Last season, the creaky Boston Celtics entered the Eastern Conference playoffs as the fourth seed, having gone 39-27 over the NBA’s lockout truncated season. They ended up just three games better than the 36-30 New York Knicks, who ended up the conference’s seventh seed. The Knicks lost to the Heat in the first round, and not enough is made of the fact that those Celtics – a team that was thought to have been done years ago – came within one game of ensuring that LeBron James would continue to be looked upon as nothing more than a self-proclaimed king on a fake throne.
What a difference a year makes. The Celtics have hobbled into the playoffs, having gone just 5-10 of their final 15 games. The Knicks, on the other hand, just won their first Atlantic Division title since 1994 and turned in their best season since 1996. Carmelo Anthony even earned Chris Sheridan’s MVP runner-up vote.
But the Knicks and Celtics will do battle in a playoff series for the second time in three years, and the Knicks want revenge for the 4-0 sweep that Kevin Garnett and his crew dealt them two years ago.
For sure, though, if there are two teams that the Celtics would get fired up for, it’s the Heat and the Knicks. So if you think this series will not be a dogfight, you are wrong.
Here are five factors that should determine the outcome of the series.
1. The Honey-Nut Cheerios Factor: There is no denying that there is bad blood between the Knicks and Celtics, and the altercation between Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett earlier this season was just one manifestation of it.
The bottom line for Anthony is this: The legacy that he leaves in New York City will be determined by what he accomplishes in the playoffs. With each passing season, he runs out of opportunities to do something special for New York and for his team.
As evidenced by his 14 technical fouls, Anthony is a bit of a hothead. We have seen opponents get under his skin, but Knicks fans should be similarly concerned with J.R. Smith (13 techs) and Tyson Chandler (10) as well. The Knicks can win this series, but it will require them to keep calm and collected, execute their game plan, and not get involved in any extracurricular activities with the Celtics.
Having added Quentin Richardson, a longtime foe of Pierce, only increases the volatility factor for the Knicks.
2. Paul Pierce vs. Carmelo Anthony
For the second year in a row, Anthony was the best player in the league during April, averaging 36.9 points and 11.3 rebounds on 49 percent shooting from the field.
He was unreal, even as he played power forward for the undersized and oft-injured Knicks’ front line.
Paul Pierce, on the other hand, has had a miserable April, averaging 16.8 points. He has looked old and slow and was a relative no-show when the Knicks pummeled the Celtics back on March 26 and March 31.
Can Anthony continue his hot streak?
Was Pierce playing rope-a-dope?
At the end of this series, whichever of these two had the better and more efficient series will be moving on to battle either Indiana or Atlanta in the second round.
3. The 3-point line factor. This past season, the Knicks set the team record for most 3-pointers made in a season with 894. All season, they have relied on the long ball. They win games when they hit them and lose games when they don’t. In their 54 wins, the Knicks have connected on 40 percent of their looks from the arc. In their 28 losses? Just 33 percent.
The Celtics, on the other hand, are a team that is similarly capable of lighting it up from downtown.
Pierce is not afraid to fire, and the Dallas Mavericks owe their 2011 NBA championship to Jason Terry and his big shots during that NBA Finals. If Terry can provide the Celtics with a spark off the bench and outshoot Smith, and if he, Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford can keep the Knicks’ perimeter defenders honest and keep the paint unclogged for Garnett and Jeff Green to operate below the foul line, the Celtics will have a chance to score the upset over the Knicks.
4. The Health Factor. Offensively, Anthony is the Knicks’ most important player, but on the defensive side, it is Chandler. Still the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Chandler has missed 16 of the last 20 games as he is battling through a bulging disc in his neck.
Garnett serves a very similar purpose for the Celtics, but he has missed 12 of the last 17 games.Kenyon Martin has emerged as an important piece for the Knicks and rookie Pablo Prigioni – another vital cog – sprained his ankle in the season finale against Atlanta. Aside from Garnett, Boston’s key rotation players have been relatively healthy. Avery Bradley returned to the lineup for good on Jan. 22. Green and Brandon Bass played in all 81 games this season and Terry only missed the final two to rest for the postseason.
It is also worth noting that Pierce missed only five games this season, even at the ripe old age of 35. Anthony has missed 15. Whichever team remains healthiest may walk away victorious.
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5. The rebounding factor: For a while, the Celtics have been amongst the worst rebounding teams in the league. They finished 29th this season 39.6 rebounds per game, partially because Doc Rivers wants to set his defense rather than chase offensive boards. The Knicks tied for 25th with 40.6 boards. But in the season series, which the Knicks won 3-1, New York won the rebounding battle in all four games.
If the Celtics want to avoid the same fate, they must do a better job on the glass, and that is certainly possible if the Knicks’ platoon of big men is not fully healthy.
SHERIDAN: Knicks in 5.
HUBBARD: Celtics in 7.
HEISLER: Knicks in 6.
BERNUCCA: Knicks in 6.
HAMILTON: Knicks in 6.
PERKINS: Knicks in 5.
SCHAYES: Knicks in 5.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Knicks in 6.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Knicks in 5.
ZAGORIA: Knicks in 6.
PARK: Knicks in 6.