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Speaking with the enemy: Celtics vs. Knicks

04.15.11 at 2:09 pm ET

The following is an e-mail exchange between myself and Knicks blog Posting and Toasting’s Seth Rosenthal in anticipation of the first-round NBA Playoff matchup between the Celtics and Knicks …

Date: Wednesday, April 13, 12:59 p.m.
Subject: Celtics-Knicks
From: Ben Rohrbach, aka @brohrbach
To: Seth Rosenthal, aka @seth_rosenthal

First question: Despite being 0-3 against the Celtics, the Knicks seem pretty confident. Why?

Date: Wednesday, April 13, 2:20 p.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Seth Rosenthal
To: Ben Rohrbach

Well, a few things. First of all, the guys you hear talking are Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. They’re nothing if not confident. Amar’e unblinkingly called Pau Gasol “soft” the other day, and thought nothing of it. These guys like to talk. To some degree, they’re qualified. Those three all have meaningful playoff experience, and more or less know what it takes to win a playoff series against a good team.

Moreover, each of those three losses included some sort of silver lining. One of ’em was tenths of a second short of being a win, and the most recent one was dominated by the Knicks until the Celtics woke up in the fourth quarter (that might actually be more foreboding than promising, but…).

Maybe it’s got something to do with the Celtics’ struggles of late. The Knicks might smell blood in the water, or some other sort of predatory analogy. What’s the deal with that, by the way? Does this strike those who know the Celtics as another late-season stretch of playing possum before a sudden surge in the playoffs, or does the slide seem to have some inertia?

Date: Wednesday, April 13, 4:06 p.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Ben Rohrbach
To: Seth Rosenthal

There appears to be two camps in Boston right now: Camp No. 1) Armageddon has arrived, and Camp No. 2) the Celtics will flip the figurative switch. Most people in Camp No. 1 seemingly can’t wait for the Celtics to lose, just so they can call the radio and blame Danny Ainge for burning the 2011 NBA championship banner. And those in Camp No. 2 point to the team’s 27-27 stretch in the final 54 regular-season games last season.

Perhaps more concerning is that members of the Celtics brass are leaning towards each side. While Doc Rivers continues to stress that last year’s malaise (somewhat by design) is different from this year’s (unscripted), time and time again Ainge has told anybody who will listen: “I feel more confident about this team right now than I did going into the playoffs last year.”

When all is said and done, the Celtics have a healthy Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo entering the playoffs, and the team will go as far as those four take them. They possess the keys to that figurative switch, and all four of them should turn them at the same time — like some bizarre “four-man rule” in a nuclear disaster movie.

Regardless of which camp anybody in Boston falls in, all of them probably agree that the Big Four will take them past the first round — mainly because they don’t think the Knicks will play any defense. Now that they have to, will Melo, Amar’e & Co. defend?

Date: Wednesday, April 13, 5:21 p.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Seth Rosenthal
To: Ben Rohrbach

It’s funny, actually. With all the talk about the Celtics “flipping the switch” and whatnot, I think New York fans are expecting/hoping/brandishing pitchforks for the Knicks to suddenly wake up as well. These guys can defend. It’s there.

Stoudemire and Anthony are each prone to miscues, but Melo can really bug a ball-handler and Amar’e has had huge moments protecting the rim. They’re not going to suddenly morph into defensive stalwarts, but you’ve got to assume that whatever portion of defense can be attributed to effort will be present in full. If not, it’ll be a problem. The second unit boasts no lockdown guys, but is populated with folks who are routinely willing to cover for one another and make little plays.

The most intriguing matchup, I think, is Rajon Rondo vs. whoever. He’ll see plenty of Toney Douglas (who tends to play him too close) and some of Landry Fields (who, by nature of his own inferior foot speed, has to back off a bit too far), but Chauncey Billups will get the start and, we can assume, most of the minutes guarding Rondo. Billups has looked surprisingly nimble since recovering from a thigh contusion. He did a nice job on Darren Collison recently and didn’t get completely pantsed by Derrick Rose (at least not more than once or twice). The word is he has been and will be studying Rondo very closely, so I’m excited to see how he approaches the matchup.

What of Rondo’s own limitations, though? The guy absolutely torches the Knicks, but I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot about him struggling lately. What sort of struggles are we talking about? Have they been overblown? Is it something to worry about (or, in our case, look forward to) in the first round?

Date: Thursday, April 14, 9:35 a.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Ben Rohrbach
To: Seth Rosenthal

There’s a mantra here in Boston that those familiar with the Celtics have accepted as somewhat of a universal truth: “As Rondo goes, so go the Celtics.” Even Allen called him the “head of the monster” who steers the ship. It’s clear; Colonel Jessup might even say it’s crystal clear. The Celtics are 36-6 when Rondo produces 10 or more assists and 11-15 when he doesn’t get to double-digits.

So, I guess the question is, How will Rondo go? In each of his three games against New York, he’s reached 10-plus assists, but his lowest total came in the Celtics’ lone game against the post-trade Knicks. And since his 24-assist night against them in October, he’s developed plantar fasciitis while struggling with ankle, hamstring, pinky and possible knee issues. While 30-year-olds Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Jermaine O’Neal should benefit from Doc’s decision to rest guys in their final couple games, Rondo might get the most value out of it.

With all that being said, Rondo suffered the same late-season struggles last season and has raised his game in the playoffs every season. Unless you believe the theory that he cries himself to sleep every night without Kendrick Perkins there to sing him a lullaby, there’s no concrete reason to believe he won’t flip the switch, too. In fact, he might actually be the switch.

Speaking of Perkins, that trade supposedly added depth to the Celtics’ bench with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic coming back in return, although the team’s second unit hasn’t quite jelled yet — and obviously there’s not much time to fix that issue. As for the Knicks’ bench, pretty much everybody assumed they’d suffer since the Melo trade, but from your perspective how much can rotation guys 6-9 contribute?

Date: Thursday, April 14, 2:01 p.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Seth Rosenthal
To: Ben Rohrbach

The Knicks certainly aren’t as deep as the Celtics are, but there are some useful characters on New York’s bench. Douglas is the sixth man and wild card. You can count on dogged (if occasionally overzealous) backcourt defense and basic energy stuff from him. His offense is a little less reliable, but when it’s on, it’s ON. Toney’s shown us that he can get absolutely unconscious from downtown. He’s capable of changing a game by himself if his stroke is on target. Douglas has looked better handling the ball in transition and in the pick-and-roll recently as well. Again, with a pretty shallow bench, Toney’s contributions as a backup are crucial.

No other bench bro is as capable of a masterpiece as Douglas, but there are plenty of contributors. Shawne Williams is known for his corner threes, but he’ll give you some solid minutes as a utility defender as well. Extra E (Williams) is versatile enough to take some possessions against Pierce or Garnett without being completely embarrassed.

Ronny Turiaf will be the starting “center” at the outset, but he’ll pretty much platoon with Jared Jeffries and your old friend Shelden Williams. None of the three is a world-beater, but each can rebound, defend and foul people. In the event of rampant foul trouble, Derrick Brown might come in and try to dunk on folks.

Toward the end of the bench, you’ve got Anthony Carter, who strikes me as the kind of guy to sneakily make an impact in the playoffs. He isn’t scared of taking big shots, nor will he back down from a bigger opponent. Don’t be surprised if he’s out there pestering Allen or something. That lil’ old raisin is feisty.

Bill Walker will probably get in at some point, and might actually see serious minutes if Fields struggles. We all know he can find the basket when motivated, and it seems like he gets up to play his old team.

As a unit, the bench tends to defend better but (as you’d expect) have more trouble scoring than the starters. Often, Mike D’Antoni will stagger the minutes of Melo and Amar’e so that one of them can take the offensive reins amidst more defense-oriented Knicks. Recently, I’ve liked Melo better in that role (that could just be recency effect, considering that Stoudemire has missed a few games in the past week or two).

