Here's the fourth and final installment (unless there's a new team I didn't know about, like the Brattleboro Frostdonkeys or something) in Joe's 2012-2013 Atlantic Division Preview series. -Seth
A few weeks ago Seth held an ol' fashioned Internet straw poll to determine the Knicks' biggest rival. Personally, I found the whole exercise insulting; how could I distill a lifetime of Knicks-related heartache and rage into the mere click of a mouse? My hatred is quite nuanced - there are a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous. I hate the Heat and the Celtics with all my heart, but which team do I hate with more all my heart?
I did a lot of soul-searching. I talked to a couple of Buddhists and a blind Chinese psychic. I watched 15 minutes of the film Celtic Pride. The answer, it seemed, was a little more complex than I would have liked.
For you see, the Heat are more detestable as an organization. They're run by Pat Riley, for God's sake. As much as I hate Boston teams in every sport, the Boston - New York sports rivalry is based on at least a teensy-weensy bit of mutual fan respect. I simply can not say the same thing for Heat fans - seriously, just look at them. Even the Celtics' mighty and overbearing history doesn't bother me, since the great Knick teams of the 90's - my childhood - weren't held back by the Celtics. The Heat, on the other hand, are the bane of my Knicks fanhood - past, present and future.
That being said, I think I hate the Celtics more as individual players. Let's break down the roster:
Rajon Rondo: moody, triangle-headed douche
Jason Terry: always kinda seemed like a douche...signing with the Celtics confirms it
Chris Wilcox: former Knick douche
Kris Joseph: only a douche squad would have two different spellings of the name Chris
...and we haven't even come to the Lord of the Douche, Mr. Paul Anthony Pierce.
That's a veritable tsunami of douche - a douche-nami, if you will.
Last summer these two teams met in an seven-game Eastern Conference Final that I can only assume will be re-played on the waiting room TV as I prepare to enter hell. After five games of incessant scowling and preening and preen-scowling and scowl-preening, the Celtics had a 3-2 series lead - two chances to irrevocably crush Lebron's fragile psyche and set off a glorious off-season of turmoil in Miami. Instead, they helped Lebron to finally see himself for what he was all along: the most unstoppable force in the NBA. And now America has to suffer through the reign of King James. Needless to say, if I were the US Attorney General the entire Celtic franchise would be on trial for treason.
And how did the Knicks fare against these Benedict Arnolds of the hardwood in '11-'12? Two - count 'em - two wins, baby! WOOT WOOT! According to my research, this was the first time the Knicks took two games from the Celtics since Red Holtzman coached the team, mutton-chop sideburns were all the rage and rampaging armies of Mamluks on horseback patrolled the Ottoman empire.
KG in particular was kind enough to provide one of the highlights of the season:
...no words...should have sent...a poet.
On second thought, they did send a poet.
KG's matador act aside, everybody knows by now that the Celtics win with defense. They finished first overall in defensive efficiency last season and haven't finished out of the top five in the KG era. Their offense, however, is a different story. They were 27th in offensive efficiency last year despite finishing in the top ten in FG%, 3P% and assists. How did they manage to pull that off? Well, they also finished 25th in TOV% and dead last ORB%, and it's rather difficult to put up points in the NBA while denying yourself second-chance scoring opportunities and first-chance scoring opportunities.
After coming within one win of the Finals, GM Danny Ainge kept the band together...most of the band, anyway. Ray Allen apparently grew so angry with the organization that he took less money to go Miami, their most hated rival. So congratulations, Ray Allen: you're officially the 1000th star athlete to leave a Boston sports franchise on bad terms. You've just won a 20-dollar gift certificate to Dunkin Donuts! Never forget, Ray, America runs on Dunkin'.
