New York and Boston tip off on Saturday afternoon (Getty Images)
After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
We continue with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
Attempting to speak intelligently about the New York Knicks has been a perilous proposition since the 2012-13 regular season tipped off last autumn. The team has seemingly played three different seasons since then, morphing from a white-hot outside shooting outfit into a middling club on both ends and back into a grinding-yet-still-potent second-seed earner that closed out the season by winning 16 of 18 contests.
And yet, after 82 games’ worth of work, coach Mike Woodson still doesn’t know who he’ll be able to field from game to game. The starting lineup and rotation situation remains fluid, the team recently had to sign Quentin Richardson just to support its wing depth, and Rasheed Wallace just retired fer crissakes. Amar’e Stoudemire is in and out of practice, Tyson Chandler is in and out of grimacing, and even Carmelo Anthony earned his scoring title on a night he sat out with a bruised left shoulder as a precautionary measure.
So how on earth did this team grab the Atlantic Division crown and the East’s second seed? Woodson, rightfully pilloried for years for his intractable nature while working with the Atlanta Hawks, did a masterful job in 2012-13 of thinking on his feet and utilizing offensive weapons derived from several sources (Indiana University’s ancient motion offense, the wild and wooly 3-point happy days of Dick Motta’s final coaching years and the sorts of isolation hallmarks found in George Karl’s time coaching Carmelo) to turn this team into a potent, ever-evolving (or “ever-recovering”) offensive squad. As was the case in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks, the team's ability to run a small backcourt while leaning on Jason Kidd to play the role of a savvy, skip-passing shooting guard helps in that regard.
The defense has mainly gone by the wayside. The top-10 defensive team that (seriously) Mike D’Antoni put together for the first half of last season fell to 18th this season due in some part to just 66 games of Tyson Chandler, who was not at his physical best in 2012-13. It’s also due to a lack of footspeed on the perimeter, and at times the overreliance of J.R. Smith having to shoot the Knicks into wins during the fourth period — long rebounds tend to do bad, bad things.
The Knicks can still swarm and steal with the best of them defensively on the turnover front, though, and they rarely turn the ball over on the offensive end. Sadly for Boston, this would seem to be the advantage for New York.
The Celtics aren’t known for causing heaps of turnovers themselves, even in their defensive heyday. Behind “just” over 2,000 minutes from Kevin Garnett this year, though, the team has faltered a bit in the area they used to dominate in, dropping to seventh overall defensively while clinging to the lower rungs offensively (no free throws, middling work from behind the 3-point arc, clutch-and-grab basketball). On paper, the Knicks should win in a walk.
Things get cloudy on the court, though. Which is why we continue to have such a hard time putting our finger on this series.
Avery Bradley remains an all-world defender, and he should match up nicely with Smith’s whims. Paul Pierce and 'Melo will be allowed to bang away at the elbow and mid-post, with no capable NBA referee wanting to put either superstar in foul trouble in a nationally televised game. And though Garnett won’t break the bank minutes-wise, he will be playing two-thirds of the game in the postseason, as has been the case throughout his Boston career. It is a cliché, but it is also the truth: Boston’s Celtics will be a different team in the playoffs.
And in a series that starts 0-0, and with Boston relishing its time as an overlooked underdog, matched up with a team they genuinely do not like, things will be chippy, things will be close, and the Knicks (owners of the most 3-pointers made and attempted in a single season, shooting 37 percent on the year for the league’s fifth-best mark) will be asked to dial it up once again in a playoff format that could result in a small sample size’s worth of sorrow. A fortnight’s worth of cold shooting touches.
That’s Boston’s hope, at least. That, and six more minutes of Kevin Garnett, are all they’ve got.
PREDICTION: New York in 7.
Kevin Garnett makes basketball magic (Getty Images)
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
New York Knicks: The two-point-guard lineups continuing to carve up opposing defenses.
Plenty of factors contributed to New York’s rise from a bottom-third-of-the-league offensive unit last season to a top-three NBA offense this season — coach Mike Woodson’s decision to play Carmelo Anthony almost exclusively at power forward rather than small forward; Anthony’s ability to exploit mismatches every night and the evolution of his scoring game; J.R. Smith’s transformation into a legitimate No. 2 scoring threat; and a game plan predicated on creating, taking and making as many 3-pointers as possible.
But a key element in that last piece (and, really, in all of the above) has been Woodson’s ability to field lineups featuring two of the Knicks’ three lead guards — Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni — at the same time. Injuries and rotational issues have at times veered New York away from this path, but time and again, the two-PG lineups have come back into favor, and for one simple reason: They work.
