The Celtics had won the Atlantic every year since their 2007 trade for Kevin Garnett -- until this season, when New York broke through for its first divisional title in 19 years. But now the Knicks have to make good on the playoff expectations that accompany their winningest regular season since Jeff Van Gundy's first full year. They should be heavy favorites after the Celtics' troubled season, but there is more to this provocative series than suggested by New York's 12.5-game lead over Boston. This rivalry should create one of the tightest series of the first round.
Why The Knicks Will Win
They reversed a long-running trend by winning three of four games this season against the Celtics. The extended absences of Amare Stoudemire appeared to simplify the game for the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony, who earned MVP consideration while leading the league in scoring. The Knicks have surrounded him with a wealth of shooters around the three-point line, led by explosive sixth man award candidate J.R. Smith, who promises to win at least one game by himself with impossible-to-defend jumpers at the end of the shot-clocks and quarters. New York will trap defensively past halfcourt because the Celtics have no ballhandler or primary decision-maker to replace injured All-Star Rajon Rondo, whose contributions may finally be missed in this series. The Knicks will also look to take advantage of younger opponents who don't have a wealth of playoff experience with the Celtics, including midseason pickups Jordan Crawford, Shavlik Randolph and Terrence Williams. New York assembled a cast of role players with experience, and while some of them haven't been able to contribute, the Knicks on the whole should be aiming toward an ultimate conference final against Miami.
Why The Celtics Will Win
They've been working to improve the quick-passing style adopted as soon as Rondo was diagnosed with a torn ACL in January -- with the hope that ball movement will overcome the pressure that the Knicks will put on the ball. If the Celtics avoid turnovers, then the other crucial factor becomes Kevin Garnett: Will he be healthy after sitting out all but three games since March 22? If he's able to focus Boston's defense on forcing Anthony into low-percentage, high-turnover performances, then the Celtics may be able to create enough easy baskets in transition as well as scoring opportunities for emerging Jeff Green.
Keep An Eye On ...
Jason Kidd. The 39-year-old point guard averaged a career-low 26.9 points per game, but his importance will become evident in the playoffs. If the Celtics are able to impose themselves defensively and up the pressure on Anthony, then the Knicks will find themselves leaning on Kidd for leadership as a playmaker who can create for teammates as well as knock down open threes at the end of the shot clock. The Knicks will be able to pair Kidd and fellow point guard Raymond Felton in the backcourt -- while the Celtics will count on Paul Pierce to direct the offense in the absence of a true point guard. Ballhandling and decision-making could be crucial for New York.
The Knicks could not have asked for a more difficult or meaningful opponent to emerge from the bottom of the Eastern bracket. This may be the final appearance for Garnett, if he should decide to retire this summer -- and if he retires then Pierce may wind up joining him. The Celtics are aware that every series could mark the end of their era, and they won't be put down easily. In the end the Knicks won't pull away so much as they will simply outlast Boston. New York in seven.