On the second night of a back-to-back, the Boston Celtics will face off against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Friday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls was a competitive one, so it will be interesting to see how Joe Mazzulla manages his team’s minutes, and if the Celtics can sustain their increased tempo when facing a young Knicks team with plenty to prove.
The Knicks have had a turbulent start to the season. Some good wins have been marred by questionable rotations, and stagnant stretches where the ball seems to do everything but go into the basket — Celtics fans, we know how this feels, but it would sure be nice to take advantage of it happening to another team for once.
However, just because a team has had its share of stagnation and struggles, doesn’t mean those issues are going to carry over into the next game, as such, here are three tickets to triumph for the Celtics heading into Saturday’s game in Madison Square Garden.
Protecting the rim
Currently, the Knicks rank 8th in finishing around the rim and 12th in paint touches, while the Celtics sit 11th in defending shots within 4 feet of the basket. New York possesses multiple rim threats, from the hulking rim-runner that is Mitchell Robinson to the rebounding machine that is Julius Randle to the lob threat of Obi Toppin — without Robert Williams in the rotation, the Knicks will surely look to pound the rock inside.
Luckily, it would appear that Al Horford’s absence from the rotation on Saturday night might not be the hammer blow some may believe it is, as Robinson is also listed as doubtful due to right knee soreness. Still, without their veteran center manning the middle and keeping everything connected, the Celtics' defense will need to ensure their communication is top-notch and that they work as a unit, rather than trying to do everything themselves.
Furthermore, Boston’s perimeter defense will need to be keyed in on limiting penetration off the dribble, with Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, and Quentin Grimes all occupying spots on the Knicks rotation, the Celtics would be wise to limit driving and cutting lanes if they want to ensure they’re not giving up countless shots in the paint.
Of course, since swapping Luke Kornet into the rotation for Noah Vonleh, Boston’s switchy defense has significantly improved, so, assuming the Celtics continue to stick with what works, the Knicks will need to hustle their butts off if they want to earn some easy bunnies throughout the game.
Feature Malcolm Brogdon
Back-to-backs are always tough on the legs, and oftentimes, how the bench unit plays can be a significant deciding factor. That’s why I’m hoping the Celtics decide to feature Malcolm Brogdon in Saturday’s game. On Friday, Brogdon taught a masterclass on how to put yourself on the map in Sixth Man of the Year discussions without having too much offense run for you.
Against the Knicks, it would make sense if the Celtics incorporated Brogdon into some of their actions, with the hope that it gets him firing and puts him in a position to have another huge night off the bench. It might be early in the season, but managing the minutes and workload on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is already a discussion that’s starting to happen, so allowing Brogdon to become a driving force off the bench isn’t the worst idea in the world.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like Brogdon has been a passenger in the games leading up to this point, far from it, but, giving him a slightly larger role off the bench could be the difference between Tatum and Brown both going into the mid-30s for minutes and potentially stays around the 29-minute mark.
Attack the paint and the perimeter
The Knicks are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to defending the restricted area, ranking 27th in the league, while they also struggle when guarding the perimeter, sitting 28th in perimeter 3 defense. If you want to give Tatum and Brown an early rest, the best idea is to punish the interior consistently and look to generate open looks via kick-outs, thus attacking two of the Knicks' biggest weaknesses.
However, it might be a tough night for Grant Williams, as New York sits 9th in defending corner threes. Still, if Boston can set up their offense to get downhill, draw a crowd, then kick the rock back to an open shooter, there should be no reason why they can’t build an early lead and give their starters a breather mid-way through the game.
Still, you can never bank on an easy night, especially against a division rival who has a genuine point to prove after a slow start to the season.
Right now, the Celtics are searching for some consistency, and that means being able to take care of business during back-to-backs. The defense is improving, and the offense looks almost unguardable at times, oh, and Tatum is looking every inch the MVP candidate people are talking him up to be.
However, this early into the season, it’s hard to get a genuine read on teams, and their win/loss record is certainly not worth taking too much notice of. As such, the Celtics should be prepared for a tough battle tonight, and if it ends up being an easy win, then that’s just a bonus, but the last thing they should do, is come into this contest thinking the Knicks will be pushovers because that’s how you get rocked early.