After a 19-year wait the Knicks once again sit atop the Atlantic Division as champions, fitting that their first round matchup will be against the Boston Celtics, winners of the past four Atlantic Division crowns before this season. This will be one of the more entertaining first round series of the NBA Playoffs this season as the rivals thoroughly dislike each other and there will be even more emotions after the tragedy in Boston Monday afternoon. Here are some things to keep an eye on for throughout the series:
-Which Melo Shows Up?
Carmelo Anthony is a possible MVP candidate and is coming off winning player of the Month in April, having one of if not the best season in his career. But for how well Anthony has played recently and throughout the season, the Celtics are one team that he has struggled against.
On the season Anthony shot 35 percent in the four games against the Celtics, worse than against every team other than Sacramento and Golden State this season. He averaged 25.3 points per game against them, but the inefficiency is something that the Knicks cannot afford to have happen in the playoffs. Mike Woodson will have to figure out a way to get Anthony going with some easy shots as he has during the 16-2 stretch the Knicks have gone on to finish the regular season.
Anthony has been on a torrid scoring pace to end the season and it would be very beneficial for the Knicks if he continued that hot play against the Celtics in the first round and snaps his streak of poor play against them.
-Will J.R. Stay Hot?
J.R. Smith has cemented himself as the second option to Anthony in the Knicks offense as he has lowered his three point attempts in favor of attacking the basket more and getting to the foul line. The efficient play that Smith has shown recently is a big reason as to why the Knicks ended the season as strongly as they have.
He has also helped the Knicks out in other facets of the game this season, averaging a career high 5.3 rebounds per game, running the offense at some points during the game and getting 2.7 assists per game and also playing as good of defense as he has in his career. Mike Woodson has been great for Smith, who seems to finally be maturing and playing like many people feel he is capable of with the tools that he has.
But much like Anthony, Smith struggled against the Celtics this season, shooting over 40 percent only once. If Smith and Anthony struggle on the offensive end like they did in the regular season this will be a longer and tougher series for the Knicks than it has to be.
-Which is Better, Big or Small?
The Knicks and Celtics will have very different philosophies heading into this series. Recently the Celtics have begun using a bigger lineup with Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett. On the contrary, the Knicks have been very successful with using a smaller starting lineup of Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Anthony and Tyson Chandler.
Prigioni is dealing with a sprained ankle and may miss the first few games of the series but when he returns Woodson is expect to stick with his small lineup and possibly start Chris Copeland in his absence. This will be something to watch all series as the differing lineups will make for some interesting matchups.
It will be interesting to see who flinches first between Woodson and Doc Rivers as both will be heading into the series with different lineups but the play will dictate which one will work. Both present advantages and disadvantages and whichever coach can adjust and game plan better will set their team up for success.
-Will the 3’s Continue to Fall
The Knicks offense is predicated on making three pointers, as their best stretches of the season have been when they were on torrid shooting stretches from the three point line. The Knicks actually set the NBA record for most three pointers made and attempted in a season by a team just to put into perspective how big a part the three ball is in their offense.
This will be easier said than done against Boston, who ranks fourth in the NBA in three point defense, allowing teams to shoot only 34.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Knicks will need Felton to penetrate the lane to open up the perimeter for their three point shooters like Steve Novak and Anthony. Anthony continuing to play team ball and hitting the open man on double teams will also be important if the Knicks are to get going from deep and beat the Celtics.
Bench play in this series will be a huge factor in deciding which team comes out on top in the end. The Knicks have the superior bench with potential sixth man of the year Smith leading the way, but also have veteran presences with Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby. Kidd offers a high IQ and can calm the Knicks down if they starting losing control while Martin and Camby will bring toughness, defense and rebounding to the Knicks that is necessary come playoff time.
The Celtics on the other hand just cannot compete with that. Their guards Jordan Crawford and Courtney Lee have been inconsistent all season while Jason Terry no longer looks like the instant offense he was in Dallas. They also lack the depth up-front that the Knicks will head into the playoffs with Chris Wilcox and Shavlik Randolph being the backup bigs for the Celtics.
The benches will play a big role in the series with how physical the games are expected to be.
The Celtics may be one of the toughest teams mentally in the NBA, led by Pierce and Garnett. They were able to overcome the loss of Rajon Rondo and have gotten under the skin of the Knicks players, namely Anthony, this season as well.
On the other hand, the Knicks may be one of the weakest teams mentally in the NBA. When games get physical they tend to start complaining about fouls and are easily knocked off their game as a lot of their energy and effort goes towards complaining and not playing.
It is something to watch for throughout the series as the Celtics are very confident in themselves and do not view themselves as underdogs or a seven seed. The Knicks will have to keep their cool throughout the series and avoid dumb plays and technical fouls, something that plagued them throughout the season. We have seen it once during the season, when Garnett agitated Anthony to the point Anthony waited for him outside the stadium but the Celtics bus, and will hopefully not see it again in this playoff series as new additions such as Martin and Quentin Richardson can handle the dirty work Anthony took upon himself in the regular season matchup.