Brad Stevens’ Celtics feature a defensively versatile team the Knicks could strive toward but a league-average offense New York could aspire to leap frog.

They say the bond between love and hate is closer than we’d like to admit as human beings. The Boston Celtics lie on one end of that spectrum, and it sure as hell isn’t anything close to love. Knicks great Clyde Frazier has said it best; the only green-hued item he cares for is money.

A true rivalry has not existed between the Knicks and the Celtics for a while now. Paul Pierce contested the claim back in 2010, and despite matching up in the playoffs in 2011 and 2013, the vitriol between the two teams never quite reached a fever pitch.

The Knicks managed to steal one win against the Celtics last season, a December 21st contest that I distinctly remember as the last true high point of their season. Michael Beasley dropped a cool 32 points and 12 rebounds, propelling the Knicks to a 102-93 victory.

At 17-14, the Knicks were three games over .500 for just the second time all season, and some had visions of playoff basketball back in New York. I don’t need to remind you what would go on to happen over the subsequent weeks.

But last year is last year. This year, the Celtics look the part of a juggernaut ready to tear the Eastern Conference apart from the inside out. The Knicks, on the other hand, will spend this season occupying the bottom of the standings, biding their time for yet another lottery pick and potentially a max player to join the fold. A David and Goliath matchup in the truest sense of the story, Boston and New York’s basketball clash won’t be nearly as exciting as baseball’s. PLAY THAT GODDAMN SONG AGAIN.*

*Author’s Note: This was much more fun before last night’s game.

The Knicks and Celtics will become quick foes, matching up on October 20th at MSG. After that, they’ll have a showdown on November 21st at the lesser Garden, again on December 6th at TD, and finally on February 1st at MSG on a primetime Friday night game on ESPN. I eagerly await to see what the Knicks’ record is at this point in the season. Could it be the exact inverse of the Celtics? It’s possible. Let’s take a peek at what these two clubs have to offer this season.

A Defensive Powerhouse

This Celtics team will have an absolute stranglehold on the East this year barring any injuries. With Gordon Hayward back and Kyrie Irving healthy (for now), few teams boast the depth that Brad Stevens and company will have at their disposal. Should injuries strike, they are well-positioned to handle a doomsday scenario up and down the roster, with Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart ready to pounce should Irving go down and a plethora of wing options licking their chops for more minutes.

Brad Stevens has turned the Celtics into a force to be reckoned with on the back of their defense. They had the best defensive rating in the league last season, with the perennially under-appreciated Al Horford manning the paint and locking down opposing players en route to a fifth-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting. They do nearly everything well; defend the pick-and-roll, shut down post ups, and dissuade three-pointers. Teams even shot 41 percent from the corners last year against the Celtics, and for a defense this good, that number could regress towards the mean. With another year of experience for their young players, this is a defensive unit that could be even better this season than they were last year. That’s a scary thought.

Their length at the wing positions suffocates opposing offenses, with Jaylen Brown specifically making a massive sophomore leap in 2017–18. Jayson Tatum held his own defensively after concerns about that facet of his game leading up to the draft, impressing with his athleticism and work ethic. Hayward is passable. Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye are rangy, completing a wing rotation that is nasty and fierce. Combining that with Horford’s efforts and the abilities of Boston’s bench guards, there are few holes to poke at in this defense.

One area that the Knicks could look to exploit is in transition. The Celtics aren’t exactly a team that runs and guns, opting instead to rely on Stevens’ elite scheming to set them up for victory. If the Knicks use the likes of Tim Hardaway Jr. and other ball handlers to push the ball up the floor, they could prevent the Celtics from settling into their defense and find some easy buckets along the way. It’s easier said than done, but in the preseason, this Knicks team has shown a propensity for playing a faster brand of basketball than we’ve seen in the past:

Whether that trend sticks or not, exploiting any weakness in this type of defensive stronghold is a tall task. The Celtics are, after all, still an elite transition defense. David Fizdale and his coaching staff will have to dig deep into their pockets to pull out any effective tricks that could work against Boston’s defensive front.

Enes Kanter experienced success against the Celtics last season, putting up 14 points and 14.5 boards per game across their four matchups. We know he’ll get his despite the opponent for the most part. Three of the games came prior to the Porzingis injury, so it’s difficult to pin down exactly what type of lineups Fiz could trot out to exploit the Celtics. Trey Burke had a 26-point effort in February, taking advantage of Kyrie Irving off the dribble and scoring in the paint.

Look for the Knicks to attack Irving early and often when these two teams match up, as he is the clear weak link in a starting lineup full of impressive defenders.

Offensively Average

On the other end of the court, the Celtics are just about league average. They scraped together an offense that ranked 18th last season in points per possession, at times struggling to have their offense reach the heights of their insurmountable defense. Injuries to Hayward and, later in the season, Irving, certainly didn’t help their cause, leaving us to wonder what they may look like at full strength. We shouldn’t take away anything from the brief preseason minutes that their presumed starting five—Irving, Brown, Hayward, Tatum, and Horford—have played together, but it’s been a mixed bag thus far.

The Hayward that the Knicks see in October will be wildly different than the one they encounter in February. Hayward has struggled from the floor through three preseason games, shooting just 25 percent from the field and 10 percent from three. Shaking the rust off will take him—and by proxy the Celtics—time and energy. Defensively, the Knicks will need to be cognizant of switching players onto Hayward, considering that he and Stevens have jointly made it a priority to post him up on smaller players.

The key to stopping the Celtics as a defensive unit is forcing them into inopportune shots. They canned their threes at the second-best percentage in the NBA last season thanks to elite performances from beyond the arc from their aforementioned healthy starters and role players like Marcus Morris and Rozier. They may have finished first if not for the chuck-tastic ways of Marcus Smart. The guy is good for a lot on the basketball court, but upping your field goal percentage certainly isn’t one of them.

The Knicks’ starting lineup does, in terms of pure size, possess the ability to handle the versatile Celtics. With Hardaway, Kevin Knox, and Lance Thomas manning the wing spots, the Knicks have switchy-type defenders that are in decent shape to contest Boston’s wings. In practice, two of the three defenders on the wing for New York are going to be below average, while the third grades out poorly on the numbers side of things despite passing the eye test with flying colors. Taking the Boston wings to task will be about suppressing their secondary playmaking as they look to play off of Irving.

Last year, Frank Ntilikina had success against Kyrie in spurts, and despite a 32-point performance from the All-Star in December’s matchup, Frank’s presence as a guard-stopper shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Verdict

Beating the Celtics is a high that simply cannot be replaced. I relish watching the Knicks take down the C’s, going back to the Paul Pierce days as a young Knicks fan who constantly had his heart ripped out by Pierce and company.

If the Knicks can manage to steal one game from Boston, that would be a welcomed surprise. With their over-under set at a strong 58.5, this Celtics team won’t do much in the way of losing. Notching one win over the Celtics at MSG with a breakthrough Kevin Knox performance and another splendid defensive effort from Frankie sounds just delightful. Pulling it off in reality won’t be an easy task against the title hopefuls.