Lineups including the most-used two-PG pairing — the tandem of Felton and Kidd, which opened the season as the starting backcourt — have outscored opponents by nearly nine points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com’s stat tool, about one point-per-100 fewer than the Miami Heat have outscored opponents this season. Those featuring the Felton-Prigioni duo — which started throughout the Knicks’ recent 13-game winning streak — have outscored opponents by more than 16 points-per-100, about five more than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s league-leading “net rating.” And those including Prigioni and Kidd — not necessarily the ideal pairing, because Kidd’s almost entirely a ball redirector at this point, Prigioni isn’t as willing a shooter as his percentages suggest he should be, and neither is as gifted a drive-and-kick playmaker as Felton — have still performed well, besting opponents by just under five points-per-100.
And it’s not like these units are successful solely because they always wind up sharing the floor with ‘Melo. The Knicks have used 11 three-man lineups featuring one of the PG duos for at least 100 minutes this season with seven different third members (Anthony, Smith, Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak, Iman Shumpert, Chris Copeland and Kenyon Martin) and 10 of 11 have outscored their opposition, most of them by pretty significant amounts. It’s not just sidling up next to a star; it’s the ball movement, open shots and driving lanes generated by these two-PG lineups that Knicks fans have seen wreak havoc on plenty of defenses this year, including Boston’s, as the Knicks won three of four head-to-head meetings between the two teams.
If the trio of Felton, Kidd and Prigioni can continue to keep the ball finding the open man in rhythm, turning good looks into great ones, then it would seem like just a matter of time before the short-handed, patched-together Celtics find themselves unable to withstand the offensive pressure. But if Woodson has to mix in more lineups where only one point guard takes the floor — if, say, the sprained right ankle Prigioni suffered in Wednesday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks winds up being a persistent problem, or Kidd’s continual inability to make shots forces Woodson to take him off the floor — then the high-I.Q., low-turnover, free-flowing offense we’ve seen could give way to something more stagnant, iso-heavy and easier to defend. And that would be a win for a Boston team thinking upset.
Boston Celtics: Kevin Garnett being KEVIN GARNETT on defense.
Even though he’s just a month shy of his 37th birthday, Garnett remains the key to the Celtics defense. Boston has allowed 96.2 points per 100 possessions with Garnett anchoring the back line this season, compared with 104.6 points-per-100 with him off the court. That’s like saying the Celtics are a bit better than the No. 1-ranked Indiana Pacers’ defense with KG, and only a tiny sliver better than the 22nd-ranked Toronto Raptors’ D without him.
That’s a big difference, and it’s shown up quite a bit when the Celtics have squared off with the Knicks. In the two games in which KG was available – which the teams split, with Boston’s win coming in a game made famous by KG’s dust-up with ‘Melo — the Knicks performed like two completely different teams depending upon whether Garnett was on the floor.
(And here’s where I note that we’re talking about very small sample sizes, so this stuff isn’t necessarily predictive as much as it is interesting to note.)
In the 70 minutes Garnett played, New York shot 39.1 percent from the floor, turned the ball over on nearly 18 percent of its possessions (a massive number for a Knicks team that was the best in the league at avoiding turnovers this year) and jacked a whopping 36.4 3-pointers per 48 minutes of floor time. The Knicks’ vaunted high-powered offense, the key to their sterling regular season, scored at a rate that would’ve trailed the Washington Wizards’ league-worst O when Garnett played.
In the 26 minutes he sat, though? It was like the Knicks were on vacation. They moved the ball freely without fear of a cough-up (their turnover percentage dropped to just 6 percent) and, more importantly, they attacked the basket with impunity.
When Garnett was on the floor, 25.2 percent of New York’s field-goal attempts came in the restricted area; when he sat, the number increased to 40.9 percent. (They made a higher percentage, too.) All that attacking bred coverage breakdowns as Boston’s defense collapsed to address penetration, opening up clearer midrange and perimeter looks, as well as more freebies — the Knicks shot as many free throws (23) in the 26 minutes Garnett sat as they did in the 70 minutes he played. As a result, the Knicks scored at a way higher clip — an average of 115.7 points per 100 possessions.
The attack-the-basket game plan carried over into the two late March-matchups Garnett missed due to a left ankle injury. The Knicks continued taking about 40 percent of their shots right at the rim, continued turning it over at a significantly lower rate, shot higher percentages from midrange and the perimeter, and scored at a 115.8-per-100 clip. Not surprisingly, they won both games.
