The Celtics kick off their season on the road as they take on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. It’s fitting that, in the 75th Anniversary season, these two teams would begin the season against each other. They are the only two teams of the original founding members of the NBA who are still playing in the same city and with the same name that they started with.
The Knicks won the series between these two teams 2 games to 1 last season. In the Preseason, the Knicks were a perfect 4-0 while the Celtics went 2-2. Both teams were eliminated in 5 games in the playoffs with the Celtics losing to the Brooklyn Nets and the Knicks losing to the Atlanta Hawks.
Both teams have made changes in the off season with an eye toward improving their weaknesses from last season. Most notably, the Knicks signed former Celtics Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to improve their perimeter scoring, which was a weakness for them last season. The Celtics brought in Dennis Schroder, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson hoping to shore up their defense as well as to improve their second unit.
The Knicks are mostly healthy with only Nerlens Noel on the injured list with a knee injury, listed as doubtful. Mitchell Robinson played 27 minutes in their final preseason game after being out for 7 months with a broken foot. He played well, although he struggled with conditioning. Taj Gibson started all 4 of their preseason games but I’m guessing that Robinson will move back into the starting lineup for this game.
The Celtics haven’t been as lucky with injuries/illness. Jaylen Brown missed all but the first preseason game after being diagnosed with Covid. He was listed as questionable for this game as of Tuesday night, but at the Wednesday shoot around, Ime said that Brown would play in this game. I imagine that there will be a minutes restriction for him as he returns from his 10 day quarantine. Payton Pritchard broke his nose in the final preseason game and is probable for this game, although he will play with a face mask.
Al Horford also missed most of the preseason with Covid and is listed as out for this game. According to Ime, Grant Williams will get the start at power forward. I think that when Horford returns, he will start at power forward and so I’m guessing that Ime will want to keep Tatum where he will play once Al comes back. Grant was benched in the preseason for complaining to the refs and hopefully he learned his lesson and will concentrate on his play and not on the officials.
Probable Celtics Starters
PG: Marcus Smart
SG: Jaylen Brown
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Grant Williams
C: Robert Williams III
Jaylen Brown (covid) probable
Payton Pritchard (nose) probable
Al Horford (covid) out
Probable Knicks Starters
PG: Kemba Walker
SG: Evan Fournier
SF: RJ Barrett
PF: Julius Randle
C: Mitchell Robinson
Kevin Knox II
Nerlens Noel (knee) doubtful
Marcus Smart vs Kemba Walker
Smart and Walker played side by side last season and now they will square off against each other. Smart is expected to be the starting point guard for the Celtics for the first time in his 7 years with the team. Kemba has said that a win in this game has extra meaning for him after the Celtics traded him at the beginning of the off-season. He struggled in the preseason, averaging just 10 points and shooting under 40% from the field. However, he will be extra motivated to beat his former team in this game. Marcus needs to run the offense and find his teammates but he also will need to keep Kemba from having a big game.
Jaylen Brown vs Evan Fournier
Once again, these two players were teammates last season and now will be facing off against each other after Fournier left the Celtics to sign as a free agent with the Knicks. Jaylen said he feels really good in spite of having covid but he may have a minutes restriction. The Celtics certainly can use his defense to keep Fournier from having a big game against his former team.
Grant Williams vs Julius Randle
Randle was last season’s Most Improved Player, averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists while shooting 45.6% from the field. He is picking up right where he left off and played very well in the preseason. Grant needs to play tough defense in this one to keep Randle from having a big game.
Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense is always a key to winning every single game. The Celtics upgraded their roster to being in some tougher defenders and reports out of training camp were that the team was playing with a lot of intensity and hopefully that will carry over to this game. They will miss Al Horford’s defense and if Jaylen can’t play, that will also be another blow to their defense. However, each player on the court must play tough team defense. We know that Tom Thibodeau will get the most out of his team defensively and the Celtics must match their defensive intensity.
Rebound - Much of rebounding is effort and hustle and the Celtics must play with maximum effort and they have to crash the boards to beat the Knicks to rebounds. They need the ball to score and so getting extra rebounds will give them extra possessions and deprive the Knicks of the same.
Pace - Ime Udoka had a lot to say about pace in the preseason. He wants the team to run on every possession and to make quick decisions while avoiding over-dribbling. The Celtics need to run and they need to move the ball and they must make good decisions with the ball. They also need to play team ball and find the open man as Ime also wants them to increase their assists this season.
Bench Play - The Knicks starting lineup has struggled at times in the preseason, but their reserves have come in and played very well, coming from behind for a win in games. They are playing the same bench unit as they did last season and that group posted a +17.5 differential last season. The Celtics have a stronger bench than last season but they need to find chemistry quickly and the young players need to play well.
On the Road - The Celtics begin their season on the road. Young players often struggle more away from their home arena. The Celtics play 7 of their first 10 games on the road and so they need to quickly develop the mindset that they will block out the distractions of playing on the road and keep their focus on getting a win in hostile arenas. The Garden crowd will definitely be hostile and loud as they back their starting point guard against his former team.
Injuries - The Celtics can’t make excuses but having 2 of their starters out for much of the preseason and the uncertainty of who will be playing in this game has to be a distraction. Also, Jaylen may not be 100% after his bout with covid. They have to have the next man up mentality and players need to step up to fill in for those who are out.