Losing Allen won't affect their starting lineup - Doc Rivers had already replaced him with Avery Bradley by the end of last season. As you can see here, Rivers made the right move. The Celtics were clearly better with Bradley in the lineup. In fact, the Garnett-Bass-Pierce-Bradley-Rondo lineup was number one in net points per 100 possessions among lineups that played at least 200 minutes. Yikes. The Celtics will miss Allen coming off the bench - they're relying on Courtney Lee to replace his shooting and Jason Terry to replace his agedness.
The Celtics will also need some of their reserve bigs to step up. They were a terrible rebounding team last year, and they lost their second best rebounder, Greg Stiemsma, to free agency. Garnett is still a beast on defense, but he's 36, he can't do everything, and by the time Shumptober rolls around he'll be preoccupied with the tall task of keeping Iman Shumpert's nuts out of his face.
Annnnnd, we're back. The Celtics attempted to solve their big man problem through the draft, using the 20th and 21st overall picks on Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo. I'm not overly concerned with Fab Melo, but let me go on the record as saying I'm worried about Sullinger. How the hell did the Celtics end up with him at 20? I understand he had back problems, and that might have concerned me as a GM...if I were picking in the top 10 or 15. At 20 he seems like a pretty good deal. Of course, there was more than back issues at play here - take it away, ESPN:
"The biggest question about the 6-foot-9 Sullinger coming out of Ohio State was a bulging disc in his back. The other issue was whether his below-the-rim game would translate at the NBA level."
If you're unfamiliar with scout-speak, "below-the-rim game" means they have questions about his athleticism. Again, this might have concerned me...if I were picking in the top 10. This seems like a classic case of a no-doubt college prospect staying in school a year too long and falling prey to a pack of overzealous scout and too-clever-by-half GMs in love with athleticism. I can imagine the discussions taking place in the war room on draft night:
Assistant GM: "What about Sullinger? He has some injury concerns, but he seems like a good value pick this late in the draft."
GM: "Nevermind all that, somebody just emailed me a Youtube clip of some 6-10 kid in Saskatchewan jumping over a Buick. Quick, draft that kid and hire whoever posted that video as our new chief of scouting!"
Wouldn't it be just like the damn Celtics to luck out on a player near the end of the first round because other teams worried about athleticism? I think Sullinger has a good future, but for the time being the Celtics are just hoping anybody steps up to help KG, especially since their closest competitors in the Atlantic have taken big steps to strengthen their front lines in recent years.
And now for the million-dollar question: can the Knicks finally vanquish the Celtics? I think they have a few factors working in their favor. The first factor has absolutely nothing to do with the Knicks and everything to do with the Celtics. At this point, this team is what I like the call a Shaq team - like Shaq did throughout the better part of his career, the Celtics treat the regular season as basically an extended training camp. Given their age and experience, this is the most logical course of action. They need to rest their key guys, and they know they can win a playoff series on the road. It sounds cliche, but the Celtics play for championships, not division titles. The Knicks, on the other hand, sure as hell better play for the division title.
Secondly, and most important, the Knicks can finally stand toe-to-toe with the Celtics. I think we saw this last year, with the Knicks winning two games and taking a third to overtime. The Knicks can defend with Boston, and they have the size to bother Boston's small-ball lineup. With all their turmoil the Knicks finished a mere three games behind Boston - the Celtics had their own turmoil, to be sure, but I think the Knicks' turmoil was turmoilier. What the Knicks lack is consistency. Year after year, the Celtics operate like a well-oiled machine, while Knicks operate more like a Mexican stand-off. If their starters learn to play together, especially on offense, and if they learn to show up against teams like the Cavaliers, the Knicks will be right there with Boston. Of course, the fans in Philly and Brooklyn probably believe the same thing. The Atlantic Division will be a beast next year, no doubt about it.
Note: the word "Shumptober" refers to the first month of the Shump calendar, which is set to take effect when Iman Shumpert returns from his knee injury. His first game back will be marked as Shumpturday, Shumptober 1st of the year 1 A.S. ('Anno Shump'...it's Latin)