Game Preview & Thread: Knicks @ Celtics

The New York Knicks have won four in a row and Phil Jackson is probably, definitely, maybe, kinda, coming on board too. To get to five in a row the Knicks will have to win on the road in Boston tonight. To get a better idea of what the Knicks are in for tonight I brought in Tom Westerholm of Celtics Hub and John Karalis of Reds Army.

The Boston Celtics have won just three of their last nine games coming into tonight. What has the team struggled with most lately? What are they doing well?

Tom: To be honest, they’ve played a lot better recently, and it’s almost entirely due to Rajon Rondo’s return. Rondo is playing like himself, and although he’s missing some explosiveness that probably won’t return before next year, his basketball IQ is more than high enough to at least partially make up the difference.

Also, Kelly Olynyk is looking better and better. But no one outside of Celtics Twitter really believes me on that.

John: Whenever the Celtics struggle, it’s usually the same story. They’re missing shots and they’re turning the ball over. The bottom line is nobody on Celtics right now is good enough to hit the same shot consistently every night. Jeff Green can’t do it. Rajon Rondo can’t do it. Nobody can. And all too often those poor shooting nights coincide with sloppy turnovers. That’s just the hallmark of the team that’s headed for the lottery rather than the playoffs. They’re just not very good.

Rajon Rondo has played 19 games now this season and although it’s a relatively small sample Rondo is shooting 33 percent from 3-point land. Obviously it’d be huge for Rondo’s game if he could become a league-average 3-point shooter, and he’s close to it. What do you make of his improvement thus far beyond the arc?

Tom: I think the improvements are real. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a 40 percent shooter from deep, but his stroke looks a lot better, which is a credit to Cs assistant coach Ron Adams who apparently tinkered with his form.

John: It’s one of those things that a guy can work on during a leg injury. Since he can’t run or jump, he can shoot. He’s not doing it consistently yet, which isn’t unexpected. It’s not only a process to get to that consistency, he’s also struggling with some muscle and tendon soreness that’s not uncommon for a player getting back into NBA-level ball after a long layoff. That soreness is why he won’t play in back-to-backs. It would be nice for him to have a feared jumper, though. He’s getting closer, and that will eventually make him extremely dangerous.

The Celtics didn’t end up moving Jeff Green at the deadline. What are your thoughts on Green long-term with the Celtics? Does the front office want to keep him on board for the rebuilding project?

John: I don’t think he’s going to be around for the long-term. I think they’re going to look into moving him this summer or at the draft, depending on the pick they get. He’s capable of having big nights, but he disappears way too much. In a different world where he could be a third option, he’d be ok. But at this money, on this team, he doesn’t fit like he used to. It’s a shame, because I think he’s a legitimately nice guy and he can really be exciting to watch on his “on” days, but I think his days are numbered.

Tom: Meh. The “rebuilding around Jeff Green” talk, I think, was largely motivated by a desire to drive up his trade value. Boston was in a position where they could ask for whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted. If the other team bit, great! If not, fine. The Cs didn’t have to make a move if nobody offered a crazy good trade, and nobody did, so they stood pat. Green can be part of the rebuild, but he’s certainly not an essential piece.

Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have had solid sophomore and rookie campaign this season. What do you like and dislike about each? Who figures to be the better big going forward?

Tom: Sullinger is big and strong. He’s developing a reliable jumper, and his positioning for rebounds is excellent. I like his low post game, although he’s not quite big enough to make it a full staple. That’s always going to be the knock on him — he’s strong and talented, but he’s a little undersized.

Olynyk’s jumper is improving steadily, which is opening up the rest of his game nicely. If teams can hang back on him, he’s not athletic enough (or long enough) to get to the basket. If they have to chase him to the 3-point line, he becomes deadly. That’s what’s been happening recently, and it’s opened up driving lanes for him. Olynyk’s also a sneaky decent rebounder, which is fun.

The knock on Olynyk is pretty basic — he’s slow, unathletic and he has T-Rex arms. But defensively, he’s learning to move his feet much better, and he’s very fluid on offense, which makes up for a bunch of his inadequacies athletically. I’m actually very high on Olynyk, unlike many people.