Garnett’s back from his ankle injury, having looked sound in limited minutes in his three return appearances, and the general trend has held firm — Boston’s looked significantly better with Garnett at the heart of the defense, barking out orders and organizing the troops. But he hasn’t consistently played big minutes in a while, lockdown perimeter pal Avery Bradley’s been up-and-down of late, and the Knicks’ offense has been an absolute buzzsaw over the last 20 games. This is not an ideal situation in which to have to hit top gear quickly.
But if KG’s ready to blow up the Knicks’ high screen game, able to keep his teammates rotating crisply and up to the task of deterring all drivers, then Boston can throw a monkey wrench into the mix and perhaps ugly up the series enough to make things interesting. And if he can once again crawl inside Anthony’s head long enough to get the newly crowned scoring champ off his game, then all bets are off.
PREDICTION: Knicks in 6.
Jeff Green hears you, bloggers (Getty Images)
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Carmelo Anthony: Although Melo is one of the most visible and popular players in the NBA, there’s a common perception that he’s an elite player lacking certain qualities that win championships. Whether due to his efficiency, defense, attitude, or some combination of the three, Anthony does not fall into the standard definition of “winner” like most of his All-Star starter peers. The Knicks’ one total win in his two postseasons with the club has not helped matters.
On the other hand, Melo’s a player so vital to the daily discussion that his team’s success serves as the verdict on his abilities, not his stats. When the Knicks win, Melo becomes a more praiseworthy player in all manner of areas, from MVP conversations to vague considerations of his desire to be a champion. If the Knicks struggle to beat the Celtics, or even just take longer to do so than we’d expect from the second-best team in a conference, then Melo’s reputation will suffer with them. Otherwise, we’ll put off the same discussion until the next round, and then on again until he gets a ring.
J.R. Smith: The basketballing internet came to terms with J.R. Smith a while ago — he’s a borderline-insane person with enough talent and self-belief to win his team as many games as he loses them. Somewhat improbably, he’s also the front-runner for the Sixth Man Award, which means that David Stern will likely have to honor one of the NBA’s least mainstream players in a public forum. It could be the best television moment of 2013.
What that means, of course, is that Stern and others (announcers and commentators, mostly) will have to acknowledge Smith’s importance to the Knicks with a minimum of equivocation. Imagine for a minute that Smith’s awards moment occurs in the same game that he shoots the Knicks to a narrow win. It will be his night, a moment of triumph that impresses himself upon popular discussion of the sports for at least a few weeks. Then, as a free agent this summer, Smith could earn a lucrative contract. Would this sequence of events not earn J.R. Smith a measure of respectability for the first time in his career? And even if he figures out a way to lose it in record time, can that foray into polite society ever really be taken away from him?
Jeff Green: People who follow advanced metrics — or even just stats other than points per game — know that veteran forward Green is a limited player capable of occasional scoring outbursts. Green had enough of those games in the Celtics’ post-Rajon Rondo reality to convince many fans that he’s the future of the franchise, a relatively young player capable of helping the squad transition from the end of KG-led contention to a fresh period of relevance.
I don’t think it should be particularly controversial to say that Green is not a star, and that any team that uses him as its guiding light is virtually guaranteed to stay in the lottery for as long as it takes to find a legitimate top talent. Yet many Celtics fans remain convinced of Green’s viability in this role, and one or two explosive scoring games in the postseason would do little to change their minds. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers would follow suit, but it does suggest that Green could be presented as a better player than he is for the foreseeable future.
Rajon Rondo: The Celtics’ offensive success in the immediate aftermath of Rondo’s ACL tear caused many to believe that the team was better off without him. Rondo’s biggest fans (a group that most certainly includes me) were quick to point out that the Celtics would miss him greatly in the postseason, where defenses are stingier and adjusting on the fly becomes of greater importance. Simply put, Rondo performs extremely well in the postseason, perhaps because his atypical style proves particularly difficult to stop in a long series. Or maybe he just plays better when there’s a bigger audience.
Rondo won’t play in this series, but his absence will loom over the Celtics’ offensive proceedings in every game. If they prove able to score without him, then Rondo could find himself on the trading block soon. If the Celtics struggle, his position in the franchise’s future plans could become much firmer. Oddly enough, the fact that he’s not involved in this series could do more to determine the Celtics’ long-term plans than any event in their recent history.
PREDICTION: Knicks in 6.
More first-round previews from Ball Don’t Lie: