Which team is better?
NEW-LOOK KNICKS SUPERIOR TO CELTICS
Boston edged a then-hapless Knicks team on Feb. 3 for its third win in a stretch of five straight.
The Knicks fell to 8-15 with the loss. Overall, they'd dropped 11 of 13. Fans and media began calling for coach Mike D'Antoni's head.
But the next night against New Jersey, Jeremy Lin entered the game with about three minutes to go in the first quarter and changed everything -- for New York, for D'Antoni and for the tenor of the Knicks-Celtics rivalry, which resumes Sunday afternoon in Boston.
The Knicks reeled off seven straight wins and have won 10 of 13 to climb back to .500. Lin led the way early on, but Wednesday's win over Cleveland was a well-balanced effort. The Knicks' bench scored 50 points, highlighted by Steve Novak's 17-point, 17-minute outing.
It's that depth and the emergence of Lin that make the Knicks better than Boston right now.
The Celtics (17-17) have bounced back from a recent five-game losing streak, winning two straight since the All-Star break. And it would surprise no one if they entered Sunday's game against the Knicks on a three-game winning streak. (They'll play the Nets on Friday night.)
But don't forget about the Celtics' rebounding issues (30th in the league). And, though they haven't thus far, you have to wonder whether trade rumors involving Rajon Rondo will impact the C's on the court.
The Knicks have issues of their own; Amare Stoudemire's struggles and team turnovers come to mind. But thanks to Lin and their resurgent reserves, they're in a much better place than they were the last time they traveled to Boston.
And, right now, they're the better team.
CELTICS STILL BETTER
The Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks can agree that they are underachieving this season, as neither team expected to be playing .500 ball coming out of the All-Star break. But as for which is the better team, nothing has suggested that the Knicks have leapfrogged the Celtics this season.
Boston spent the first half of the season plagued by injuries, including being without the services of captain Paul Pierce in a Christmas Day loss to the Knicks. Pierce, despite his season-long shooting woes, returned to stabilize the team and scored 30 points as Boston avenged that opening-day loss with a triumph over the Knicks at the TD Garden last month.
Sure, Boston has endured its woes in recent weeks, losing five straight and seven of eight heading into the All-Star break. But emerging on the other side, Boston is as healthy as it has been (only Jermaine O'Neal is currently sidelined, to the surprise of no one), and its play coming out the break has been encouraging (even if inconsistencies remain).
This is a pivotal stretch for the Celtics, who are trying to figure out whether they'll to be buyers or sellers (or team detonators) at the March 15 trade deadline. But if they can continue to build momentum, there's a very good chance they can shimmy up the Eastern Conference seedings and at least give themselves a chance to be contenders.
You can say with a good deal of confidence that the Celtics will be in the mix come playoff time, and few high seeds will want to encounter them given their past success. Can you say the same about the Knicks?
Yes, New York has a ton of individual talent, and that makes it a scary team. But from a distance, it appears Jeremy Lin might have rescued that team (rumors before the last Celtics-Knicks battle was that Mike D'Antoni's job was in jeopardy; then he finished February nominated for East coach of the month). The Knicks' recent up-and-down play has pulled them out of the headlines.
Again, both teams need to play better. Who's better at the moment? About 15 NBA teams could claim they are. But in the head-to-head matchup, give me the Celtics, their stalwart defense and their chemistry over the Knicks.