Even though the shortened season increases the importance of every game, the league’s opener between Boston and New York is especially significant.
The visiting Celtics must provide early evidence that their aging trio of franchise players — Kevin Garnett (35), Paul Pierce (34), and Ray Allen (36) — have enough gas left for one last go-for-the-gold. And it is indeed now or never for Boston, simply because the older players get the faster they get old. What better way to demonstrate that they are still serious championship contenders than to beat the upstart Knicks?
New York likewise has much to prove: Primarily that Tyson Chandler, their newly signed defensive presence in the lane, can unilaterally transform the team’s lackadaisical defense into sufficient stop-power to challenge the NBA’s elite squads. Also, the Knicks must show that Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire can be complementary scorers over the long haul.
HERE’S HOW THE CELTICS CAN WIN: Notwithstanding Rajon Rondo‘s quick-as-a-wish bursts to the rim, the Celtics must control the tempo. Grind out their precise half-court offense and force the Knicks to play defense for close to 20 seconds on every possession. By so doing, Boston can generate open shots, convert a high percentage and thereby limit New York’s run-gun-and-have-fun opportunities.
The as-yet uninjured Jermaine O’Neal and the jump-hooking antics of Chris Wilcox have to attack Chandler in the low post. Because Chandler has always been foul prone, and the Knicks have no quality backup at center (except the soon-to-be-weary Stoudemire and the leansome Jared Jeffries), this is critical.
Rondo must be incredibly aggressive against the Knicks’ subpar point guards, and hit at least three jumpers.
Garnett has to make Stoudemire expend plenty of energy at both ends of the court. Ditto for PP in his battle with Melo.
Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling and Wilcox must outplay New York’s not-ready-for-prime-time subs.
The Celtics renowned defense must be close to midseason form. Challenging every shot, racing back in transition, commanding the glass and ambushing the passing lanes to produce easy breakaway buckets.
Because the Celtics Core Four have already been together for three seasons, they should be more cohesive than the newly built Knicks.
HERE’S HOW THE KNICKS CAN WIN: The young legs of Anthony and Stoudemire have to wear down their high-mileage opponents. Both of the home team’s designated scorers must take the ball to the hoop to take full advantage of Boston’s defenseless centers.
Toney Douglas has to keep Rondo out of the lane, keep his poise on offense and make judicious decisions with the ball.
Mike D’Antoni has put the brakes on his normal full-speed-ahead offense because the team lacks a true playmaking point guard, and also to accommodate Anthony’s sticky fingers. Even so, ‘Melo must keep the ball (and his legs) moving to avoid total stagnation.
The multiple screens set for Allen must be countered in coordinated fashion with the big men showing and precise weak-side rotations.
Chandler has to resist the temptation to pick up fouls by trying to block every shot in his neighborhood and focus instead on being a shot-changer.
Mike Bibby must make at least half of his 3-point shots.
Jared Jeffries and Renaldo Balkman must play adhesive, belligerent defense off the bench.
The Knicks have to take care of the ball, avoid ill-advised shots and maintain a playoff-level focus.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- Boston’s cohesion on offense will be easily measured by the frequency of uncontested shots that Allen’s perpetual movement will or will not create.
- The play of the highly underrated Bass, a dead-eye mid-range shooter and aggressive offensive rebounder.
- The debut of Iman Shumpert, a dynamic player at both ends of the game. Sometime during the season, don’t be surprised if he’s plugged into the starting five at the shooting-guard slot.
- If Pierce is unable to go because of a sore heel, Sasha Pavlovic is likely to start in his place, as he did in the preseason finale against the Raptors on Wednesday night.
- Dooling’s ability to put the Knicks’ interior defense at risk by repeatedly carrying the ball into the paint.