By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks will begin their most important playoff run in more than a decade on Saturday against the team that has been the class of the Eastern Conference since 2007.
Though the Celtics are missing their starting point guard, are yet another year older and have been only a .500 team for most of the year, it’ll be a challenging matchup for the Knicks.
What to watch when the Knicks have the ball:
This will be a classic matchup between the third-best offense in the league and the sixth-best defense. According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks’ best scoring plays come in isolation (No. 5 in NBA), on spot-up jumpers (No. 2) and when the pick-and-roll ball-handler scores (No. 2). The Celtics are the second-best defensive team in the NBA against isolation, second-best against spot up jumpers and No. 1 at preventing the pick-and-roll ball-handler from scoring. Like many defensive teams, the Celtics are great at helping the primary defender and discouraging opponents from getting into the lane. They then rotate back to the shooters to prevent open looks. They also have one of the best perimeter defenders in the game in Avery Bradley, who will no doubt hound Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith all series long.
The onus is going to be on the Knicks’ playmakers — Carmelo Anthony, Smith and Felton — to make the right situational play. New York’s offensive rating has actually been better against the Celtics than it has been overall this year, but not because of the shooting of Smith and Anthony. Melo has shot just 35 percent against the Celtics this year, and Smith only 39 percent. Those guys have to read the Celtics’ defense and score when the opportunity presents itself. And they have to pass when the right play is to find open shooters. They need to play smart basketball, something both have done extremely well in April. Hot-shooting wouldn’t hurt either, since the Celtics will more than likely be forcing them into mid-range jump shots.
One big reason why the Knicks’ offense has been better versus Boston despite the poor shooting of their stars? Offensive rebounding. The Celtics are one of the worst rebounding teams in the league (20th in defensive rebounding). Compared to their regular-season average, the Knicks pull down 1.5 more offensive rebounds per game against Boston, despite playing at a slower pace. Tyson Chandler has averaged 12.5 rebounds against Boston this year. For once, the Knicks can be the team dominating the glass.
What to watch when the Celtics have the ball:
The Knicks’ defense has struggled this year against isolation (26th in the league). They’ve allowed guards to penetrate and score on the pick and roll (28th, according to Synergy Sports), but Boston is a middling team in those categories. Rajon Rondo’s injury has really hurt their pick-and-roll game and only Paul Pierce and Jeff Green can score in isolation. Boston’s offense is most efficient when working through the post, and the Knicks have the best defense in the league in that category.
The Celtics like to exploit mismatches, which can hurt the Knicks considering their willingness to switch, sometimes into mismatches. Boston will run high screen-and-rolls with Pierce and Kevin Garnett to try to induce a switch. Boston wants Pierce going against a Knicks big man, or Garnett posting up a guard. Either matchup will force the Knicks to double-team, which will allow the Celtics to move the ball and score on open jumpers or hitting cutters going toward the basket. The Knicks have to be disciplined against the Celtics’ offense and not let Doc Rivers pull their strings like a puppet master.
The Knicks’ defense has struggled for most of the year but has been good in flashes. It has been especially good in the fourth quarters, when the Knicks are the third-best defensive team in the NBA. When the Knicks are engaged they can play good defense. I get the feeling they are very motivated for this series and will give an excellent defensive effort, making it difficult for the Celtics to score consistently.
The important matchups:
Who will guard Carmelo Anthony? The Celtics will likely use some kind of combination of Brandon Bass, Jeff Greene, Terrence Williams and even a little Pierce. None of those players can guard him man-on-man, but the Celtics’ help-defense — and Kevin Garnett — is always there.
Who will Avery Bradley guard? If the Celtics put him on Felton, it would be to stifle the Knicks’ pick-and-roll game. Felton has hurt Boston this year to the tune of 56 percent shooting. The Celtics’ only win against the Knicks was in a game Felton was hurt. If Smith stays hot, however, Boston will have little choice but to put Bradley on Felton to prevent him scoring one-on-one. Bradley might be the best perimeter defender in the playoffs, and it’s fun watching him work.
Statistically, the Knicks have been great in fourth quarters this season. However, Mike Woodson will be dealing with one of the best late-game tacticians in the game in Rivers. His plays with the clock ticking down are always creative and well-executed. Woodson will have to match that with his defense, but also make sure the final possessions for the Knicks aren’t just “give it to Melo or J.R. on the wing and get out of the way.” This is one area I really believe the Celtics have a serious advantage.
If the Knicks’ big men can’t stay on the floor, New York could be in serious trouble. The Celtics’ constant rotation makes them vulnerable on the offensive glass. Tyson Chandler or Kenyon Martin need to be playing to take advantage of that. They need to finish around the rim.
The Celtics will try to push the Knicks’ buttons in this series, specifically Anthony. It’s time for him to be cool and composed and realize what the Celtics are trying to do. They want to take Melo out of his game. He can’t let them do that. It’s the same for Chandler, Felton and Smith, players who can sometimes get more obsessed with the foul calls they aren’t getting than trying to win the game. The Knicks need to grow up in this series and really become a mature team. Unraveling emotionally is one of the ways the Knicks lose this series.
With Pablo Prigioni likely out Saturday, the Knicks need to figure out who they want to start. Because of Woodson’s desire to keep the core of the second unit intact — and keep Melo at the four — it seems obvious that Chris Copeland will start. It will be fine offensively with his ability to shoot the ball, but I worry about how he will affect the Knicks’ defense. As well as the ball moves with two point guards on the court, Prigioni’s real impact comes defensively as one of the team’s best perimeter guys. His absence could really hurt the Knicks in that regard.
I’m going to maintain my optimistic prediction and take the Knicks in five games. They’re too talented for the Celtics to make a serious run. Nearly every game in the series will be close, but I like the Knicks’ playmakers at the end of games more than Boston’s. That should mitigate whatever advantage Rivers gives the Celtics over Woodson in late-game situations. Beating the Celtics in this series would be very meaningful for the Knicks. It will prepare them for a similarly defensive-minded, tough team in Indiana. The Knicks have a shot to prove to themselves they can beat a team like the Celtics.
It could be a stepping stone to something greater.
– I like every favorite in the Eastern Conference to win their opening-round series, even the Nets. The Bulls will struggle to score in the playoffs, and the Nets will beat them in a drag-out, intense and fun-to-watch seven-games series. The Pacers and Heat should both advance rather easily in five games.
– Out West, I think the Grizzlies beat the Clippers in the first round as their interior players prove too much for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. I think Griffin gets a little exposed this series against a great defense, and Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford won’t do enough to make up for it. With Denver’s injuries, I think the Warriors give them a run for their money but home court advantage will be too much and the Nuggets will win in seven games. The Spurs should handle the Lakers in five or six, and the Nuggets will beat the Rockets in what will be a short but extremely entertaining five-game series.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
What’s your prediction for this series? Let Schmeelk know in the comments…