By David Thorpe & Anthony Macri
The Boston Celtics may not have the aura they did in the last few years as a team that could pull together a championship run this season, but they have still had one of the most impressive seasons on the defensive end of any team. They finished the year 1st in points allowed per game and 2nd in defensive rating, and they held opponents to the lowest assist total in the league. This team is built on a defense that prevents the opposition from doing what it does best and second best, and forces teams to create new options where none existed before. They started the season as hot as any team not named San Antonio, but cooled slightly over the course of the year and finished the season playing only marginally over .500 ball in February, March, and April. Boston’s four All-Star performers are the headliners, and Paul Pierce is playing one of the most efficient seasons in this, his 13th year.
When New York Knicks fans discuss the season, it will be easy to break it down into two distinct time periods: Before Melo and After Melo. However, while the Knicks are certainly a different team since the trade that landed them Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, the record and issues of inconsistency never really changed. Prior to the trade, the Knicks were 28-26, and they finished the season going exactly .500 the rest of the way, ending with a 42-40 record. They play at the third fastest pace in the league, ending a large number of their possessions with a 3-point attempt, as only one team shot and made more from long range this year than New York (Orlando). Momentum seems to play as big a role in their success (and failure) as any other single factor, as the Knicks have multiple winning and losing streaks of five or more games strewn throughout their regular season-something that could be very significant in a seven-game series.
The Celtics completed the season sweep of their regular season matchups with the Knicks in the final regular season game of the year. Boston scored a little more than 5 points per contest than New York did in their matchups, and in their last game with both rosters at near full strength (neither team played some of their best players in the regular season finale between the two), the Knicks held a lead heading into the fourth period when the Celtics managed to turn it on and scored 33 in the final quarter alone.
In this battle of teams that have performed at or around a mediocre level for the last month and change, the squad that is able to find its stride (even if only temporarily) will have a significant edge. With their experience playing together and reliance on a more foundational plan for success (halfcourt defense), it looks like Boston will be a tough out for the Melo and the Knicks.
Five keys to the series
Renewal of Rondo
It is almost a given that Boston’s defense will perform at least near the level it has all year long in the postseason. Provided that holds true, there is no better barometer for their success than the play of point guard Rajon Rondo on the offensive end. Throughout the first few weeks of this season, Rondo was arguably the league’s best point guard, racking up some incredible assist totals through the 5th of January and helping Boston to have an offense that approached its defense in efficiency.
Since the All-Star break, however, Rondo’s play has been spotty at best. He has not been anywhere near as sharp offensively, averaging 3 fewer assists per game and shooting significantly worse from the field (50.2% pre-break, and 43.3% afterwards). Interestingly, these differences in statistics parallel the way his production breaks down in wins (12.4 assists and 51.1% shooting from the floor) against losses (8.5 assists and 40.5% shooting).
Just as the entirety of Boston’s recent struggles cannot be placed solely on the play of Rondo, Rondo’s struggles are not completely self-inflicted either. Boston’s Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have slowed their production to some degree, and that has had a negative impact on how Rondo is able to influence a game. He is simply not the kind of player who can carry a team offensively.
If Rondo is able to get back on track, with some significant help from his teammates, expect Boston to perform much better as a result. Of course, part of the New York Knicks’ gameplan will be to prevent Rondo from having an impact: but New York’s free-wheeling approach to pace and propensity for long jumpers may be just the kind of jump-start that Rondo and the Celtics are looking for. It’s easy to imagine a lot of long rebound run outs for Boston, led by Rondo.
Team identity in the Big Apple
One of New York’s biggest problems this season has been the formation and maintenance of a team identity. In fact, it was just as one had begun to take shape: a group of versatile, sharpshooting athletes around a powerful interior bucket-getter, when most of the core was summarily traded to bring in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. Both players are very solid-to-great from a pure talent perspective, but when one asks the question of how they fit the identity that had been nurtured there from the beginning of the season, the answer is evident; they don’t.
