In advance of the Knicks-Celtics series that starts tomorrow, I and Jeff Clark from Celtics Blog took breaks from staring at the news to exchange some emails. Here they are.
Jeff Clark (Celtics Blog):
Greetings from Boston. Thanks again for all the love and support this week. It means a lot and I love the brotherhood of bloggers and fans from all around the globe that has helped the healing process.
Now you know what else will help? Basketball. Good old fashioned playoff basketball. And honestly I couldn't think of a better first round opponent than the New York Knicks. Love the rivalry that crosses sports and dates back decades. Love the city of New York and the passion of their fans. It should be a very entertaining series from the start.
It'll certainly be entertaining. I'm looking forward to it. Well, I'm anxious, but I'm looking forward to it. I feel very positive about the Knicks heading into the postseason, but the Celtics scare me, just out of instinct. I've had some Celtic fans tell me the team is nothing to be scared of while others express feelings inverse to mine: unmoved by the end of the regular season, but confident with the Knicks in the crosshairs.
What's your feeling? I want to ask you about lots of fine on-court things, but first, and broadly, how does the prospect of facing the Knicks strike your gut?
I'd say I have a healthy fear of the Knicks in that they are a better team than they've been in recent years. Also, the Celtics have played the poorest regular season in the Kevin Garnett era. Those thinking that they can just "turn it on like they've always done" are kind of ignoring the fact that most of the team has never actually "been there" before. So it boils down to trusting Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and our team defense. That's a very solid starting point and because of what those two have accomplished over their careers, I refuse to count them out. But I think that nobody would be terribly surprised if they just didn't have it in them (physically) to carry a team anymore.
Getting back to the Knicks, I think the variables are what scares me the most. We know Melo will get his points and that the team as a whole will shoot a lot of threes, but how many will fall? What in the world can anyone expect from J.R. Smith in this atmosphere? There are so many wild cards that I don't know how to account for. At any moment Novak could drop 9 straight points. Kenyon Martin, Raymond Felton, ...Quentin Richardson??? I'd love to dismiss them, but each is capable of swinging a playoff game or two.
So get me caught up on the Knicks defense. How good is it? Chandler is a beast and Shump is a known defender - how has Carmelo progressed on that side of the ball?
Yeah, I think those variables alternately scare and excite Knicks fans as well. Things are easy when Melo's on and the threes fall. Without those variables working, the Knicks still have a regular blueprint for victory-- dominating the turnover battle and at least edging the rebound battle-- but things can get dicey.
And that blueprint is really the crux of the Knicks' defense, regardless of what's happening on the other end. Especially nursing an injury, Tyson Chandler isn't quite the beast he was last season, at least in terms of thwarting shot attempts at the rim. Iman Shumpert's still a bit tentative on his knee as well. As a team, the Knicks just don't really deter shots. They waver between mediocre and decent defensively, with the best moments coming when the guards cause mayhem. The Knicks will switch and double like madmen, creating seemingly unnecessary mismatches and sending seemingly unnecessary help (don't be surprised to see, like, Shavlik Randolph draw a post double team. I'm serious). When teams have composed ball-handlers, good spacing, sharp passing, and good shooters, holes can be found in that swirly, marauding defense. They're often leaving someone open at the rim or on the weak side. On the other hand, teams with shaky ball-handlers and poor shooting might just find themselves surrendering a lot of live-ball turnovers and finding only late-shot-clock looks.
That, to me, is where Rajon Rondo's absence behooves the Knicks more than it might another team. New York's primary defensive weakness with all that switching is speedy point guards who can beat them off the dribble and create. Rondo's always thrived at punishing those switches with penetration and at identifying the windows created by New York's doubling so he can thread passes into the open man. Paul Pierce and Jeff Green can and will kill the Knicks plenty off the dribble, but Rondo has (to me) always been the primary threat to New York's defense, even when it was very good last season. How, in general, would you say has his absence affected the team and affects their approach/outlook in a series against New York? It seems like things have been up and down since Rondo got hurt, but are there overarching stylistic trends or important changes in role that came as a byproduct of his departure?
Man, that's the $1,000,0000 question. What happens when you take away your best player, who happens to be a point guard, who was the focus of most of the offense, who is about as unique a player as the league has at this moment. It isn't like you can insert a "replacement Rondo" or anything. Basically they've had to re-invent the way they run the offense and it has meant spreading the responsibilities around to everyone.
To borrow (and butcher) an analogy from another sport, it is like losing Peyton Manning and replacing him with an option quarterback. You can run some of the same sets, but everything starts out differently. It worked really well at the beginning because it was kind of new and teams didn't know how to prepare for it. It also let some more people touch the ball more which hints at the fact that maybe Rondo was holding onto the ball for too long waiting for the perfect play to develop. Part of that makes sense, he was probably the best guy to make those decisions, but there is some value in getting more people to share the distribution load.
We've seen Jeff Green fall into a great rhythm. We've seen Paul Pierce turn into a triple double threat. We've seen Brandon Bass remember how to hit jumpers. We've seen Avery Bradley.... well, he's trying to get better offensively, but even if he's just a pit bull on defense, we'll take that.
Anyway, the buzz wore off and the league figured things out and we played a few road trips and all that momentum kind of went away. So they just sort of went back into coasting mode for the rest of the regular season - opting for rest over record. At least that's what I'm telling myself to make me feel better about some of those dreadful losses against dreadful teams.
So basically we're back to my main point. If they "flip the switch" and turn on the old Championship contender mojo, there's really not much hope for the Knicks. But that's a pretty big "if" and we really don't know what to expect. To quote a famous theologian: "Anythings possiblllllllllllllllllllllllleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (Except I mean that in the scary sense.)
Interesting, It seems the reverse of what one would typically expect from these teams: New York comes in with some momentum and as something of a known quantity, while the Celtics have been floundering for a bit but might have some magic in reserve. Given the way the Celts have looked recently, the "switch" we're talking about seems too massive to be flipped all at once, but I guess Anything Is Possible (with a few more Ls and Es), indeed. That inkling is more than enough to scare some Knicks fans.