Pick A Winner
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO D
After Boston's final regular-season game at TD Garden earlier this month, captain Paul Pierce was asked if he knew what type of team the Celtics had going into the playoffs. "Well, we want to be a defensive team first," he answered. "That's the kind of reputation we've had over the years."
It's that defense that gives Boston something better than a puncher's chance of pulling off a first-round upset of the New York Knicks when the Eastern Conference playoffs open Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
Focus on the bad if you prefer -- a barely-better-than-.500 record and the seventh seed in the East suggests Boston hasn't been able to maintain a high level of defensive play this season -- but with healthy veterans like Pierce and Kevin Garnett on the floor, the Celtics absolutely believe they have the experience and ability to take down the Knicks.
Boston owned the sixth-best defensive rating in the league (100.4 points per 100 possessions). What's more, that number plummeted to 96.2 in the 2,022 minutes of floor time logged by Garnett.
That's why the Celtics essentially shut down Garnett for a two-week stretch spanning into April in order to let his left-ankle inflammation subside. The team got him a couple more leisure days along the way, hoping to have him in peak form for the playoffs. Now, with a rest-friendly schedule, the Celtics hope his presence is enough to rekindle a defense that's played such a huge role in their postseason success in past seasons.
This is the time of year when shots don't fall as easily; when every possession is a grind. The Knicks unleashed a 3-point barrage on the league this season, but Boston owned the best 3-point defense in the league since the beginning of January, after Avery Bradley returned (opponents shot 32.4 percent beyond the arc in the new calendar year).
The Celtics have to bring a physical brand of basketball, and they hope to get inside the Knicks' heads. Earlier in the season, we saw that Garnett has the ability to do that against league scoring champ Carmelo Anthony. If Boston makes it harder for New York to put points on the board, can the Knicks' defense -- a group that ranked 17th in defensive rating -- do enough to win the series?
If it comes down to defense, as the playoffs often do, you have to like Boston's chances.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
IN A WORD: CONFIDENCE
Maybe it's the 17 NBA titles. Maybe it's the atmosphere at TD Bank Garden. Maybe it's their recent run at the top of the Atlantic Division.
Whatever it is, there's a certain aura about the Boston Celtics that seems to make Knicks fans extremely nervous.
But they shouldn't be this year.
Mike Woodson's club finished the regular season with 12 more wins than the Celtics.
There's a reason for that: New York is a better team. And the Knicks will prove as much over the next two weeks.
Here's how: Boston will defend, but it doesn't have enough offense to hang with the Knicks.
With Rondo out, the Celtics have suffered through bouts of offensive inconsistency. Those will continue in the playoffs. Their ceiling on offense is diminished significantly with Rondo on the sideline.
The Celts finished the regular season ranked 20th in offensive efficiency, a measure of points per 100 possessions. The Knicks should be able to outscore them with ease if they play move the ball well.
Make no mistake: Boston will defend -- and defend well -- in this series. Nothing's going to come easy for New York. The Celtics finished the season ranked sixth in defensive efficiency; the Knicks finished 17th.
But the Knicks' offense is diverse. If Boston loads up on Carmelo Anthony, he can draw the attention of the defense and find an open teammate. As long as said teammate can make an open shot, the Knicks should have success.
It's important, though, that Anthony and J.R. Smith continue to attack the paint. Both Smith and Anthony attacked the rim consistently over the last three weeks and it worked well. Smith and then Anthony (twice) won the NBA's Eastern Conference Player of the Week award for their efforts.
So they will head into the postseason extremely confident.
Knicks fans should feel the same way.
There's no need to be nervous about this Celtics team.
Ian Begley covers the Knicks for ESPNNewYork.com.