The Celtics love a challenge, and now they'll get one.
It's not a coincidence the Celtics two most dominant performances of the playoffs came at Madison Square Garden. The Celtics, who dispatched the Knicks in four games, reveled in ruining the return of playoff basketball to MSG for the first time in seven years, sending the assorted celebrities in the crowd scurrying for their limousines before the final buzzer of both Games 3 and 4, like subway rodents exposed by a flashlight.
But like Spike Lee and his beloved Knicks, homecourt advantage is making an early playoff exit for the Celtics. They'll likely be playing without it the rest of the way. They're also are done with preliminaries. Starting now, all opponents will flash legitimate championship credentials.
The Celtics will be taking their talents to South Beach for an inevitable clash with the Miami Heat in the second round, unless the Philadelphia 76ers, who went down 3-0 before staving off elimination Sunday, give us another 3-0 Philadelphia comeback story.
Some important questions about the Celtics were answered in the Knicks series, while others were raised or left for Miami.
Three answered questions:
1. Will Rajon Rondo revert to form in the playoffs? -- This was the biggest question the Celtics had to answer in the first round and the resounding answer was yes. After a puzzling final 21 games of the regular season, Rondo resurrected his game against the Knicks, averaging 19 points and 12 assists, while shooting 50 percent from the floor. By comparison, he shot 41 percent from the field and averaged 9.1 assists per game over the final two months of the regular season.
Rondo got his groove back after the Knicks challenged him to be an offensive threat. He dropped a playoff career-high 30 points in Game 2, followed that up with a triple-double that included a Celtics' playoff-record 20 assists in Game 3 and then had 21 points and 12 assists in the clincher. His play at the point was so sublime that you can almost overlook his 53.8 percent shooting from the free-throw line. Almost.
2. Will the Celtics get anything from either O'Neal?-- We still don't know about Shaquille O'Neal, who has been out of commission longer than the USS Constitution, but Jermaine O'Neal emerged as the Celtics starting center and a legitimate defensive presence. If you had read me that sentence six months ago I would strained an oblique keeling over in incredulity.
Most will remember Jermaine for his work in Game 1, when he had 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting, but it was his four blocks that night that set the tone. JO averaged 2.5 blocks per game against the Knicks and held meetings with Carmelo Anthony at the rim on a regular basis. All the people clamoring for Shaq's return to clog up the middle, don't seem to recall Rondo running wild against Cleveland last year in the playoffs to the tune of 20.7 points and 11.8 assists per game.
3. Can the Celtics still play championship-caliber defense without Perkins? -- Yes, they can. The Knicks were the second-highest scoring team in the NBA this season (106.9 points per game) on 45.7 percent shooting from the field. The Celtics held the Knicks to an average of 90.8 points per game on 38.6 percent shooting.
Sure, Melo went off for 42 in Game 2, but New York never broke 100 points. It certainly helped that Chauncey Billups was hors de hoops with a knee injury and that Amar'e Stoudemire tweaked his back, but the Celtics still turned up the defensive pressure. Two of the biggest plays of the series where on the defensive end -- Paul Pierce drawing a dubious offensive foul on Melo in Game 1 to set up Ray Allen's game-winner, and Kevin Garnett's steal of a Jared Jeffries pass to seal Game 2.
Three unanswered questions:
1. What can the Celtics expect from Shaq? -- Who knows? O'Neal appears to be getting closer to returning from his calf strain and Achilles' tendon injuries, but we've heard that before. Now, the Celtics have bought him a whole week to get ready for Miami. Shaq would certainly help the Celtics, particularly on the offense end. He's a post-up presence that frees up space for other players, and he looked great in his 5-minute, 29-second cameo against the Pistons. He could also help the Celtics on the boards, where KG (11.3 rebounds per game against the Knicks) is not getting a lot of help.
2. Is Jeff Green capable of making an impact? -- Too early to tell. Green looked timid at times in the Knicks series, and logged 12 minutes in Game 2, his fewest as a Celtic. He often plays as if he's just trying to stay out of the way, and has too many plays like yesterday, when he dribbled the ball off his foot in the second half. Green needs to be an X-factor off the bench for the Green in at least one series for them to reach the NBA Finals. It doesn't have to be offensively, necessarily, but Green can do more on the boards (3.5 rebounds per game against New York) and on the defensive end. He's going to see time guarding LeBron James in the Heat series.
3. Do the Celtics still have a psychological edge over opponents? -- Incomplete sample size. Towards the end of the regular season there were whispers that teams like Chicago and Miami simply weren't intimidated by playing the Celtics without Perkins. The Knicks didn't appear to be scared of the big, bad, Celtics until crunch time, when the Celtic Mystique became part of the equation. LeBron has never beaten the Celtics in a playoff series, and the new-look Heat only defeated the Celtics once during the regular season. This could be reminiscent of the 1987 Celtics series with the Detroit Pistons. Detroit was arguably a more talented team at that point, but they had a mental block when it came to parquet and shamrocks.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.