By Thomas B. and Jim Cavan
What We Know: A look at the Knicks-Celtics regular season series
The best way to understand how Boston swept the season series is to look at the advanced stats from the games. Is there reason to think New York can avoid a post season sweep as well? Let’s take a look at the four factors from the regular season games and then see if there is reason for optimism. I’ve included the stats from the season finale but I won’t spend much time on the stats from that game because neither team gave significant minutes to their starting five.
If you understand the four factors, then you know that scoring efficiency—measured by effective field goal percentage (eFG)—is the stat most closely aligned with winning any single game, so that is as good a place as any to start.
While Boston had the edge in eFG% in two of the first three games, the advantage was not substantial. Boston won the eFG% battle, by margins of 0.023 and 0.022 in the first two meetings. That is the same margin that the top team in terms of eFG% (Denver 52.6) enjoys over the 9th best team (Houston 50.3). One encouraging sign for New York is that despite their noted defensive woes (51.1 Defensive eFG%, 20th in NBA), New York held Boston below their average eFG% (51.9, 6th) in two of the first three games. New York managed to put up good shooting numbers from the floor against Boston’s league leading defense (46.9 Defensive eFG%). Overall, eFG% is not the big obstacle for the Knicks. The more pressing matter is rebounding.
Boston out-rebounded New York in each of their regular season meetings and enjoyed an overall substantial rebounding margin over New York (+16, +4, +10, +3). Whether it Boston’s overall rebounding dominance—plus ten in the 96-86 come from behind win, or New York’s inability to secure key defensive rebounds—Boston turned five offensive boards into eight points over the last 5:22 of their 118-116 win, rebounding has been the biggest problem for New York. Unfortunately, rebounding is the problem the Knicks are least likely to be able to fix.
One possible way to address this would be to give Shelden Williams more minutes. Williams’ rebounding rate since coming to New York (14.4) leads the team. If he can get on the court and stay out of foul trouble (6.2 fouls per 36), he might make the difference in a close game. Whatever the strategy is, improved rebounding particularly on the defensive end will reduce second chance scoring opportunities.
With the notable exception of rebounding, New York has matched up pretty well against Boston statistically speaking. New York has done a good job protecting the ball, and New York hasn’t allowed Boston to control the pace of the games. Despite the season sweep, Boston has not dominated the entirety of any one meeting with New York. If New York can improve its rebounding and defense while remaining efficient on offense, the team has a solid chance to make this a compelling series.
What We Hope: Breaking down the match ups, and a prediction
POINT GUARD – CHAUNCEY BILLUPS VS. RAJON RONDO:
If the absence of Kendrick Perkins remains Boston’s biggest question mark entering the postseason, a close second would have to be which Rajon Rondo laces up the Chucks. Will it be the Rondo who averaged nearly 16 points, nine assists and two steals a game while netting a serviceable (for him, anyway) eFG% of 48% during the 2010 Playoffs – a pace that carried over into a truly torrid start to the ’10-’11 campaign? Or the one whose scoring, assists and overall efficiency have all plummeted steadily since the New Year? While Rondo’s value to his team goes well beyond the stat sheet, it’s hard to deny that the Perkins trade has affected him more than any other player. The Celtics may very well survive the first round sans top-form Rondo, but it’s doubtful they would get any further in a much-improved Eastern Conference.
Chauncey Billups will have a huge task ahead of him trying to keep Rondo out of the paint – something he’s had trouble doing against quicker guards since coming to the Knicks. But Billups can give Rondo fits of his own, backing him down, keeping him honest on the perimeter and making him commit to risky close-outs on kick-out threes. Unlike Rondo, Billups ended the regular season heading in the right direction, averaging 20.3 points and 5.3 assists with an encouraging TS% of 59% during the team’s recent seven game win streak. Oh, and he’s played in six conference finals and two NBA Finals.
