The time has finally arrived. The NBA Playoffs, version 2011, are here and with that comes the Celtics' latest shot at Banner 18.
This year's quest begins with a matchup against the New York Knicks on Sunday night at 7 p.m. EDT, on TNT. The pairing of Boston and New York may sound pretty enticing, but is certainly less of a rivalry than you might think.
These two teams haven't met in the postseason since 1990,and prior to that, you would have to go back to 1984 to find another postseason series between Boston and New York. And the season series this year wasn't remotely close, with the C's taking all four meetings, though it should be noted that the last game happened on Wednesday, with both teams locked in to their respective slots and treating the proceedings like a glorified exhibition game.
For the Celtics (56-26), the key to the series will be the play of Rajon Rondo. Rondo, whose productivity decreased dramatically over the course of the last 20 or so games (three fewer assists per game, 43.3 percent shooting after the All-Star break vs. 50 percent before), will be matched up with the Knicks' Chauncey Billups, a wily veteran with loads of postseason experience and, like Rondo, a championship ring.
Yet Billups is susceptible defensively given his age, and Rondo should be able to get around him with ease en route to the basket when he chooses to do so. Rondo averaged 16.7 assists per game in three appearances against the Knicks this season, and numbers along those lines would most definitely grease the skids for the C's to advance the conference semifinals.
"We always want to get the ball in Rondo's hands and push it," Celts captain Paul Pierce told ESPN Boston. "We want to use his speed, especially in the open court."
The big key on the other side is Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who was acquired in a massive deal from the Denver Nuggets (along with Billups) on Feb. 22. Anthony averaged 26.3 points per game in 27 games after the trade from Denver, but the Knicks were just .500 to close out the regular season with him on the roster.
Anthony also made an impact on the defensive end, though not a good one. The Knicks (42-40) allowed 105.1 points per game with him wearing blue and orange; conversely, the Nuggets' average points allowed fell by a whopping 8.1 per game after he left for the Big Apple. Anthony's Nuggets teams reached the postseason in each of his seven seasons in Denver , but save for their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, never advanced past the first round.
The Celts will be without center Shaquille O'Neal, who still can't run after suffering a calf injury on April 3 against the Detroit Pistons, for Game 1, and likely longer. Shaq has played just five and a half minutes in the past 10 weeks, but his fellow injury prone center, Jermaine O'Neal, is healthy and ready to go for Sunday night's game, as is guard Delonte West, who sprained his ankle on Monday against Washington.