Knicks will test championship mettle in showdown with Celtics

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Julius Randle New York Knicks
New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) drives to the basket to score as Boston Celtics center Al Horford, right, defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The Knicks have won five games in a row and are captivating the city again with a tremendous stretch of basketball that has fans dreaming of playoff success. They will get a great chance to test just how far they’re capable of advancing when they welcome the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics to town on Monday night. 

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Coming into the game, the Celtics have the best record in basketball at 44-17. They’re third in the NBA in scoring, averaging 118.1 points per game while holding opponents to 112.1 points, which is eighth-best. They play tremendous team basketball, dishing out the seventh-most assists per game, and are also sixth-best in the NBA in rebounds per game. 

They feature a dynamic duo in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are in the conversation for the best pairing in the NBA. Tatum is averaging 30.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game, while Brown has 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. 

Plus they have an elite perimeter defender in Marcus Smart, solid veterans in Al Horford and Malcolm Brogdon, and upside younger players like Grant Williams, Derrick White, and Robert Williams III. All in all, Boston is an incredibly deep and talented team. 

However, the Knicks have proven to be worthy competitors over the last few months. 

For starters, New York won the last meeting 120-117 in Boston. Julius Randle was electric that game with 37 points, and nine rebounds, while Jalen Brunson chipped in 29 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. 

What’s more, the Knicks won that game without starting center Mitchell Robinson, who is a crucial component of the team’s defense. With Robinson back for Monday’s showdown, could the Knicks possibly pull out another win?

We know the Knicks have a dynamic duo of their own in Randle and Brunson. Randle paces the team with 25.1 points per game, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, while Brunson averages 23.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 6.2 assists per game. The rest of the team is not as deep as Boston, but New York boasts a solid nine-man rotation that has proven to be greater than the individual parts may appear. 

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) dribbles the ball while defended by Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during the first half.
New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) dribbles the ball while defended by Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during the first half.AP Photo/Nikki Boertman

Since New York made its much-discussed rotation change on December 4th, cutting a few key veterans like Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose out of the rotation altogether, these two teams have been performing at a similar rate. 

Boston is 26-12 over that stretch, which is good for a .684 winning percentage, but New York is 25-14 for a .641 winning percentage, which is good for fifth in the NBA, one spot behind Boston. Boston is scoring 116 points per game on 46.3% shooting during that time, while New York is scoring 114.9 points per game on 46.6% from the field. 

The Celtics are shooting 36.5% from beyond the arc while the Knicks are shooting 36.4%. The Celtics are averaging 47.1 rebounds per game, while the Knicks are pulling down 47.4 rebounds per contest. The Knicks also have a plus/minus of 5.3 to the Celtics’ 4.8 rate. 

This is over a 39-game stretch, so it is not a small sample size. Perhaps the Knicks are just as good of a team?

Maybe not that far since there are some key areas where Boston remains superior. They move the ball much better as a team, notching 25.7 assists per game over that span, compared to 21.5 assists per game for the Knicks, and Boston remains slightly more opportunistic on defense with 6.6 steals per game to 5.5 for New York. 

However, the Knicks have also made major strides on defense since elevating Quentin Grimes to the starting lineup and finding more minutes for Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride, and now Josh Hart since the trade deadline. 

In fact, the Knicks are giving up just 109.7 points per game over those last 39 games, which is third-best in the NBA, ahead of the Celtics. Keep in mind that 14 of those games were also without Robinson, who undoubtedly makes this Knicks’ defense better. 

They also have worked to shore up their three-point defense, allowing just 12.2 threes per game (12th in the NBA) on 34.1% shooting from beyond the arc, which is third-best in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Celtics allow opponents to shoot 35.5% from three, which ranks 12th in the NBA. 

Any way you slice it, these teams have been playing at a fairly even level for almost half of an NBA season. The Knicks certainly have a smaller margin for error and ask a lot more of their core players, essentially playing only seven players each game with Obi Toppin and Isaiah Hartenstein chipping in minutes when needed. Boston, meanwhile, has nine players who average at least 15 minutes per game. 

New York is going to have to knock down their shots from deep, as they have since coming out of the All-Star break, and contain Tatum and Brown on the perimeter, but this showdown with Boston feels a lot more winnable than it did in November, which is a testament to how far this Knicks team has come. 

However, if they want to prove they’re worthy of the ultimate prize at the end of the season then they need to just not equal on the stat-sheet but on the court as well. Monday’s game will go a long way toward proving if that’s the case or not. 



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