By John Schmeelk
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Lots of Knicks fans are worried about their team’s first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics.

I’m not.

In fact, I think it’s exactly what the Knicks need in order to challenge the Heat for the title.

The Knicks already completed the first part of their journey. They exceeded all expectations by winning 54 games and earning the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. But New York still has plenty to prove, and there’s no better team to do it against than the Celtics.

Despite the injury to Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are still in decent shape with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and head coach Doc Rivers. Besides the Heat, they still in many ways are the veteran team you’d have to go through in order to get to the NBA finals. Beating the Celtics would be a rite of passage — something that would help the Knicks get through the remainder of the postseason.

You could hear it in the voice of Carmelo Anthony when he talked about the prospect of beating the Celtics. Melo remembers the first-round loss to the Celtics in 2011, and the team still holds Pierce, Garnett and Rivers in high regard. Here’s a chance to prove to themselves that they belong as the two-seed and can do serious damage in the playoffs. Beating the Celtics would do far more for the Knicks than defeating the Bucks or Hawks.

It could help them grow into champions.

No team is more experienced than the Celtics. No team has a better coach than Rivers. Few teams play better and more disciplined defense. If the Knicks beat Boston, they will be prepared for the physical and stifling defense they may have to face against the Pacers in the second round. It’ll also be a true test for Mike Woodson, who will have to coach against Rivers in end-of-game scenarios. No one in the playoffs will challenge Woodson like Doc. It’ll be a good learning experience for him.  A series win against the Celtics can truly be the liftoff point for a serious run to the Eastern Conference finals.

It’s also important to note that the Celtics are no longer the team that for the past few seasons challenged for the NBA title. With Rondo out and Garnett and Pierce a year older, they are just not the same team. The Knicks are heavily favored in this series, and rightfully so. The Celtics won just 41 games this year, and don’t have the personnel to give the Knicks trouble on the court.

Much like the Knicks, the Celtics play small. They hold no advantage over New York in the frontcourt with Garnett at center and Brandon Bass at power forward.

Both teams will go small, but the Knicks do it far better. The Celtics also have no one that can match up with Anthony one-on-one. Bass is too slow, and Pierce too small. Jeff Green has the best chance physically, but he’ll need a lot of help to get the job done.

The Celtics also lack the one thing the Knicks really struggle against: a quick and fast playmaking guard who can break down the defense and run the pick and roll. The Celtics have no one to take advantage of that deficiency, nor do they have someone capable of lining up in isolation and taking the Knicks one-on-one. The Knicks can run three different defenders at Paul Pierce (Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Anthony) and the Celtics don’t own a favorable matchup anywhere that should force the Knicks to double team. As long as the Knicks don’t switch too much and continue to engage on defense for 48 minutes, the Celtics should have trouble scoring.

This is exactly the type of series the Knicks need to win to prove their playoff mettle. It would help answer many of the questions surrounding the superstar and the head coach. It would get them ready for the Pacers, a team with more talent than Boston but one with similar principles.

Is there a chance they lose to the Celtics? Sure. But if the Knicks can’t beat Boston, they aren’t going to beat Indiana. Forget the Heat. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. This is a hurdle the Knicks need to clear.

It’ll help make them into a championship-caliber team.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

– The Knicks have had a ton of roster moves this week for a team that just won the two-seed. With Solomon Jones cut and Rasheed Wallace’s retirement, the Knicks added Quentin Richardson and Earl Barron. They will both be eligible for the playoffs. Neither will play except in emergency, desperate or blowout situations — and that’s how it should be. The Knicks should stick with the rotation that got them here, which is one of the reasons it never concerned me if Wallace could return from his foot injury. The Knicks need to stick with their small ball strategy with either Tyson Chandler or Kenyon Martin at center. Now, if one of those guys gets hurt I might be singing a different tune, but for now the Knicks will be fine with the players they have healthy.

– With the way the Knicks’ season has gone, wasn’t it fitting that they would have more injuries in a meaningless game when they rested all their stars? Hopefully Prigioni’s sprained ankle, Shumpert’s quad and Copeland’s shoulder aren’t serious. But with the Knicks’ luck, who knows?

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.

What’s your prediction for the series? Let Schmeelk know in the comments…

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