The season begins
By Russell Richardson
My grandfather emigrated from Maine to New York. He backed the Celtics. My father raised me as a Knicks fan.
One November day in 1985, my grandparents were visiting. The Knicks were playing Boston on my parents’ old TV. In the fuzzy memory, my grandpa teases that his Celtics will beat my Knicks. We’re laughing.
At some point during every Knicks/Celtics game, I flash to that moment in my parents’ living room. My grandpa grins mischievously. He says Boston will win, and I think, Not today, grandpa.
On Wednesday night, the Knicks open their 75th season at home against the Celtics. This time, the game is even more special due to my delirious hope and affection for these Knicks. This scrappy bunch finished 41-31 last season, landed an improbable 4th seed, and improved its roster in the off-season. Can they repeat their success? Will they do even better?
WHEN LAST THEY MET
The Knicks beat the Celtics 96-92 in the final game of last season. The Knicks blew a 21-point lead and squeaked out the win. RJ Barrett went 22/4/2, and Julius Randle went 20/7/7. Reserve Celtic PG Tremont Waters surprised everyone, finishing 17/5/5 with an 11.2 BPM.
Boston was not at full strength for the game. Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Evan Fournier all sat out. The green team’s season ended with a disappointing 36-36 record. They placed 7th in the East and suffered a first-round playoff loss to the Nets.
Today’s Celtics have higher aspirations. For starters, Brad Stevens became GM and promptly shipped Kemba to Oklahoma City. Boston then brought in new coach Ime Udoka, who assisted Gregg Popovich for seven years, then made stops in PHI and BRK.
The team unloaded Tristan Thompson, Jabari Parker, and others. They added PG Dennis Schröder, and centers Al Horford and Enes Kanter (both for second stints). They signed SG Josh Richardson (MIA, PHI, DAL) to replace the outgoing Fournier, who signed a four-year, $78 million deal with NY. (UPDATE 10/20/2021: Jabari and Celtics have agreed to a new, smaller deal for him to rejoin the team.)
HOW’S IT GOING IN BEANTOWN?
The 44-year old Udoka is proving to be a no-nonsense skipper. He benched Grant Williams for shirking a defensive assignment while arguing a call.
“That’s not the team we want to be and that’s not who I am, so I don’t want the team to start crying about every call,” said Udoka. (CBS Sports,)
He also suspended Marcus Smart for a preseason game after Smart missed a team flight.
The growing pains reached the court, too. During their 2-2 preseason, Boston averaged 103.25 PPG and surrendered 108 PPG against the Heat, Raptors, and Magic (twice). That’s a -4.75 differential. Udoka knows those numbers won’t cut it in a competitive Eastern Conference, where some people project Boston as a fifth seed.
What’s gone wrong? Richardson has underperformed. Robert Williams looked sluggish and sat out two games with right knee tendinopathy. Marcus Smart still makes the occasional head-scratching decision. Horford and Brown missed time with COVID-19. Add in the suspension and benching and Coach Udoka is off to a challenging first term in Boston.
In the positive column, Romeo Langford and Payton Pritchard have shown growth in Celtics’ training camp and preseason. And Boston added frontcourt size to their bench. They have depth, or at least enough talent to support centerpieces Tatum and Brown late in games.
Comparatively, a more offensively minded NY scored 116.25 PPG and surrendered 104 PPG against the Wizards (twice), Pistons, and Pacers. That’s a +12.25 differential. And yet, this offensively improved, deeply talented, and well-coached team with stellar chemistry is projected below Boston?
O.K., small sample size. Exhibition games. You’re right. The Knicks took care of business against weaker opponents in the preseason. Let’s see how they perform against a theoretically tougher team.
PG Marcus Smart vs Kemba Walker
SG Jaylen Brown vs Evan Fournier
SF Jayson Tatum vs RJ Barrett
PF Grant Williams vs Julius Randle
C Robert Williams III (The Time Lord) vs Taj Gibson
For the Celtics: Horford is inactive (COVID-19). Brown has been day-to-day, but is cleared to start. Off their bench, expect to see Schröder, Langford (filled in nicely for Brown recently), Pritchard, and . . . Kanter.
Also, Aaron Nesmith can shoot apparently:
Off the Knicks bench, expect to see Mitchell Robinson (still returning to game shape), Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, and Alec Burks. Look for Quentin Grimes to chip into Alec Burks’ minutes a little bit, especially if Grimes subs in and comports himself as well as he did last Friday.
Nerlens Noel’s knee is still day-to-day. My worry festers.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GAME
An inaugural game against a division rival in front of a fervent MSG crowd? Should feel like a playoff match.
Don’t be alarmed if big night jitters cause disorder early on. Rest assured, this squad played the fourth quarter of a preseason game against the Wizards as if their lives depended on it. Expect that same fire against the Celts.
Kemba and Fournier will want to show off for their old team. Smart will be a handful for Kemba to cover, though, and D-Rose could be an early sub. Some offensive gusto from Fournier would make up for his sub-par defensive chops. If Evan lags on both ends, look for Burks to check-in—and maybe even the very promising Quentin Grimes.
Tatum will be a handful for Julius, but a strong showing against a top-15 player will help cement Randle’s star status. The same goes for RJ covering Brown. I’m glad Jaylen will suit up tonight. To see the Knicks beat Boston at mostly full-strength (minus Horford) would clear up doubts about which team is superior.
Wednesday, 7:30 PM. Madison Square Garden. Let the championship season begin!
Not today, grandpa. The Knicks win the Kemba Revenge Game in a thriller. The house will shake so much, Dolan will have to re-shingle the roof.