A big key to this dynamic will be how much floor time Toney Douglas sees. With Landry Fields looking a step slower with every game, this could be a prime opportunity for TD to take a few forward. He’s shown the ability to stay with Rondo, and Chauncey might welcome the opportunity to flag Allen on a few possessions rather than chase Boston’s nimble number 9.
SHOOTING GUARD – LANDRY FIELDS VS. RAY ALLEN
At 35 years old, Ray Allen has quietly had one of the most efficient and effective late-career campaigns in recent memory. In a season highlighted by his breaking Reggie Miller’s all time three point shooting record, Allen managed to put up a stat line that exceeded Miller’s 2000-2001 numbers (when he was 35) for FG% (49% to 44% for Miller); 3P% (44% to 37%); and TS% (62% vs. 57%). And for a guy who boasted a much stronger supporting cast than Miller’s 2000 Pacers squad, Ray wasn’t that far behind in points (16.5 vs. 18.9), rebounds (3.2 vs. 3.4), or assists (2.7 vs. 3.2).
To say that Fields has his hands full would be an understatement. Having run headlong into the rookie wall, there will be no rest for our weary Landry in this series. Boston is sure to send Allen around countless screens and punishing picks, where the veteran sniper needs not a hair’s worth of space to get off a good look. Fortunately for Fields, his perpetual motion tendencies could help keep Allen on his heels just enough to slow him down on the offensive end. Assuming, of course, that our precocious neophyte can tap into fumes that probably seem pretty thin right about now.
SMALL FORWARD – CARMELO ANTHONY vs. PAUL PIERCE:
If Paul Pierce is Carmelo Anthony’s ceiling – something suggested by many on the KB board– this would be a pretty good place for Melo to start that ascent.
Pierce once again turned in a solid and efficient regular season campaign, topping last season’s tallies in points (18.9 to 18.3), rebounds (5.4 to 4.4), assists (1.2 to 1.0), FG% (49.7% to 47.2%), TS% (62% to 60%), and USG (24 to 23.8). Like Allen, Pierce seems to be riding high into his career’s twilight. And while Melo has done a decent job against Pierce in their two meetings this season (one with Denver and the other in the orange and blue), he’ll have to ratchet up the D a few notches in this series – particularly in front of an MSG crowd Pierce has made a living off of torturing.
Trade naysayers may one day be vindicated, but no one can deny the promising trends of Melo’s Big Apple performance thus far. Since his prodigal return, Anthony has improved in nearly every category this season, including points (26.3 to 25.2 before the trade), 3P% (42% to 33%), TS% (57% to 54%) and WS/48 (.157 to .127). For the Knicks to advance, they’ll need Anthony to be as efficient on the offensive end as he is committed on the defensive end. But you have to think Melo understands the gravity of the moment as well as anyone, which is why we expect a monster series from #7.
POWER FORWARD – AMARE STOUDEMIRE vs. KEVIN GARNETT:
If there was one moment that epitomized this mini-rivalry, it came in the two’s last meeting at MSG, when Garnett outhustled Stat to a mid-court jump ball near the beginning of the C’s late surge. That’s not to say that Amare Stoudemire is lacking in intensity – far from it. But you’re dealing with a beast of a different order in Kevin Garnett, a man whose tunnel-visioned intensity is as alienating to the rest of the league as it is necessary to Boston’s winning ways.
Like Pierce, Garnett has shown improvements in a variety of categories over last year, including points (14.9 to 14.3), rebounds (8.9 to 7.3), eFG% (53% to 53%), and WS/48 (.194 to .171). While you could argue that Garnett hadn’t fully recovered from his late 2009 surgery until late last year, this year’s solid campaign only proved he’ll most likely be around for a few more.
Contrastingly, after an MVP flash out of the gate, Stat has slowed down of late, with his points, eFG%, and TS% each declining month by month since January. He even looked a little rusty during his brief cameo Wednesday night (thanks to a mild ankle sprain sustained in the team’s win over Philly a week previous), although the real goal was little more than two break a heavy sweat.