John: I like Sully’s ability to use his body and get to the rim both as a rebound and on offense. He’s undersized, but he’s got great footwork and body control, which allows him to be fairly effective against bigger guys. His downside right now is his insistence on shooting the 3, which is currently pretty inconsistent (and that’s putting it nicely). Maybe it will come around some day, but it’s not falling nearly enough to justify how many he takes.

Olynyk is a very versatile big who can get from the 3 point line to the rim if you’re not careful. His second half has been pretty good thanks to a big boost of confidence after being included in the rising stars challenge. His potential is pretty high, I think.

As for who will be better… I’m not sure that’s entirely fair because I see them doing different things. I actually like them on the floor together, especially in today’s more versatile, “positionless” NBA. They’re both high-IQ guys who are willing and capable passers. Olynyk has better range and Sullinger is a better rebounder. Both guys should work to improve both of those areas, but I really think they can work well alongside each other.

Who ultimately wins tonight and why?

Tom: The Celtics need to lose. The Knicks need to win. The problem for both teams is that I still have no idea which way it will go. But if past games are any indicator, it’ll be a blowout one way or the other.

John: Without Rondo, I’m going with the Knicks. I’m not 100% confident in that, though, considering what the Knicks have been. But while they’re bad, the Celtics are worse… and they’re even worse without Rondo in the mix.

Game Preview & Thread: Celtics at Knicks

The New York Knicks face off with the Boston Celtics at 7:30 tonight at MSG. They go up against a scrappy, but still pretty terrible, Celtics team and to get a better idea of what the Knicks were in for tonight I brought in John Karalis of Red’s Army and Tom Westerholm of CelticsHub. Enjoy!

The Celtics have won just 2 of their last 16 games. What has been the team’s biggest problem(s)? Also, how can the Knicks capitalize on them?

John: The biggest problem is that they’re not very good.  Let’s just get that out there from the start.  They have players that could be good.  They have players that will improve over time (we hope), but right now, the guys that are out there on a regular basis aren’t very good. You’ll see plenty of times Rajon Rondo will find guys open for good looks that just won’t go down.  The Celtics don’t capitalize on every opportunity they get right now. That’s the reason the Celtics blow big leads.  They don’t have anyone who can consistently drain run-stopping shots.  “Every team makes a run” becomes “Every team’s run can last a full quarter” against the Celtics.

So the Knicks need to first not take the Celtics for granted.  If they simply attack the boards and clean up the Celtics misses, they can get out in transition, exploit mismatches, and slowly build a big lead. I will caution teams, though:  Do not coast against the C’s.  They CAN get hot.  They have built 15+ point leads quite often. Their problem is that they blow those leads.  But if the Knicks coast and settle for long jumpers, Rondo and Phil Pressey will both gladly push the tempo and make teams pay for laziness.

Tom:  It’s a cop out answer, but the biggest problem has simply been a lack of talent. You may or may not have heard, but the Celtics kind of suck, even for the Eastern Conference. The Knicks can capitalize by being a little bit less awful. Even if Carmelo Anthony is defended well by Brandon Bass (which we’ll get to), the Knicks have so many more offensive weapons — and the Celtics historically have struggled so badly with the Felton/Chandler PnR — that it’s pretty hard to imagine Boston winning.

I know it’s only been five games, but is Rajon Rondo’s play thus far worrisome?

John: Not at all.  He’s not shooting well at all, but he’s only been back a couple of weeks from a yearlong ACL recovery.  I wouldn’t expect him to come in and pick right up where he left off.  His minutes have been limited, he’s got a new coach, and he’s got new teammates.  An adjustment period is to be expected. He can still pass, though, and he’s made some great ones.  Once guys know what to expect, they’ll catch more passes cleanly, and they’ll finish a higher percentage.  I’ve said from the beginning that the post-All Star break Celtics will probably be a lot better than the pre-break Celtics, and I still believe that to be true.

Tom: No, not at all. He’s rusty, he’s still working himself back into shape, and he doesn’t quite trust his knee yet. Where old Rondo would have planted and changed direction on a dime, current Rondo looks hesitant and a little nervous to test the body part that made him miss a year of basketball. This is all extremely normal for an ACL injury, and frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t look like himself for the rest of the year.

