The Atlantic Division is the Katy Perry of NBA divisions. It’s incredibly top-heavy. Watching the Boston Celtics’ preseason slate, which includes only games against fellow Atlantic Division teams, it’s hard not to think, “The C’s bench could win that division.” Seriously. In a survey of general managers asking who would win the division, the Celtics won only 100% of the vote.
Tonight is the next meeting with an Atlantic Division “rival,” as the Celtics see the New York Knicks for the first time. The Knicks could be the C’s biggest competition for the Atlantic Division crown, and by “biggest competition” I mean they might be the only team that comes within 20 games. Adding Amare Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Roger Mason, Jr., Timofey Mozgov and Raymond Felton, the new-look Knicks now take on Mike D’Antoni’s identity for the first time. He finally has his own team, and now it’s on D’Antoni to manufacture wins out of the crew.
That could be a tough task tonight against a Celtics team that has looked impressive. After most of the Celtics’ regulars (and all the starters) received a day of rest in yesterday’s 103-92 loss to Philadelphia, four of them will be back in uniform tonight. Shaq will likely sit again with bothersome hips (Marc D’Amico of celtics.com reports, “It sounds as if Doc Rivers is going to rest Shaquille O’Neal for the second straight game”), but six-time All-Star Jermaine O’Neal should take his place. O’Neal’s defense looked great in yesterday’s loss and his rebounding was exquisite, but his offense felt gross enough that O’Neal called his former high school coach for some pointers. Not that Doc Rivers minded his center’s unsightly one fer six: “I told him I could care less,” Rivers said. “It’s the 12 rebounds, the blocked shots, the charges. He’s going to be really good for us defensively.”
O’Neal should start the game opposite Timofey Mozgov, the 7’1″ Russian who has earned the Knicks’ starting center position with a strong preseason. Mozgov is a little bit like Austin Powers, in that they’re both international men of mystery (although I doubt Mozgov cares as much about “shagging” as Powers does). D’Antoni said of Mozgov, “He’s playing well, and he picks things up extremely fast. I know there’s going to be rough spots ahead, but I just like his attitude and his effort, and then we’ll see what happens.”
Mozgov, for his part, had this to say: “”Run, run, run, defense and work, defense, defense. If I get the ball, shoot sometimes, maybe.” I’m not even kidding. He actually said that. I guess he doesn’t pick English up quite as “extremely fast” as he picks up basketball.
It’s weird to say about a Knicks team that has been softer than Ray Allen’s touch for a few years, but they actually should provide the Celtics’ best inside test yet. With Stoudemire and Mozgov, the Knicks have both strength and athleticism down low. The Celtics’ big men, who have spent the preseason feasting on a steady diet of Trent Plaisted, Andrea Bargnani, Spencer Hawes and every other soft big man the Atlantic Division has to offer, could use a stiffer test: they’ve outrebounded every opponent so far this preseason. For a Celtics team that struggled mightily to rebound last season, that stat would be very encouraging… if it hadn’t been accomplished against such weak frontcourts.
The game starts at 7:30 p.m., so set your DVRs and microwave your popcorn.