It’ll l be interesting to see if the Celtics feature KG early in the offense, in an attempt to get Stat into foul trouble. Don’t be surprised if D’Antoni nips this by starting Jeffries, Williams or even Turiaf on Garnett, and letting Stoudemire handle Kristic or Jermaine O’Neal. If Shaq suits up, however, all bets are off. In this scenario, Stat would most likely be forced to guard KG, in which case his defensive awareness will have to be as active as it is focused – something he know he’ll be getting in spades at the other end of the floor.
CENTER – NENAD KRISTIC / JERMAINE O’NEAL / SHAQUILLE O’NEAL vs. RONNY TURIAF / SHELDEN WILLIAMS / JARED JEFFRIES / AMARE STOUDEMIRE / SHAWNE WILLIAMS
Call this the battle of the platoons. With the status of Shelden Williams (ankle), and Shaquille O’Neal (leg) still uncertain, both teams could be without a key rotation post player for part – if not all – of the series. While trading Kendrick Perkins resulted in a very serious low-post void, Nenad Kristic is a center who actually matches up well with the Knicks on paper, being able to hit the 15-18 footer with relative accuracy while masking a serviceable post game and offensive rebounding prowess that could give the Knicks fits inside.
Obviously, the elephant in the room (that is, the extremely large human being) is Shaquille O’Neal. If he can give Doc Rivers 20 minutes a game – if only to grab boards and clog up the paint – it could force the Knicks to rely even more heavily on their perimeter game. The other option is to roll the dice with a smaller lineup, letting Shaq get his touches down low against a Jeffries or even Stat. That would allow the Knicks to at least make the big fella work to get back in transition, thereby reducing his minutes. One can only hope.
If last Wednesday’s “JV” game proved anything, it’s that the Celtics boast an effective and well-balanced supporting cast – which may eventually include the dangerously pesky Delonte West. True, the Knicks certainly don’t lack punch and pizzazz; TD, Bill Walker and Extra E are all capable of spreading the floor and making big runs even with Melo and / or Stat on the pine. But the Celtic roll players – keyed by an ever-improving Glen Davis, a theoretically healthy West, and newly acquired Swiss army knife Jeff Green – is arguably more balanced, particularly on the defensive end and on the boards. Plus, Green provides a capable defender to throw at Anthony during stretches when Melo’s on the court sans Pierce. Don’t be surprised if a big game from either supporting cast ends up tipping the scales in one of the first few games.
COACHING: MIKE D’ANTONI vs. DOC RIVERS
Both played point guard. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end between these two equally well-respected but very different coaches. While Glenn “Doc” Rivers gritted out a serviceable NBA career (which included a two year stint with the Knicks from ’92 to ‘94), Mike D’Antoni, cut his teeth in the Italian League. Like the teams he played for, Doc’s philosophy has always been defense first, and patient, disciplined half-court offensive sets second. Mike D’Antoni’s mid-decade Suns teams, meanwhile, made Don Nelson look like Larry Brown. One has no problem calling out his players by name, in the media, or at very high volume during games; the other has drawn criticism for his decided lack of communicative savvy and unwillingness to tread on egos.
Much will depend on which is better able to exert their will and style on the other over longer stretches. The Knicks have shown at various points during the season series that they can get the Celtics into a track meet. But for the most part Rivers has been able to reign in his steeds, either with key stretches of lock-down defense, or with deft timeouts (one of Doc’s underrated skills).
If there’s one thing that the Knicks learned during their last meeting on March 21st — when they led by as many as 14 in the second half — it’s that no lead is safe against a team as savvy, poised, and battle-tested as these Boston Celtics.
The Prediction: KNICKS IN 6
They have the titles. They have the experience. They have the tradition. They have the home court.They have Vegas. They have Simmons. They have the defense. They have the depth. They have our number.
But we got the swag.