One could argue that coach Mike Woodson is the most valuable asset to the New York Knicks.
Yes, the second-seeded Knicks have scoring champion Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith, but Woodson is responsible for putting the players on the same page. Woodson will get his second straight crack at the postseason at his current position when the Knicks take on the Atlantic Division-rival Boston Celtics in the opening round of the playoffs.
Woodson went 18-6 after taking over the helm in New York last season and was bounced from the postseason in five games by the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat. Anthony, who took the scoring title away from three-time defending champion Kevin Durant, averaged 28.7 ppg this season and ended the regular season on a tear.
Anthony posted averages of 27.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in five playoff games a season ago and is posting 24.9 ppg in 54 career postseason appearances. The smooth-shooting Anthony will once again be pinned with the majority of scoring duties against a Celtics team he averaged 25.3 ppg in four meetings against this season.
The Celtics can pose problems for a New York team that battled with injuries all season and Woodson knows that.
"First things first, we're gonna have to do deal with Boston. They're well coached. They played well, they had their ups and downs with injuries as well and so have we," Woodson said. "We gotta get back healthy and we gotta get ready to play them. It's gonna be a good series."
Woodson took the last week of the regular season to rest his players in hopes of getting some fresh bodies back. Anthony dealt with a left shoulder contusion, Chandler battled with a bulging disc in his back and Amare Stoudemire was sidelined a while ago to undergo surgery. Stoudemire is hoping to make a return at some point in the playoffs for the Atlantic Division- champion Knicks, a physical squad that is not afraid to take chances.
One of the highest scoring teams in the league, New York, which has made the playoffs in back-to-back years and for just the third time in the previous 12 seasons, has to play better defense with so much at stake. The Knicks took three of four meetings with Boston in the regular season, but have had trouble in Beantown, losing 14 of 18 and 18 of the last 24 contests there.
In the playoffs, the Knicks/Celtics rivalry dates all the way back to 1950-51 when New York swept Boston in a three-game Eastern semifinals set. The Knicks won a five-game set when the two hooked up in 1989-90, but Boston swept New York in four games in 2010-11. Overall the clubs have met 14 times, with the Celtics taking eight of the series.
Boston has won 17 NBA titles, the last of which the franchise captured in 2007-08. It has reached the playoffs in each of the last six seasons and will be ready for an intense matchup with the Knicks.
The Celtics may have struggled against New York in the regular season, but this is a fresh slate in the playoffs. Celtics coach Doc Rivers saw his fair share of players go down this season, most notably top point guard Rajon Rondo to a torn knee ligament in late January. Had Rondo been healthy for this matchup, his presence alone would alter the landscape of this series.
Kevin Garnett spent some time on the bench with leg issues, but was able to ease his way back on to the floor toward season's end. Garnett averaged 19.2 ppg in 20 postseason games for the Celtics a year ago and bowed out in seven games to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Celtics leading scorer Paul Pierce posted 18.9 ppg in 20 playoff games in 2011-12.
The aging Garnett and Pierce could be running on fumes as far as having playoff success is concerned because they're not getting any younger. And neither is top reserve and occasional starter Jason Terry. Luckily for the Celtics, Jeff Green is as spry as they come and could make a difference in this anticipated first-round matchup.
BACKCOURT: Boston's backcourt just isn't the same without Rondo. Enter Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee. Highly unknown outside of Massachusetts, Bradley and Lee will run Rivers' pick-and-roll offense and hope to set the stage for Garnett in the post. A quick line of support for Boston's guards: Get the ball to Pierce as often as possible. Plus, if that option is taken away, Green and Garnett inside is an ideal strategy. There's not much of a difference for the Knicks, who will have Raymond Felton running the point and Pablo Prigioni at the No. 2 spot. Felton, though, is a solid distributor and his experience with Anthony and Smith gives New York the upper hand at the top of the key.
FRONTCOURT: The frontcourt showdown between the Celtics and Knicks could be the best in the first round with Garnett, Pierce and Brandon Bass mixing it up with Anthony, Chandler and Iman Shumpert. It's clear Pierce and Anthony are the best scorers in the bunch, but who's the best at rebounding and having an inside presence? Shumpert could be the most athletic inside, but doesn't have the playoff experience. The Celtics thrive off killing opposing teams down low with Garnett and even utilize the paint when going small. Boston and New York were not too far off both offensively and defensively, and the team that stays healthy the most will have the advantage.
BENCH: New York's bench is far superior to Boston's, and it's because of the free shooting Smith. Smith caught fire on several spurts this season and is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, averaging almost 20 points per game. Smith, though, is not afraid to shoot at will and sometimes may get caught up in trying to shoot the lights out. That's when Woodson has to calm his tattoo- laden reserve down. Three-point specialist Steve Novak can make a big shot when asked, while veterans Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin provide leadership and rest for New York's starters. Chris Copeland has emerged as a reliable backup for Chandler. As for Boston, Terry and Green are the only players worth mentioning off the bench. However, they can both score either outside or in the paint. Green made his mark when Garnett was sidelined due to injury.
COACHING: Woodson did so well for the Knicks at the end of 2011-12 he was given an extension. Now he has the Knicks feeling confident in their chances to dethrone the Heat as the East's best. With a 12-22 mark as a head coach in the playoffs, Woodson is relying on his players to be accountable for themselves and won't hesitate to pull the plug on veterans. The former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks looks to outwit Rivers, who's been at the controls in Boston since 2004. Rivers is 57-43 in the playoffs with the Celtics and has the coaching edge over Woodson. Rivers has been here before and knows how to get his players in position to win games in the postseason. Not that the players would need an extra incentive come playoff time, but Rivers has a very relaxed persona and his teams respond well to the X's and O's.
PREDICTION: The storied matchup between the Knicks and Celtics will resume on the playoff stage, further adding fuel to the rivalry. When it comes to Boston and New York, greeting cards and thoughtful sentiments go by the wayside and it won't be any different on the hardwood. Anthony vs. Pierce, Chandler vs. Garnett and Rivers vs. Woodson are intriguing battles to the most casual NBA fan, who will get at least seven games to savor the moment.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: KNICKS in 7