Celtics look to race Knicks to the finish

WALTHAM, Mass. -- With apologies for the pun, the Boston Celtics' declaration that they want to push the pace at the start of the postseason runs counter to everything you'd expect from a team about to lock horns with Mike D'Antoni's seven-seconds-or-less Knicks.

Let's start with the basics: The Knicks finished with the third-highest average of possessions per game at 95.6 this season (a virtual tie with No. 2 Denver), while Boston ranked 22nd out of 30 teams at 90.4 (well below the league average of 92.1), according to Basketball-Reference.com. That alone suggests that one team likes to sprint, while the other likes to plod.

What's more, look closer at recent box scores and you'll see the Knicks are thriving in high-possession games, as evidenced by a late-season seven-game winning streak that helped them surge to the No. 6 seed. Only once during that span did the possession count come in under 99, and it was the only game in which the Knicks didn't reach triple figures during a stretch in which they averaged 113.2 points per game.

Conventional wisdom says the Celtics would prefer to make it a muddy track, bog down the pace, and lean on their defense. But coach Doc Rivers and his charges were adamant in recent days that they want to run, run, run this series.

The starter's gun goes off Sunday night at 7 ET when the two teams tip off Game 1 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at the TD Garden.

"We always want to get the ball in [All-Star point guard Rajon] Rondo's hands to push the ball," said captain Paul Pierce. "We try to use his speed, especially in the open court. We try to emphasize me and Ray [Allen], running wide to open up the court, getting the big men running down to the block or setting a screen [for] Rondo. So going into it, we want to get the ball up court.

"That's always our game plan, night in and night out, regardless of who we're playing. We want to try to get out and run."

The stats back Pierce up. Boston produced a 6-1 record in games in which the possession count reached triple digits, the only loss being a reserve-laden overtime defeat by the Wizards in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

But the Celtics must navigate a fine line between shootout and pushing the pace. Boston thrives when it forces defensive stops, then runs in transition. It can't allow itself to try to match the Knicks shot-for-shot with the offensive talent the Bockers possess.

The Celtics simply can't be scared to make it a footrace.

"I think we want [to run], too, really," said Rondo. "It just depends. If it's shot-for-shot and we're making shots and they're not, then obviously it fits to our advantage. But if vice versa, then I have to [be conscious] of slowing the ball down and getting the ball inside to the post."

While Rivers admits that you can't take too much from three of the four regular-season meetings between the Celtics and Knicks (two of them were pre-trade deadline maneuvering, while the regular-season finale featured JV lineups), he does like what he saw from his team in transition.

General philosophies are unlikely to change regardless of personnel, and the Celtics identified early on that pushing the pace against New York yielded positive results.

Consider this: The Celtics averaged 15.8 transition points per game this season, which ranks in the middle of the pack (14th) in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats and Information. But in the first three meetings against the Knicks this season, Boston averaged a whopping 21 transition points per game (the Celtics never scored fewer than 18 transition points in any of those first three games).

What's more, the Celtics averaged four additional transition plays per game above their season average against the Knicks and turned the ball over a mere 5.8 percent on those plays (when their season average in transition was more than double that at 11.9 percent).

Bottom line: Good things happen when the Celtics run, particularly against the Knicks.

"When I say speed, I mean not just Rondo, but the entire team," said Rivers. "You can't get into sets with 9 [seconds] on the clock."

The seven-second-or-less Celtics? Not quite. At the risk of oversimplifying the game plan, Boston wants to push the pace offensively, then bog it down defensively, taking New York out of its game.

Boston ranked second in the NBA with an 84.4 defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in their half-court defense. In fact, teams shot only 41.5 percent against Boston in the half-court set. Rivers has long contended he'll take his chances with his team when all five players can get back and set.

So that makes the game plan simple: Generate stops, run in transition with the goal of easy buckets, and force New York's offense to operate out of the half-court set. When Boston thrived for the first half of the season, its field goal percentage soared above 50 percent. It's no surprise that as that number plummeted late in the season, so did Boston's winning percentage.

One of the chief reasons for that swoon: a stagnant offense that failed to run.

"Doc is telling us to push the pace," said Rondo. "Obviously, we want to take care of the ball, go inside and just establish a pace. Try to get it up and run different sets in the shot clock."

It might be the last thing you'd expect from an aging roster, but the Celtics plan to break out their racing shoes. And it might ultimately be the key to their postseason success in the first round and beyond.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.