BOSTON — Carmelo Anthony was so reserved in complimenting Raymond Felton that the Knicks point guard, seated less than two feet away, could not help laughing. Felton had just finished dicing up the Celtics in a decisive playoff victory, and the best Anthony could manage to say was that his teammate’s 15-point, 10-assist performance was “what he’s supposed to do.”
The underwhelming praise was sort of funny in an ironic way, considering that three games into this first-round series, Felton may be the Knicks’ most valuable player. He has gashed the Celtics’ traditionally stout defense with his pick-and-roll ballhandling, penetrating to the basket easily and finding open teammates outside the 3-point line whenever defenders collapse.
Yet Felton is not the only Knicks point guard responsible for putting the Celtics in a historically insurmountable 3-0 deficit. Pablo Prigioni and Jason Kidd, two aging guards at separate stages of their NBA lives, have teamed with Felton to form a multiple-point guard attack that has given the Celtics fits.
“I think Ray has grown, like quite a few players have grown, but Ray has grown as a player from training camp to today,” Kidd said. “When you look at him or Pablo running the show, they just [have an] understanding of what the team needs at the right time. That’s what a point guard does. He’s been doing it for us in this series and we’re going to ask him to come out on Sunday and do the same thing.”
The Knicks are not the only team that utilized two or more point guards together on the court this season, but they did it best. Felton and Prigioni started together for the second time in the series, and they scored 10 of the Knicks’ 23 points in the first quarter of Game 3. Their defense has been everything the Celtics’ backcourt was advertised as, while the Avery Bradley and company have not had any success containing the Knicks guards, inside or outside. Other than that, things have been great for the Celtics.
Dual point guards present challenges the Celtics’ defense is not designed for. The Celtics’ system focuses on loading up on the strong side of the floor, giving plenty of help to a defender guarding a dangerous one-on-one scorer like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Ideally, Anthony would be limited as well. But playing two point guards means the Knicks can initiate the offense from either side of the court, meaning there is no “strong side.” The Knicks simply need to swing the ball, or run a pick and roll near the free throw circle, and the Celtics’ defense starts to break down.
Short of sticking Courtney Lee back with the first unit, which Celtics coach Doc Rivers seems unwilling to do, there is not much the Celtics can do right now schematically. They simply need to contain the opposing guards better. Rivers made the best short-term switch he could by inserting Jason Terry into the starting lineup for Game 3, hoping to take some of the ballhandling responsibility from Bradley and keep the third-year guard fresh for the defensive end.
That move only succeeded in getting J.R. Smith ejected when he cracked Terry in the jaw with an elbow in the fourth quarter.
Before a bunch of NBA teams go out and stock up on point guards this summer, they should know that this strategy requires a certain type of player. Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings have not had much success finding cohesion with the Bucks, who are on the verge of getting swept by the Heat. Felton is the classic, ball-dominating point, but Kidd, a 39-year-old veteran, and Prigioni, a 35-year-old rookie, are just as happy playing off the ball. Prigioni’s outside shooting has been just as valuable as his defense in the playoffs, while Kidd still has a knack for the ball on defense, along with the most underrated 3-point set shot in NBA history.
“I’m a hybrid,” Kidd said. “I’m just a basketball player. I used to be a point guard when I was younger, and now it’s just about playing out there and helping my guys win. Playing the two-[point]-guard offense — we did that a lot in Dallas — we had a lot of success. … It’s the right thing to do with the makeup of this team.”
Whether or not Anthony wants to act impressed, the Knicks’ point guard play has stood out in the series. Three times the threat has caused three times the trouble for the Celtics, who are probably wishing the Knicks go back to the days when they just gave the ball to Anthony on the wing and cleared out.