Eastern Conference first-round preview: Celtics vs. Knicks

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Both teams were mediocre after their midseason blockbusters -- New York (42-40) went 14-14 after acquiring Carmelo Anthony, and Boston (56-26) went 15-12 after shipping Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City -- though the Knicks' recent seven-game winning streak gives them optimism. The Celtics' 4-0 record against New York carries little weight because circumstances for each team have changed so radically. This will be a series of pace: If the games are free-flowing and the ball is zipping up and down the floor, the Celtics will be in trouble.


Rajon Rondo vs. Chauncey Billups. Rondo has been up and down because of injuries, the instability of Boston's rotation and the stunning departure of Perkins, his best friend. The Celtics need him to pull together their loose ends and have him exploit his speed against Billups. The 34-year-old Billups' role with the Knicks is almost as important. Because he's unlikely to stay in front of Rondo defensively, Billups must create and score at a high level to keep New York in the series while offsetting Rondo's contributions.


Celtics: Shaquille O'Neal. The league's oldest player at 39, Shaq has played six minutes over the season's final 34 games. His strong play in the opening half of the season helped persuade Boston to trade Perkins, but will Shaq be able to stay on the court throughout the playoffs? His healthy presence at both ends will be highly encouraging to the Celtics' championship hopes.

Knicks: Amar'e Stoudemire. His offensive role has shrunk since the arrival of Anthony and Billups, and that has to change -- the Knicks need big games from all three to threaten an upset. He can create numerous problems if the floor is spaced around him, which is why Kevin Garnett will be committed to preventing Stoudemire from establishing his game offensively.


The rebuilt Knicks are less unified than Boston, which -- combined with the drama of playing in New York -- makes this a good series for the Celtics to pull themselves together and play inspired team basketball. Look for Boston to spread the floor and create opportunities for Rondo to regain control. This could turn into a disaster for Boston if Billups is able to engage both Anthony and Stoudemire, but haven't we learned by now not to bet against the Celtics in these early playoff situations? Boston in 7.