes to make a playoff run.
Forsberg: Hey, something these two teams can agree on. The Celtics are hopeful the return of Marcus Smart -- something that could happen as early as Sunday after missing 18 straight games -- will give Boston some much-needed backcourt depth. It's also going to muddy the rotations again and Stevens must figure out how to best deploy his talent when everyone is healthy (does Thomas eventually go back to the bench? which bigs will Boston lean on as rotations tighten?) Anything that can help promote consistency will go a long way for Boston in the new year.