Now, the identity should be focused around one of the most singularly gifted wing scorers (especially from mid-range) in the game along with Amare Stoudemire the bucket-getter. However, their focus has been blurred, and watching the Knicks it is not apparent that their plan of attack is structured to feature their best two players (and two guys who are often the best two players on the floor).
The Knicks did seem to find something of an identity in the late season win streak (albeit against some of the league’s bottom feeders), though they were unable to maintain that level of execution to close out the year. How fast they are able to demonstrate a knowledge of their team identity and put it into action against one of the best defenses in the league will surely be a challenge.
Turning it on for the postseason
The Celtics seem to be a team that is testing the old adage that says it is hard for any squad to just “turn it on” when they arrive at the postseason. However, their ability to do so will be critical in determining how far they are able to take their playoff run. This year, the challenge will be not only in their ability to increase their commitment and activity level on both ends, but also to work to make up for the loss of Kendrick Perkins, who was traded somewhat unexpectedly just before the trade deadline. He wasn’t a complete player, but he did help establish a toughness in the playoffs that benefited Boston the last few postseasons.
For the Knicks to be successful in this series, they likely need to steal a win in Boston before really has a chance to assert its playoff legs. It looks like Celtics coach Doc Rivers has done an adequate job keeping the Boston Big Three from fatiguing down the stretch, instead choosing to rest them and bring them back in the postseason. New York must take advantage of their transition back.
Melo’s postseason futility
Aside from their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, Carmelo Anthony’s Denver Nuggets teams have been marked for a first round exit from his rookie season forward. It might be unfair to place the blame on Anthony, but it is almost impossible to ignore the correlation. The biggest problem in the past can now be diagnosed as a lack of congruity between Anthony and the system in which he played. In New York, similarly incompatibilities may exist between Carmelo as a traditional halfcourt scorer and the more open, ball-screen centric offense of Mike D’Antoni.
However, that doesn’t mean the two cannot find enough common ground to give the Knicks a chance against Boston in the first round. One of the real strengths of Boston’s defensive approach is the way they defend and frustrate passing and cutting lanes. They are physical in the back line of defense, they contest and disrupt every set pattern, and they generally prevent teams from running clean offense. However, the Knicks have one of the league’s most potent counters to a great team defense: the sublime individual scorer.
Carmelo has the ability, whether it be in a single game or perhaps over the course of an entire series, to put a team on his back and carry them to a whole new level. Boston does as good job as anyone in the league of limiting an opponent’s assist to made-field-goal ratio, essentially turning their opponent into a team that must operate out of flow and in isolation off the dribble. This kind of situation, however, is where Carmelo is able to shine. Because of their outstanding team defense, he will need to catch lightning in a bottle – but it is certainly possible for a player of his caliber.
Transition: Quality vs. Quantity
One of the more startling differences between these two teams will be pace. Boston plays at the 8th slowest pace in the entire league, while New York plays faster than all but two squads. An interesting dynamic will be the way both teams score in transition, particularly how they shoot from beyond the arc.
New York launched and connected on the second most threes in the league this season – much of their offensive philosophy revolves on drive and kick actions, pitch-aheads for jumpshots, and a variety of skip passes within the general timing of early offense. This results in a large quantity of three point shots as New York builds their transition offense from the outside-in. Boston’s approach is more traditional—they first look inside toward post players running the floor toward prime real estate, but they are also very smart with misdirection and spacing, finding quality three point opportunities as shooters fill spaces on the perimeter and receive screens on the weakside.
Generally speaking, the shots Boston manages to take are of better quality than those New York will attempt. Sheer volume (both of attempts and of makes) will favor the Knicks. Like an NCAA Tournament team searching for an upset, the Knicks will probably need to connect on a high number of three point attempts to really have a shot at derailing the Celtics this postseason. They might be able to do so in one or two games, but four times will be much more difficult.
Prediction: Celtics in six