This is all completely fine: He isn’t needed until next year anyway, and (from a cold-hearted, dickish perspective) it may drive his market price down in free agency. Meanwhile, his jumper looks a little improved, and he appears to be looking for his own shot. If the Celtics plan to rebuild around him, these are encouraging signs.

The Celtics are struggling to score this season, but which player would you say the Knicks are going to have the most problems defending?  How should the Knicks go about limiting him offensively?

John: Well, Rondo is the obvious matchup to watch.  If he can get into the paint, then he can have flashes of his former self.  Again, if the Knicks get lazy and their rotations are slow, there’s nothing that will stop a great point guard from finding guys for layups. Beyond that, keeping Jared Sullinger off the boards is probably your biggest defensive concern. He has a knack for getting in there and keeping possessions alive.  Same with Kris Humphries, who has played pretty well for the Celtics of late; they will hurt teams by getting after their own misses.

Tom: *thinking* *thinking….* *still thinking…….* Jared Sullinger is probably the best offensive player on this squad, but he has been playing through an injured hand, which has limited his efficiency. Jeff Green is probably the best answer. When he’s engaged and aggressive, he’s dangerous, and the Knicks don’t have a natural foil for him. The best option is probably Iman Shumpert, who is quick and aggressive enough to drive Green nuts, but Green is considerably taller and longer than Shump.

But Green has struggled with consistency all year in the primary scorer’s role. Asking him to consistently be the number one option without Pierce and Garnett to deflect defensive attention has been a tall task.

Even though the Celtics are struggling on offense, their DRtg is still a respectable 14th in the league. What are the team’s strengths defensively? Should we expect a lot of Brandon Bass on Melo? 

John: Bass has done a very good job guarding top-notch wings.  He is surprisingly effective against Melo, and he’s had some good stints against LeBron James.  Melo won’t be able to post Bass, and Bass has no problem muscling Melo out on the wing, so yes, I’d expect plenty of that. The Celtics are doing a decent job of forcing jump shots by sagging on screens and preventing whole scale breakdowns on D. They have a tendency to be a little overly aggressive if teams move the ball around and force rotations.

But they’re doing all right defending the pick-and-roll, which is obviously a big thing in the NBA.  If a team wants to work hard, they can break the C’s defense down with ball movement, but teams tend not to want to work that hard to beat a bad team.

Tom: Rookie head coach Brad Stevens has placed a lot of emphasis on stopping the ball at the point of attack on the perimeter. This is big for the Celtics because A) They have good perimeter defenders (see: Avery Bradley, Jeff Green when he wants to be, Gerald Wallace at times, etc.) and B) Their rim protection consists of Kris Humphries, Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass. Stevens is notorious for being a film geek who pours over hours of footage, so you can be sure he has seen the small amounts of success Brandon Bass has had on Melo. I would definitely expect to see some of that matchup.

So, how do you think the game plays out?

John: I don’t go into many games expecting wins by the Celtics right now.  If the Knicks play up to their capabilities, they can slowly build a comfortable lead and win.  But I’ve seen an undisciplined Knicks team this season that seems to gladly coast when they feel like they can. There’s nothing schedule-wise that suggests this should be a trap game for the Knicks.  There’s no reason for them to be lazy.  But there’s a part of me that expects this year’s Knicks to make life way too hard. The Celtics have a history this season of burning better teams that take them lightly.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see another 10-2 run to start the game for Boston.  From there, it’s up to New York to decide if they’re better than their record, or if they’re really the team just a couple spots ahead of the Celtics on the outside of the playoff picture.

Tom: It’s one thing for a team to have the best player on the floor. It’s something else entirely for them to have 3-4 of the best players on the floor, and with Jared Sullinger’s hand injury, Avery Bradley’s sprained ankle, Rajon Rondo’s incremental recovery and Jeff Green’s inconsistent play, the talent disparity is pretty substantial.

That said, Boston often plays well for three and a half quarters before losing with style, so don’t be surprised if this comes down to the last two minutes. Also don’t be surprised if the Celtics lose by 40. This team is really bad.