Don't look now, but the Knicks are just four games back from the Celtics for first place in the division.
OK, ok. So maybe it's not something to worry about right now, but these Knicks aren't the same team that finished 40+ games behind the Celtics just a couple years ago. Nope, these New York Knicks are, well, new.
Spurned by LeBron James, the Knicks made one huge offseason acquisition over the summer in Amar'e Stoudemire. He, along with Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, and rookie Landry Fields, has turned the Knicks into playoff contenders.
While the Celtics will go into tomorrow night's game with a 10-game winning streak, the Knicks go in with an eight-game winning streak of their own.
Stoudemire has scored 30+ points in each of the last eight games for the Knicks, and could pose as a matchup issue from the center position, especially if rookie Semih Erden has to log big minutes like he did against the Bobcats (40). Still, Doc Rivers doesn't see the C's making many adjustments to the matchup.
"Not anything really," he said. "Whoever will start at center will guard him. We're a help defensive team anyway and whoever starts at center will post him. So I don't think we'll do much different. Obviously there will be times where Baby (Glen Davis) and Kevin are on the floor together, that will be an effective lineup as well for us."
Rivers was quick to note that while Stoudemire is playing excellent, the guys around him are also getting it done.
"They're winning because they're all playing well, they're not winning because Stoudemire is playing well, they're winning because Stoudemire's teammates are playing well, as well with Stoudemire."
Paul Pierce also sees the turnaround the Knicks have made since they played them earlier this season.
"They're playing with a lot more confidence. It usually goes that way when you win some games. You start feeling good about yourself. Guys are really playing well. Amar'e Stoudemire has really stepped up his game becoming a true leader of that ballclub along with Raymond Felton."
Anyone see the game against Charlotte? Ray Allen had an up-close and personal view.
"Well, conversely, you see Charlotte the other night how they didn't really have a cog to get their will going," Allen said. "[Felton] was that guy for them in Charlotte and I'm sure that they miss him. But he's given that to New York so ... he's a north to south player, we have to make him go east to west."
And don't forget about Landry Fields either. Fields was little known coming out of college, which will explain the reason he was taken 39th overall in this year's NBA Draft. Fields rounds out the top three rookies so far in this draft, behind Blake Griffin and John Wall.
"He's terrific," Rivers said of Fields. "I had no idea that he was going to be this. He's been terrific for them. He does so many of the little things. He does the dirty work. Its rare that you find a rookie that they have guard the best guard. He'll guard Rondo for most of the game. He just does so many little things for their team - the rebounding the defensive assignments, the running the floor, and he enjoys it. You just don't see that very often from young players.
Easy with the "Rivalry" Talk
To say that the Knicks and the Celtics are a rivalry, would be like saying Amar'e Stoudemire is Kevin Garnett's rival. The latter has been, is, and will be, better than the former. Sure, the Knicks are putting a decent product on the floor now, but don't make this more than what it actually is - the Celtics definitely aren't.
"It's a rivalry? Man ... I didn't know we had a rivalry going," Paul Pierce said with a laugh. "If that's what you all want it to be, if it's going to sell more tickets, get more viewers, I guess so. You all make up the rivalries; we don't, to be honest."
Excuse us, Paul, for being excited that maybe, just maybe, there's a reason to be excited to watch a game that features you against an Atlantic division opponent. It's been a while. The Celtics have cruised through the division on autopilot over the last three seasons. Since the 2007-08 season, they've held end-of-season game leads of 25, 21, and 10 - not exactly down to the wire stuff right there.
Doc Rivers joked that he was fine with the way things were before this season as far as the division went, but it's good to have competitive basketball games.
"I kind of liked it the other way quite honestly, so let's hope it goes back that way," he said. "I think any game with meaning, and I don't know, obviously for them it's going to have a lot more meaning. They're going to be extremely fired up for this game and I'm hoping our guys can match their intensity. But anytime a game has energy, it's great. It's really great for us because finding ways to get them up is always nice when you don't have to do it. We'll just let the New York people do it by what they'll say over the next two days."
Speaking of the Stoudemire-Garnett matchup, you know Garnett will be fired up to try to prevent Stoudemire from getting that ninth consecutive 30-point game.
"Well I think Stoudemire, even if he didn't have the 30-point games, [Garnett] gets up for him anyways," Rivers said. "They get up for each other. And the fact they're playing well, the fact they're in our division and all that stuff - I'm sure Kevin will have a lot of reading material over the next two days, and so it will be good for him."
"Kevin has always been a great player," Shaquille O'Neal said. "He's always been a focused player. He's always been a player that plays at a high level. So I'm sure he'll be ready. But this isn't about Kevin vs. Amar'e, it's about Celtics vs. Knicks."
The Garden, Madison Square that is
Being around NHL and NBA players, I've gotten the chance to ask many of them where their favorite places to play are (besides their home court). The majority of the responses have been Madison Square Garden.
Maybe it's the location. Maybe it's the bright lights - the big stage. It could very well be the history of it all, too. Whatever it is, that's the place to play.
"I loved it as an opponent," Rivers said. "I loved it when I was playing there. It's the only building alive still, you can say as far as the older buildings. It has that feeling inside."
Of course the same could have been said for the original Boston Garden (R.I.P), but MSG has stood the test of time, unlike it's cousin
"Favorite place to play," Allen said. "It's just so unique. The tradition. As a college player playing in there, playing big games. Understanding just the tradition of New York basketball and all the great players who have played there. That building is timeless.
"I don't know what the outside of that building looked like, but I'd imagine when Willis Reed walked back on the floor back in the day, the building pretty much looked the same as it does now. It hasn't changed a whole lot. You're on Broadway; it's got that Broadway feel. You feel as though you're entertaining people. Even though you're going out to do your job, that's how people look at it. Lights are bright on the court, but dim everywhere else."
One fan who will definitely be in attendance tomorrow night is none other than Spike Lee himself. You have to wonder if Lee would have casted Allen in his movie, "He Got Game," had he known Allen would someday suit up for the team he hates most.
"He was in our building, I saw a glimpse of him when we played Miami, and I know he was routing against us. So I expect that every time we play. We might be on TV playing the Golden State Warriors and he might be saying, "Go Warriors". He's always routing against us."