Your mentioning Krstic and my own consideration of the Knicks’ “three-headed center” got me thinking about rebounds. New York’s a terrible rebounding team, and from the look of things, the Celtics are just as poor, particularly on the offensive glass. How would you explain that and how big of an issue would you expect that to be against the Knicks? On paper, the Celtics seem like one of the few teams against which New York won’t be utterly helpless in the paint, but I’m not so sure.

Date: Thursday, April 14, 3:05 p.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Ben Rohrbach
To: Seth Rosenthal

Outside of health, rebounding has been the biggest problem for the Celtics all season — and ever since they got destroyed in that area in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Considering Krstic and JO haven’t exactly been Mr. Clean on the glass, that’s where they miss Perkins the most.

KG’s rebounding has vastly improved since last season, when his knees left his vertical leap at Gheorghe Muresan levels, and any significant contribution from Shaquille O’Neal would obviously help fill Perkins’ void, but to gauge how well the Celtics are going to rebound, believe it or not look to Pierce. If he rebounds well, the Celtics play well.

In terms of defensive rebounding, the Celtics have actually been pretty good, finishing with a top-10 defensive rebounding rate. As for offensive rebounding? Not so much. They rank dead last in that category as a team, no matter how you slice it. While Rivers — and even some opposing coaches — have made the claim that the Celtics could care less about offensive rebounds, preferring to get back down court and clog up passing lanes defensively on the break, it’s probably a bit disingenuous.

When Allen, Pierce & Co. were making shots at a ridiculous rate in the first half of the season, the offensive rebounding problem obviously didn’t come back to bite them, but it’s been accentuated in recent weeks, with the absence of Perkins/Shaq and Allen looking more like Kevin Duckworth than Jesus Shuttlesworth.

Can the Knicks compete with the Celtics on the boards? Absolutely. Considering the Raptors and Nets pretty much did, I’d say that’s a safe bet — unless Chevy Chase can somehow fix Shaq’s Hot Tub Time Machine. Speaking of time machines, that brings me to my final question (how’s that for a transition?): Hopping in your metaphorical DeLorean, how do you expect this series to play out?

Date: Thursday, April 14, 5:42 p.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Seth Rosenthal
To: Ben Rohrbach

I think the Knicks are going to win their home games. I really do. The Garden is so thirsty for meaningful basketball that the place is going to be absolutely nuts, and nights like Melo’s debut against the Bucks served as evidence that a few of these guys really thrive in front of a loving crowd.

That said, the fact that I’m so hung up on the home court probably speaks to my uncertainty about actual basketball things, such as New York’s defense and ability to maintain a certain energy level. This feels like a seven-game series to me, but I have trouble imagining the C’s falling in a do-or-die game on their home court. Game 1 will probably answer a lot of our questions about how serious the Knicks are and whether the Celtics are upset-able or not.

I’m mostly just excited and terrified.

Date: Friday, April 15, 8:58 a.m.
Subject: RE: Celtics-Knicks
From: Ben Rohrbach
To: Seth Rosenthal

I concur on a couple accounts — Madison Square Garden buys the Knicks a couple victories and Game 1 will tell us plenty about the series — but I see the Celtics winning it in six games. Melo and Amar’e are top-15 players (top-10?), and the C’s can probably count on at least one monster game from each. The Knicks’ defense should be better than advertised, as you said, considering effort is half the battle (I think knowing is the other half?). But it’s still a Mike D’Antoni team. And the defending Eastern Conference champions still have the best team defense in the league.

Regardless of the cliche, the playoffs actually is a different monster, and while the Knicks’ Big Three has experience as individuals, the Celtics’ Big Four knows this rodeo as a unit. They’ve turned the final two few months of a regular season into a (expletive) show before and came out swinging in the first round.

That Game 7 loss last season still stings, and they desperately want to make a statement that they’ve got at least one more run left in them. And I have a feeling they do. It should be fun to watch.

Read More: Amare Stoudemire, Boston Celtics, NBA playoffs, New York Knicks
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