Every NBA team had to play at least one back-to-back-to-back this season as a result of the compressed schedule following the lockout. But did anyone have it easier than the Boston Celtics?
Their only one of the season came this past weekend, against a murderer’s row of the Raptors, Nets and Bobcats. Three lottery-bound teams. The C’s didn’t even play their Big Three against Charlotte and came away with an easy win to sweep the triple trip.
That win, coupled by the Knicks loss Sunday to the Miami Heat, opened a 4 1/2 game dividebetween the old rivals going into Tuesday’s game at Madison Square Garden. While Mike Woodsontalked at length on Saturday about playing for the Atlantic Division, with six games to go, that is now a most improbable goal.
Even with a win on Tuesday, the Knicks would be 3 1/2 back with five to play and would keep Boston from clinching the season series. The Knicks would be a half-game behind Boston in the next tiebreaker, division record.
Three of the Knicks’ final five games are against lottery-bound teams, while the Celtics face three straight playoff teams — including the Miami Heat on April 24 — and then they close the season against the Bucks, who expect to be battling for the final playoff spot to the very end.
But Boston’s next game, after playing the Knicks, is Wednesday against the Orlando Magic, who are without Dwight Howard. You can look at this as a win-win for the Knicks, but only if they beat Boston and then take care of business in New Jersey on Wednesday.
A Magic win moves the Knicks within 2 1/2 of the division lead. A Celtics win moves the Knicks closer Orlando for the 6th seed in the East (depending on the outcome of Magic-76ers on Monday, which is, of course, another important game for the Knicks when it comes to playoff positioning).
Let’s forget the 76ers and seventh place for a moment and consider what is more probable: catching the Celtics or catching the Magic?
After playing Boston on Wednesday, Orlando has road games in Utah and Denver, two teams battling for a playoff spot in the West, before finishing against Charlotte (an easy one) then closing out the season in Memphis (tough one).
The sixth seed is very, very attainable for the Knicks. And what should make it just as motivating as vying for the division is that a sixth-place finish means a likely first round matchup with the Indiana Pacers.
Let’s see, Chicago, Miami or Indiana? Whom would you rather face?
BOSH HAS BEEN MIAMI’S SPICE
The givens have always been Dwyane Wade and LeBron James against the Knicks. But the player who is so often overlooked in these matchups but has made the difference for Miami against the Knicks is their third star, Chris Bosh.
In six games against the Knicks since he joined Miami Thrice in 2010, Bosh has averaged 19.7 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. He had 16 points and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes as the third option in Sunday’s 93-85 finale.
The Knicks, like most opponents, pay so much collective attention to containing Wade and James that Bosh benefits from one-on-one coverage or mismatches on the pick-and-roll switch. The Knicks missed Amar’e Stoudemire in this game more than ever, if at least to match up against Bosh, which allows Tyson Chandler to roam as a helper off the Heat bigs, Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem (Ronny Turiaf didn’t play, which was a surprise).
The Knicks’ small lineup hurt them in this game, especially with Landry Fields starting off on LeBron. This was one of the few times I had to question Woodson’s strategy, because Carmelo knows how to guard LeBron and Tyson Chandler should have started out on Bosh. What do you do with Landry? Bring him off the bench and start Josh Harrellson on the Heat centers, who are only there to bang, board, set screens and hit an occasional jumper. Jorts can handle that.
But having Landry on LeBron required a ton of help defense. Woodson can argue, however, that Fields (and Melo) did a decent job keeping LeBron on the perimeter, where he’ll tend to exist. He’s not a great shooter (1-for-6 from three-point range), but in this game he was hitting those mid-range jumpers (10-for-18 from two-point range).
SPEAKING OF LANDRY…
We’ve always supported Fields in this space and on the air and always point out the many intangibles he brings to the game. But on Sunday, it was impossible not to notice how overwhelmed he looked on offense and how much it is now impacting other parts of his game, especially his confidence.
Woodson often shoulders the burden of a struggling player and says “I have to do a better job” when it comes to helping that player find his game. He said it about Melo and he’s now saying it about Landry, who had The Garden growling at him and Twitter feeds lambasting him.
Fields, who was a team-high minus-15, seemed to have a grenade in his hand every time he touched the ball. His maddeningly flat jump shot dented the rim with six bricks on eight attempts and at the end of the first half, the Knicks had a four-point lead evaporate when the Heat scored on three straight possessions. Each time the basket was scored by whomever Fields was defending.
Woodson, however, won’t treat Bill Walker like an old record (you know, dust him off and play him) in favor of the slumping Fields.
“I have to help him,” Woodson said. “He’s not playing with a whole lot of confidence, but I need him in there because he does a lot of good things from a defensive standpoint.”
Confidence is the clear issue with Landry, who might be the most modest exceptional athlete in the NBA. Right now, Landry practically asks permission to drive to the basket and you can almost hear him say excuse me when a defender jumps in his path.
The jump shot is definitely messed up and probably will need the offseason to get it overhauled. But right now what Landry needs is to play with some anger. We saw this in the playoffs last season, when Fields looked mentally overwhelmed by the intensity of playoff basketball against a veteran team like the Celtics.
Well, that intensity is here again.
• The Knicks didn’t hold a formal practice today, but MSG Training Center was open for players who needed treatment (and at this time of year, who doesn’t?) and extra conditioning. Stoudemire will scrimmage some more to get himself closer to being game-ready, which could come some time this week.
• Tyson Chandler said he banged knees with Joel Anthony, which led to a lot of instability and discomfort, but he said he would be fine and expected to play against the Celtics. Chandler had just five rebounds against the Heat, which put two bodies on him to box out after just about every shot. It was an excellent strategy, as the Heat, not known as a great rebounding team, won the battle of the boards, 47-33.
• Once again the point guard position continues to be a major issue for the Knicks offense and, if critics are paying attention, is exactly why Melo has to carry the offense right now. Baron Davis is playing at a half-tank, at best, and though he gets off to good starts, you can see with fatigue his game gets sloppy and ineffective. Another reason why the Knicks need to desperately target the sixth spot, because if they can get by the Pacers, they can get Jeremy Lin back for a potential second round matchup against the Bulls.
• We’re always making nostalgic references to those beloved 90’s Knicks teams. For those fans too young to remember those teams, what you’re seeing right now out of the current Knicks is pretty much what those teams were. See if you can make the connection: They were often criticized for relying too much on Patrick Ewing to score in a very deliberate offense, they played tough, hard-nosed defense, they seemed to always have an ill-timed injury impact the rotation and they were equally fun and maddening to watch.