Tuesday, April 12, 2011

NBA Playoff Preview, Round 1: #3 Boston Celtics-#6 New York Knicks

Yesterday we started a series of NBA Playoff Previews by diving into the Magic-Hawks matchup and predicting Orlando to win in six games.  Since then, two other Eastern Conference match-ups have been locked in: the third-seeded Celtics versus the sixth-seeded Knicks, and #2 Miami against #7 Philadelphia.  The Heat clinched the second seed last night by beating the Hawks, and the Knicks clinched the sixth seed with the 76ers' loss.  We'll preview the Heat-76ers matchup tomorrow, but now let's start by looking at what, theoretically, should be the more competitive matchup: the Boston Celtics versus the New York Knicks.  We'll examine four categories to determine who has the edge in the series and who will ultimately prevail: head-to-head experience, recent performance, season performance, and playoff experience.  Who will win the most recent of many New York-Boston grudge matches?  Hit the jump to find out.

Like last time, we'll start by looking back at the season series between the Knicks and the Celtics to see what we can learn from their prior meetings.

10/29: New York @ Boston--Celtics win 105-101
12/15: Boston @ New York--Celtics win 118-116
3/21: Boston @ New York--Celtics win 96-86
4/13: New York @ Boston--TBD

So far, the Celtics are leading the season series 3-0 over the Knicks, with one game remaining tomorrow night.  Since playoff seeding is already set and these teams know they'll be playing each other four to seven more times in the immediate future, I expect this game will largely be tossed aside.  The head coaches--Doc Rivers of Boston and Mike D'Antoni of New York--will avoid tipping their playoff hands; this means reserves will get heavy minutes and gameplans will be dumbed-down.  In short, tomorrow night's game will be mostly useless in predicting the playoffs.  Looking at the other three games, the Celtics won by an average of 5.3 points, but the first two meetings came down to the final possession.  The Celtics have shown the ability to close out close games, but the Knicks have shown that they can play with the Celtics for 48 minutes.  The first two games in the series were also played by the Old Knicks--a team that featured Raymond Felton and Danillo Gallinari instead of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.  While an aging Billups might have trouble guarding the lightening-quick Rajon Rondo (see right) at the point, Carmelo will put much more pressure on Paul Pierce to play strong defense than Gallinari or Wilson Chandler ever did.  These in-game matchups seem to be a wash, and the two pre-Carmelo games are pretty useless in our analysis, since the Knicks have changed so much.  The Celtics did win the one game against Carmelo's Knicks in 2011, though, so...
Head-to-head: edge to Boston

Looking at each team's recent performance, the Knicks have a clear advantage over Boston.  New York is currently in the midst of a seven-game winning steak in which their average margin of victory has been 10 points.  One of their wins was a hard-fought overtime victory over the fourth-seeded Magic, and their three most recent wins have all been on the road.  The Celtics, by contrast, have lost three out of four.  Looking with a bit more perspective, Boston was 41-14 after winning their first game after the All-Star Break.  Since then, they've gone a pedestrian 14-12, including losses to the Clippers, 76ers, and Nets.  The Knicks have also gone 14-12 since the All-Star Break, with bad losses to Cleveland, Charlotte and Detroit.  However, that 14-12 Knicks team had to absorb Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups (see below) midseason, while the 14-12 Celtics have largely been playing together for four years now.  Therefore, given the more excusable 14-12 record and their current seven-game winning streak, the Knicks are coming into the playoffs with more momentum.
Recent performance: edge to New York

The Knicks have been searching for chemistry
since acquiring Carmelo and Chauncey
Now it's time to look at each squad's performance over the course of the nearly-complete 2010-2011 season.  As their higher seeding and better record implies, the Celtics have a significant advantage here. The Celtics are 12 games up on the Knicks in the loss column, and the statistics clearly show why.  The Celtics have a +5.3 average point differential compared to the Knicks' +1.1 differential.  This means the Celtics have the means to turn games into blowouts, while New York struggles to close out quality opponents.  The Celtics have also been dominant at home this season, compiling a 32-8 record, including a 7-3 mark in the second half of the season.  Since four of the the possible seven games will be held at the TD Garden in Boston, the Knicks will be facing the rather difficult task of winning a road game against the Celtics.  The Celtics have also shown that they have the depth to win a seven-game series, while the Knicks are a front-loaded team.  Depth is key in a long playoff series because, over the course of seven games, teams have ample opportunity to learn each others' strengths.  For a team with only a handful of big-time players, the opposition will eventually learn how to shut them down and direct the offense elsewhere; however, team's with myriad offensive and defensive options can always find new ways to take it to their opponents.  The Knicks clearly fit the mold of the former team, with three players in the top 50 in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), but no one else in the top 125.  The Celtics, by contrast, are more like the latter team, with five players in the top 85 in PER.  Clearly, the Celtics are better built for a best-of-seven series with a better average point differential, a dominant home record, and an incredibly deep team.
Season performance: large edge to Boston

Ray Allen is the all-time leader in three-point field
goals, and is looking for his second NBA Title

The final component of any playoff series is the teams' own playoff experience.  While the Knicks are not devoid of this intangible benefit, the Celtics are chock full of it.  The Celtics' "Big 4" have all played together under Doc Rivers for four seasons now, and this is their fourth time in the playoffs.  Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Rondo won the NBA Championship together in 2007-2008, and they lost in seven games in last year's NBA Finals.  In total, they've played nine playoff series as a unit, and their new center, Shaquille O'Neal (who will be back for the playoffs), has won four titles of his own.  The Celtics did trade Kendrick Perkins mid-season, but he was only the fifth or sixth best player on the team, and he has been capably replaced by Jeff Green.  This will also be Doc Rivers' eighth career trip to the playoffs, where he has already assembled a 38-26 record in Boston, including two trips to the Finals.  Mike D'Antoni, on the other hand, has not had nearly as much playoff success as his counterpart.  He had a 46-40 record in four trips to the playoffs with the Phoenix Suns.  D'Antoni took his team--which included current Knicks power forward Amar'e Stoudemire--to the Western Conference Finals twice, but never to the NBA Finals.  He has never taken the Knicks to the playoffs before.  The rest of the Knicks' squad does have some playoff experience, but not much playoff success.  Chauncey Billups is the only Knicks rotation player to have been to the NBA Finals, but he did so in a slow-tempo system in Detroit.  D'Antoni's fast-paced offense in New York is a totally different animal for the 34-year-old Billups.  The Knicks' two superstars, Stoudemire and Anthony, have both been to the playoffs on several occasions, but neither was ever able to lead his team to the NBA Finals.  In addition, the Knicks roster as currently assembled has never played a playoff series together.  This will drastically impact the team's chemistry, while the Celtics will feel right at home on the court with each other in the postseason.
Playoff experience: edge to Boston

The Celtics' edge in three categories compared to the Knicks' advantage in only one means that Boston will take this first round series.  However, because recent performance carries more weight than overall season performance, the Knicks will not get blown out of the building by the more-experienced Celtics.  The Knicks will enter the postseason with plenty of momentum, and they'll do some damage; however, the Celtics' experience and head-to-head advantage will ultimately prove too much for D'Antoni's squad.  Are the Knicks talented enough--especially with the tandem of Stoudemire and Anthony--to pull an upset?  Absolutely.  But numbers rarely lie, and the numbers so far point to...
Verdict: Celtics over Knicks in 6 games


  1. I think this will be the lone upset in the Eastern Conference first round. I like the Knicks in 7 in what I hope will re-intensify this rivalry...

  2. So much for that, SJ...what a romp for Boston!