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Lessons from Celtics-Knicks: winning the war of attrition

The Celtics took down the Knicks for the second time this season, and they did it by beating New York at their own game.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

Did someone say three straight wins? I did. I said three straight wins. It was me.

There’s nothing like ripping off three-in-a-row on your home turf, defending the fort against invaders from wild lands like New York City, Canada, and… a different part of New York City. The Celtics were tortured by the Knicks last year, but have already beat them two entire times this season, improving to 8-2 and 5-0 at home.

But why on earth were the Celtics able to dice the Knicks like an onion on Monday night, when last year felt more like performing arthroscopic surgery on a mountain lion? It was a pretty inspiring win against a really tough team, and there’s a lot of good to take out of it. Even so, I don’t know if I will ever get images of Immanuel Quickley’s 38-point explosion last out of my head. But I’ll try.

The key to beating the Knicks is attrition. Tom “Thibs” Thibodeau is notorious for playing his guys borderline-irresponsible amounts of minutes, which is an interesting puzzle to solve. On one hand, Thibs’ guys should be pretty tired by the 4th quarter, which is an optimal time to pounce. On the other, it can be difficult to find openings when the Knicks are running such a tight ship.

It wasn’t easy, but the Celtics found ways to grind them down. All five starters played 30+ minutes, and stayed in until the final buzzer to make sure the win was in pen, not pencil. The lead never felt secure until the very end, but the C’s never waned down the stretch. That’s great to see.

By the fourth quarter, the Knicks were definitely gassed. Julius Randle began side-stepping three pointers with 17 seconds left on the shot clock, which isn’t traditionally a great way to dig yourself out of a hole. Josh Hart, who played 43 minutes due to R.J. Barrett missing the game with a migraine, was completely unable to game-wreck down the stretch, with his legs losing their pop after such a long night.

But by far the most impactful was the total inability of Jalen Brunson to do anything at all, scoring a measly six points and allowing the Celtics to slam the door. Brunson is a fine shooter, but his game is much more about getting to his spots on and around the free throw line to force awkward angles for defenders, but his goal isn’t usually to score. He wants to get fouled.

This is going to sound extreme, but I have a deep-seated resentment for players whose offensive game is based around getting fouled. It’s an incredibly effective way to score points, but I much prefer guys who try to finish through contact and end up getting fouled—players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and our good friend Jayson Tatum come to mind.

But guys like Brunson create the contact out of thin air, usually employing something I call the James Harden Special, a move that involves a low dribble pickup and a wild flailing of one’s arms upward into a defender’s arms or body, thus drawing a foul. It’s a certified lame way to play basketball, and the Celtics shut it down in the fourth quarter.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Brunson has worked so well on the Knicks because this move is largely fatigue-proof. Thibs could play him 48 minutes per game, but walking into an elbow position and getting to the free throw line 15 times just works, no matter how tired you are. But the Celtics have the antidote: size and intensity.

One possession midway through the fourth quarter, Jaylen Brown saw the move coming from a mile away, and cranked his defensive intensity up to 11. He managed to legally stay in front of Brunson from the three-point line all the way through the key, and his major size advantage prevented any foul-drawing chicanery. Brunson was forced to pass out awkwardly, and the possession fizzled out.

And it wasn’t just Brunson. The Celtics applied pressure to every choke-point, with Derrick White and Jrue Holiday pestering the Knicks ball-dominant creators all night. It’s hard to overstate the luxury the C’s are afforded by “The Stock Exchange” — a nickname popularized by Richard White, Derrick’s father — with their ability to clamp down on guards and wings and seriously bother bigs.

Side note: I’m not sold on that nickname whatsoever. I know “Stock” is supposed to be steals+blocks, but like… come on. Naming your backcourt after Wall Street has no personality. May I suggest “A White Christmas”? White + Holiday? No?

At the end of the day, the Celtics managed to out-intensity a team that hangs its hat on intensity. It feels criminally negligent that I haven’t even mentioned Jayson Tatum, who overpowered the Knicks in the fourth quarter, exploding for 17 points and dropping a smooth 35 for the game. Porzingis and Brown added 21 and 22 points respectively, but Tatum showed why he currently leads the entire NBA in plus/minus.

But as much as I’d like to bloviate about how incredible is Tatum is at basketball, that’s just not what won the game. He may have closed out the win, which is exactly the assertiveness I want to see, but the game was won by unrelenting force from end to end. It’ll be back to the drawing board for Thibs and Co. Maybe playing Brunson 49 minutes is the key.

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