- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Not all of the Boston-New York sporting drama is going on in Indianapolis. Well, OK, 99 percent of it is. In this case, being in the 1 percent means getting ready for the first visit of the Knicks to TD Garden since the 2011 playoffs.
This isn't quite a misery-loves-company matchup, but it's also not a battle between two division (let alone conference) titans. Many of us thought it would be when the season began and the Knicks rode a brilliant Christmas Day performance from Carmelo Anthony to beat the Celtics 106-104. Weren't we witnessing a potential changing of the guard, with New York ready to unseat the Celtics as the four-year running Atlantic Division champs?
Fast-forward six weeks, and you have two teams looking up at surprising Philadelphia in the division and one team, New York, out of the playoff picture altogether. No, it's safe to say things have not gone well -- or as expected -- in either burg this season.
Somewhere, former Knicks GM Donnie Walsh is chuckling and saying, "I told you so!" He did not want to emasculate his roster to get Anthony, but his owner did. The Knicks are 22-27 since making the deal last season. Walsh is now out of the picture and, most likely, relieved to no longer be in the loop.
And for good reason. The Knicks entered Thursday night's game against the Bulls with an 8-13 record. They had lost nine of 11 with the only two victories coming over the Bobcats and the Pistons, whose combined record Thursday morning was a spiffy 7-40. The game against the Celtics will be the second of a three-in-three stretch for New York, climaxing with a Saturday night meeting with the Nets.
Yes, at one point the Knicks were 6-4 and things looked promising. Then Anthony got hurt Jan. 12, and not much has gone right since. Both Anthony (40.4 percent) and Amare Stoudemire (42.9) are shooting at a career-worst pace from the field. They are not alone. New York's shooting percentage is 26th in the NBA, and its 3-point shooting percentage is 23rd. The Knicks are down 2.5 assists per game, and it's surprising it's not worse than that, owing to the absence of a reliable point guard. (There is talk that Baron Davis might be ready next week.)
Coach Mike D'Antoni is starting to sound Gingrichian as he talks about things turning around for the better, somewhere, sometime.
"We're still 8-13 and the posse is after me, so I'm running as fast as I can run," D'Antoni cracked to reporters Wednesday. "Hopefully I can turn this posse into a parade. That's my focus. I'm working as hard as I can work."
Anthony and Stoudemire, while both hurt, are expected to play Friday.
As for the Celtics, their injured list includes arguably their most valuable player, Rajon Rondo. He has missed the past eight games with a sore right wrist, but coach Doc Rivers indicated Rondo might return to action against the Knicks.
The Celtics, however, have not missed Rondo as much as might have been expected, going 6-2 in those eight games. That's because Avery Bradley has taken over Rondo's defensive pressure and amped it up to pain-threshold levels for opponents. (Just ask Jameer Nelson.) And Paul Pierce has methodically gotten back to the Paul Pierce we expect him to be after a brutal start. Over the past seven games, Pierce has been a virtual point forward, averaging 7.7 assists to go with nearly 23 points a game. Prior to that, he was averaging only 14.6 points a game while shooting a woeful 38.3 percent as he struggled returning from a right heel injury.
The Celtics certainly have had their own stink-out-the-joint moments this season -- home losses to Phoenix and Cleveland stick out -- but they are, at present, going in the opposite direction from the Knicks. They've won six of seven, and it should have been seven of seven, except they implausibly coughed up an 11-point lead in the final four minutes to the Cavaliers on Sunday. Included in this stretch were their first victories of the season over so-called legit teams (Orlando twice and Indiana) and two victories of 30-plus points.
Do the Knicks represent a legit team? Right now, the answer is an unequivocal no. That might change; it had better for the sake of D'Antoni's job prospects. But the Knicks, with their supposedly vaunted one-two scoring punch and the added defensive presence of Tyson Chandler, are much closer to the division cellar than to the division lead.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have started what they hope is a slow, steady march back to the top of the division. They are in a stretch in which they play five straight at home, capped by the much-anticipated annual visit from the Lakers next Thursday. But the schedule quickly gets ugly later this month, so they must take care of the business at hand.
On Friday night, that means taking care of the Knicks. The Celtics almost did it on Christmas, but Anthony took over the game, scoring 17 of his 37 in the fourth quarter. Pierce watched the whole thing in a sharp suit, unable to go due to the heel injury. He is back and has appeared to turn the corner. The Knicks also have turned a corner, but not in the direction they hope or want to go.
Longtime Celtics writer Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
This Celtics vs. Knicks rematch won't be what everyone expected.