The Knicks were 1–3 against the Celtics before Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward came to town. How can they contain this revamped Celtics squad?
For the first time in recent memory, the Eastern Conference isn’t clearly LeBron James’ to lose — for now.
The Boston Celtics, last year’s first seed in the East, have elevated from solid team to bona fide title contender. The reclamation project in Beantown is almost complete, and the fruits of Celtics GM Danny Ainge’s labor are quite impressive.
We’ll get to the big prize, Kyrie Irving, in a second, but let’s recap Ainge’s offseason. He shipped out Avery Bradley (possible mistake) but brought in Gordon Hayward. He flipped the number one pick for the third pick, which turned into pro-ready Jayson Tatum plus a future draft pick. Also added on draft night was Semi Ojeleye, who figures to be a decent wing off the bench. European big Guerschon Yabusele joined the fray and replaced Amir Johnson.
That’s the small change. Put the Hayward–Stevens reunion to the side, and this was the move of the summer: Kyrie Irving jumping from the Celtics’ biggest obstacle, Cleveland, to the Celtics is a massive win. To find the last time two alpha teams swapped major pieces you’d have to go back to the 1980s when the Sonics traded Dennis Johnson to the Suns for Paul Westphal.
In other words, we haven’t ever really seen a trade of this magnitude.
In exchange for Kyrie, Ainge sent cult hero Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and that Nets pick to Cleveland. A fair price for a player who can single-handedly win you games. Kyrie’s scoring repertoire is world class. You can talk me into Kyrie having the best handles and finish in the league. There are times it looks like the ball is bouncing off a pillow before falling through the basket.
Boston might overwhelm the ‘Bockers, but there are some ways to exploit the new-look C’s
The Knicks already had enough trouble containing a spread out Celtics attack last season. For the second straight season, the Celtics took three of four from the Knicks, and this season could be more of the same. The good news is the Knicks have little to no interest in winning this season, so every beatdown should be viewed as a scouting opportunity. The Celtics are not just good this season but will be the class of the conference for the foreseeable future. Learn their weaknesses now so they can be exploited when it’s time to contend.
Brad Stevens will likely run a wide array of lineups, Warriors-lite in that respect. For now, the starting lineup will be Kyrie and Jaylen Brown in the backcourt with Hayward, Morris, and Al Horford rounding out the frontcourt. Off the bench: Marcus Smart, Tatum, and the living legend Terry Rozier provide another wave of talent to deal with. (For what it’s worth, MassLive.com’s Jay King reports that Boston could start Tatum at the 4.)
Kyrie should put our young son Frank Ntilikina in the spin cycle early and often. I’m not sure there is a word in the English language to describe what will happen to Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack. More likely than not, Kyrie, the New Jersey native, will have his way against his hometown squad.
Tim Hardaway Jr. will have his hands full with Brown, who has flashed serious potential as a lockdown wing. Hardaway Jr. was paid big bucks to score, and Brown will try his best to make that look like a bad investment. This will be a nice litmus test to see just how versatile THJ can be on offense. The best outcome from these match ups would be for Frank and Hardaway Jr. to learn how to beat their guy, an invaluable lesson for future, more balanced competitions.
Up front is where the Knicks will find a chink in the Celtics’ armor. Horford may stretch the floor but has the presence of a substitute teacher in the paint. Willy Hernangómez, Enes Kanter, and the other bigs should have no trouble cleaning the glass. Boston proved to be one of the worst rebounding teams in 2016–17, actually the 4th worst rebounding team statistically. When Stevens plays Horford with Marcus Morris it would be an embarrassment to not win the battle of the boards.
How well Kristaps Porzingis does against the Celtics will be crucial. Porzingis should flambé Morris, Yabusele, or whomever Stevens attempts to throw his way. Last season KP lost the three games he appeared in against Boston, but he did have his moments.
His best game came on Christmas when he poured in 22 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks, and two steals in the close loss. That performance was utopian if you’re the Knicks. The stats are impressive alone, but the variety in which he scored was what fans should be hyped about.
Porzingis tantalized any man Stevens threw at him. He was aggressive on offense and a hound on defense. If he wanted to drive, he drove. If he wanted to pull up, defenders were resigned to helplessly extending their arm. Porzingis has to replicate that style not just versus the Celtics, but against every single team. When he lines up against the Celtics this season he should expect to see a smorgasbord of defenders ranging from Horford to Brown and perhaps even Marcus Smart.
The overarching message here is the Celtics and Knicks are two ships passing in the night. One will go on to challenge the Cavaliers for the throne while the other will look to acquire as many lottery balls as possible.
For four games this season the Knicks will likely take a pounding. The Celtics are better from top to bottom as an organization — but that doesn’t mean these games won’t be entertaining.
— Mike Cortez, staff writer