With that said, they are underdogs to advance past the first round regardless of the opponents, which if the playoffs started today, would be the New York Knicks.
While they do lack the respect among pundits, the Celtics, barring a major collapse, won’t have to play the Miami Heat in the first round, which gives them as good as chance as any to advance.
Their most favorable opponent? That’s right, the Knicks. No, not just for the inevitable drama. That would be a pretty entertaining side note, though, especially after the whole Carmelo Anthony-Kevin Garnett scuffle in early January that ended with ‘Melo trying to confront Garnett after the game. But as most of these little arguments go, no hard feelings were felt.
Still, it’s the Celtics vs. the Knicks. Paul Pierce vs.Carmelo Anthony. Kevin Garnett vs. Tyson Chandler. Really, anything could happen and with the fiery personnel that both teams have, the story lines would be endless.
The Celtics, though, want to win, not embrace the pre-series chaos that is often times taken to extreme measures.
The Knicks, despite their dangerous 3-point shooting, are vulnerable to the Celtics because, well, it’s 3-point shooting or bust with them. They don’t have a reliable interior offense to fall back on and if Anthony is held somewhat in check, they are inordinately vulnerable to defeat to a team that can defend the 3-point shot.
That 3-point-shooting-or-bust point is hardly an understatement. The Knicks are tied for the NBA lead with 28.8 3-point attempts per game and they rank fifth in the league with a 37.7 percent mark.
On the flip side, they rank 29th in the NBA in points in the paint per game, which pretty much illustrates the lack of effective contributors down low.
So, New York is left with the 3-point ball and against Boston, their production in this department could take a hit. Despite down Rondo, an elite perimeter defender, the Celtics defend the 3-point ball very effectively, ranking third in the NBA in opponents’ 3-point percentage.
Additionally, a first-round meeting with the Knicks wouldn’t require a ton of interior toughness and with the injuries of Pierce and Garnett, this easily suits them best. Of course, someone will have to cover Chandler from dominating the glass, but that’s not a huge task. Chandler isn’t an offensive threat, so it’s just a matter of boxing him out.
I know what you’re thinking: The Knicks have Carmelo Anthony, a super-scorer.
‘Melo has the ability to take over any game at any time and his latest torrid scoring streak (40.6 points per game over his last five games) proves that point very clearly. So, most teams probably wouldn’t want to oppose someone like Carmelo, right? LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant have the same reputations.
But alienating one player from an offense isn’t impossible and that’s the problem the Knicks face. J.R. Smith is capable of taking over, but he hasn’t shown that he can do so consistently. Raymond Felton isn’t much of a scorer; rather he’s a play-maker.
So, shutting down Carmelo is within the Celtics reach. It might take a couple of guys, as Paul Pierce has lost a step or two of quickness, but it’s not impossible. Ideally, Boston would take ‘Melo out of the picture and force someone else to handle the load.
The Celtics do have a shot to do some damage in the playoffs, and against the Knicks, they have the best chance to go beyond the first round because they defend the 3-point ball well and have the personnel to give Carmelo some troubles. It’s that simple.