There are doubts galore surrounding the Celtics as they begin the quest for banner 18 this spring, but even the harshest of skeptics doesn't see the C's falling in round one against the New York Knicks.
The Celtics are the better team. They're deeper, they're better defensively, and they're loaded with playoff experience. They expect to go deep in the playoffs again in 2011, and that confidence will take them a long way.
But they can't get overconfident. The Knicks have three proven winners and a few decent role players surrounding the star nucleus, and if the Celtics overlook them, they'll be sorry.
The temptation is there to look ahead to future rounds, where Miami, Chicago and the Lakers may await. But first the Celtics need to focus on dispatching New York in round one.
Here are six ways how.
Don't get caught up in their pace.
When you go up against Amare Stoudemire and Mike D'Antoni, you've got to be quick on your feet. The "seven seconds or less" attack will be in full force against the Celtics. But the C's don't want to get caught up in matching Amare shot for shot — rather, they should look to slow the game down and control the flow. Playoff basketball is a game of superior execution, one possession at a time. The C's are the superior team defensively, and the smarter team on the offensive end. They don't want to get too reckless and lose sight of those advantages.
Everyone must rebound.
One of the Knicks' strengths is that everyone can rebound. It's not just the bigs. For a point guard, Chauncey Billups is one of the best. For a shooting guard, Landry Fields may be the absolute best in the game, right up there with Kobe Bryant. Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are also solid. The C's need to close out possessions by crashing the boards, and they can't rely on Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal to do all the work themselves. The effort on the glass will be vital.
Attack Chauncey Billups.
Billups is one of the best. He's a Finals MVP. He's also 34 years old. Rajon Rondo has a tremendous advantage athletically, and he needs to exploit it. Every time Rondo gets a defensive rebound or a steal, he can outrun Billups. Every time Billups is caught off-balance for a millisecond, Rondo can pounce. The Knicks are a young, athletic team for the most part, but point guard is the one exception, and it's the one area where the C's can really push their edge. There's a chance for Rondo to take over this series.
Get Ray Allen going.
Ray's numbers in April have been really underwhelming. In the six games he's played, he's averaged only 11.7 points, on only 8.7 shot attempts per game. He's 7-of-20 from 3-point range, or 35 percent. He's capable of being way better than this, but it's got to be a complete team effort. He needs good screens to get him open, and he needs perfect passes to hit him in the right spots at the right times. Ray's 3-point shooting can be a tremendous difference-maker in this series, but only if his teammates enable him.
Get quality minutes from the bench.
This might be the Celtics' biggest advantage of all. Their bench is way deeper and way better than the Knicks'. Doc Rivers has Glen Davis, Jeff Green and Delonte West at his disposal — D'Antoni has Toney Douglas, Jared Jeffries and Shelden Williams. Remember Shelden Williams? He barely even cracked Doc's rotation in Boston last year. There will be stretches in this series of "second unit versus second unit," and it's imperative that Boston totally dominate these stretches. If they do, it'll translate to wins.
Step up in the fourth quarter.
Once the Knicks send in their crunch-time five for the final minutes, they're capable of beating anyone. Chauncey has ice in his veins, and Carmelo is arguably the game's best closer. The Celtics need perfect execution if the game is close in the late minutes — they can't put themselves in a vulnerable spot for the Knicks' stars to beat one. They need a cohesive team effort on the defensive end, and they can't jack up any "hero ball" shots on offense.
The Celtics got here by being smarter and more composed than anyone else. That's also how they can move on.