You could drive yourself crazy breaking down the various angles of the Celtics-Knicks series. The big problem is that so much of the evidence provided by the regular season can be thrown out. These are two teams that changed dramatically at the trade deadline. In bringing in Carmelo Anthony, New York changed nearly half its roster, including several rotation players. Boston not only traded the starting center from its recent run of success, but also put together an almost entirely new second unit. That may or may not play a significant part in the Celtics' playoff success. What's an analyst to do?
When I began running splits for this series, I decided to simply run each team's numbers since the deadline. I'm throwing out the head-to-head matchups and the numbers pre-deadline. Yeah, I know, the Celtics expect Shaquille O'Neal back for the postseason, which gives them the starting five Doc Rivers used for much of the early part of the season. However, I am feel like the only thing Shaq is proficient at these days is pulling muscles that are very important for playing basketball. Still, there is also the issue of just how hard the Celtics went at it down the stretch. So I'm hedging my bets. I'm going with the Knicks' performance since the last week of February, but am using the Celtics' full-season numbers as my baseline. If it's a mistake, I'll know it, and won't repeat it in the second round. Will there be a second round for the struggling Celtics?
(Note: The Knicks' numbers below reflect statistics since the trade deadline. New York's rankings reflect where the metrics would rank if posted over the full season.)
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
Pace: 88.8 possessions per 48 minutes (23rd NBA)
Boston Offensive Rating: 108.3 points per 100 possessions (18th NBA)
New York Defensive Rating: 113.4 points per 100 possessions (27th NBA)
Since trading Perkins and adding Nenad Krstic, Jeff Green, Carlos Arroyo, Troy Murphy and Sasha Pavlovic to the mix, the Celtics' have scored just 106.1 points per 100 possessions, more than two points below their overall season total and 3.4 points worse than their pre-deadline figure. Given the nature of the personnel turnover, it's not at all what you'd expect. Part of the explanation is player availability. The Celtics went 16-12 down the stretch, an echo of last season's 27-27 finish. The Big Three were all held out for two games. Shaq played in only one. Rajon Rondo missed three contests.
But that's just a partial explanation. The Celtics just didn't get as many good shots down the stretch. Their assist percentage was down and their eFG% dropped from .528 to .500. With their big men hobbled, the offensive rebound percentage dropped as well, but that wasn't a big part of the attack in the first place. The turnover rate (16.4 percent) was exactly the same. Where did the shooting dropoff come from? Part of it was the absence of Shaq's .655 True Shooting Percentage. More came from the slippage of both Rondo and Ray Allen. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett did better after the trade. I don't have a feel for what happened, however Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said that the loss of Perkins actually hurt the Celtics more on the offensive end. He felt like the interplay in the paint between Perkins and Garnett helped to open things up for the perimeter players. If that's the case, perhaps the return of Shaq will be more of a boost to Boston's offensive efficiency that I want to believe. But, I hasten to add, that's assuming Shaq can remain available.
In any event, it's probably a waste of time to dwell too much upon the Celtics' offensive slippage. This series will almost certainly be decided at the other end of the court. The Knicks' defense, as was expected, was dreadful after the trade deadline. No matter what woes have plagued the Boston offense of late, it's nothing that can't be cured by a healthy dose of facing New York's swiss-cheese defense.
If I'm Rivers, my first priority is to get Paul Pierce isolated on Anthony, both on the wing and on the block. I'd expect Anthony to be dialed in and he certainly has the size, strength and mobility to be an effective defender on Pierce. However, he's also going to be over-anxious and isn't a good instinctual defender. Even if the effort is there, there is a golden opportunity for Boston to leverage Pierce's floor-bound array of shot fakes into foul trouble on Anthony. Ball movement is the name of the game for the Celtics but in this matchup, I'd explore some selective isos to begin.
Rivers also has to counsel Rondo against becoming frustrated by what are sure to be some physical antics by Billups. I would expect New York to have Landry Fields stay at home as much as possible against Allen, so that will leave Billups to body up with Rondo. Billups can't stay with him in terms of quickness, so look for a few choice blows to be delivered to Boston's scrawny floor leader in the early going.
WHEN NEW YORK HAS THE BALL
Pace: 93.3 possessions per 48 minutes (7th NBA)
New York Offensive Rating: 114.3 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
Boston Defensive Rating: 101.9 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
This is the end of the court where the real entertainment in this series can be found. Pierce and Garnett will be tasked with defending New York's two-man game between Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Garnett re-ascended to his long-time status as one of the league's best and most versatile defenders this season, and his presence could reduce Stoudemire's effectiveness to the point that an undue amount of pressure will be placed on Anthony. The matchup of forwards will be fascinating to watch.
The Knicks didn't post what would have been a league-best Offensive Rating had it been posted over the entire season only because of the Anthony-Stoudemire pairing. (Though, that was much of the reason.) Anthony used fewer possessions after going to New York, and was much more efficient. Stoudemire fell off both in usage and efficiency and didn't compensate with an increased presence in the floor-game categories. Still, the combination was impressive, at least on offense.
However, there were other players who adapted to playing off the star duo. Billups used more possessions and stayed efficient as the third scoring option. Toney Douglas was fantastic after the trades, scoring 19.2 points per 40 minutes on a .569 True Shooting Percentage. Landry Fields' playing time dropped a bit, but he did well with the larger role who took on in the attack. Shelden Williams didn't play a ton, but averaged 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes and put up a .677 TS% when he did play. None of this helped New York on the defensive end, but the Knicks' role players generally took advantage of the openings created by the Anthony-Stoudemire combo.
Boston's Defensive Rating rose by 1.1 points after the deadline, but you can't really attribute that to Perkins' departure since he was injured for most of the first four months of the season. The slippage can be more traced to the absence of any big man. Besides Shaq, the other O'Neal, Jermaine, played in just seven post-deadline games and just 22 games overall. When he did play, he earned superlatives from Rivers for his work on the defensive end. Boston put up what would have been the league's third-best defensive number after Perkins was dealt, so perhaps the hand-wringing over the Boston defense is unwarranted. However, one must sound a note of caution: If, in the postseason, one or both of the O'Neal's can't serve the role as backline basket protector that Perkins filled, the void may yet be felt.
The Knicks probably won't do much different against the battle-tested Boston defense than they did during the last few weeks of the season. Why would they? The team took better care of the ball, even though Billups missed seven games, and saw a spike in free-throw attempts. The shooting held steady, the offensive board work did the same and the ball-sharing was as good as it was before Anthony's arrival. Whatever alterations D'Antoni made in his system to accommodate the new talent, expect status quo now that we're into the last half of April.
This will be a really interesting series to watch. All evidence suggests that the Knicks will be able to keep its offensive efficiency close to the elite level it established during the season's last weeks. If Anthony and Stoudemire can stay on the floor, they'll keep the scoreboard turning, probably with help from a variety of spot-up types like Billups, Fields and Shawne Williams. The question is whether the Knicks can get enough stops for all the points to matter. Assuming the effort is there, we may see that this talent collection in New York is simply ill-suited to field a playoff-quality defense. The Knicks' defense is the weakest unit of any in the playoffs. While their firepower may allow them to steal a win or two at Madison Square Garden, it's not going to get them to the second round.
Celtics in 6
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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