Celtics: 56-26 (No. 3 seed)
Knicks: 42-40 (No. 6 seed)
Celtics sweep 4-0, but know that two games were in December and one was a meaningless game played largely by substitutes on the last night of the season. So, three of the four have no real bearing on the playoff games about to start.
Celtics: Shaquille O’Neal, expected to play and start but has played 6 minutes since Feb. 1 due to Achilles and a calf strain; Delonte West missed time with sprained ankle but should be available.
Knicks: no significant injuries
OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possession)
Celtics: Off. 104.4 (16th in NBA); Def. 97.7 (2nd in NBA)
Knicks: Off. 108.2 (7th in NBA); Def. 107.1 (22nd in NBA)
THREE KEY CELTICS:
Rajon Rondo: He has just not been himself in recent weeks — Rondo has been shooting a little more, passing a little less and the result is a sticky Celtics offense. Part of that has been funky Celtics lineups as they rest their key players for the playoffs, but part of it is just Rondo being off. Expect him to get back to form — like the other Celtic veterans he knows what is required — but if he doesn’t there will be issues.
Shaquille O’Neal: This series is not where Shaq is really needed, it is the next one, and all the subsequent ones. But Shaq needs to use this series to get some conditioning and his flow back. The lineup of Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaq was the second best in basketball among five-man units that played more than 200 minutes. They will need that lineup to give them 20 minutes a night in the future, they need to get it back in a groove in this series.
Paul Pierce: The most entertaining matchup of this series is Garnett on Stoudemire, but that is not where the mismatch is. Pierce will have Carmelo Anthony on him and needs to exploit Anthony’s “defense” or at least make him work much harder on that end of the floor, taking away some energy from his offense. Pierce has been the one Celtic playing better than his season averages the last 10 games (21.4 points a game on 51.6 percent shooting and 42.5 percent from three). He could continue those kinds of numbers this series.
THREE KEY KNICKS
Carmelo Anthony: They are going to need him to provide a lot of offense — Amar’e Stoudemire will get some but Kevin Garnett does a good job traditionally of slowing him down. Lately Anthony has been providing plenty of scoring, averaging more than 30 points a game. The real challenge is that Anthony’s preferred mode of offense — isolation from the wing — plays right into the hands of the Celtics defense. He is going to have to get inside and draw some fouls, and he has to hit contested shots.
Ronny Turiaf: One thing the Knicks have not had this season is a consistent intimidating defensive and rebounding presence in the paint. Turiaf, who has battled through injuries (as he seems to every year) is the best option they have for that. And he is their best chance against Shaq. What we do know is that Turiaf will bring some serious heart and energy to the table.
Chauncey Billups: If there is one Knick who could steal a game, who could get hot and make some plays, it is Billups. He has to keep Rondo in his offensive funk, make Rondo really work on defense and find a way to get his teammates some easy buckets against the Celtics defense. The Knicks need to run some, not let the Celtics get set, and that is where Billups comes in.
This is the series where a lot of people see a potential upset. And the Knicks have a couple guys capable of just taking over and dominating a game and stealing one almost singlehandedly. But even with its recent struggles the Celtics defense is still formidable and what the Knicks do — pick-and-rolls, Anthony in isolation — plays to the strengths of that Celtics defense. The Knicks are going to have to play better defense than they have most of the season, because if Rondo starts dishing and Ray Allen starts hitting the Knicks are going to struggle to keep up.
These are going to be some entertaining games, with the full force of two cities that can’t stand each other behind them. But in the end, in the final minutes, it will be the Celtics execution that outdoes the Knicks individual players.
Celtics in 6.