The new Big Three won the title the next spring, cementing the belief among fans, commentators and envious team executives. But it was never that simple. Pierce, Allen and Garnett were aided by a slightly less Big Two, a veteran bench and brilliant coaching.
Rajon Rondo began transforming into a star point guard that season. Kendrick Perkins became one of the league’s most imposing defensive centers. The Celtics were a complete team, fueled, but not solely defined, by their three superstars.
It is a truth worth recalling as the Celtics and open a playoff series that appears, at a glance, to be an equal battle of Big Threes. It is not.
Boston is deeper, more talented, more playoff-tested and far superior defensively. If the Celtics are sharp, they should win the series in five games.
The Celtics still have four-fifths of that won the 2007-8 title, and all of them are All-Stars. They have two former All-Stars rotating at center: and . And they again have a deep and playoff-seasoned bench, featuring Glen Davis, Delonte West, Carlos Arroyo, Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.
The Knicks — chasing the dream of their own Big Three — acquired and Chauncey Billups in February and attached them to Amar’e Stoudemire. But they have played just 18 games together and have none of the advantages that the Celtics’ stars enjoy.
The Knicks’ chemistry is iffy. And they simply lack talent beyond their superstar core.
The Knicks have two starters, Ronny Turiaf and Landry Fields, who should be bench players. Their bench has just one reliable performer, Toney Douglas. Their reserve big men, Jared Jeffries and Shelden Williams, would not make the rotation for most playoff teams.
The lack of depth leaves the Knicks vulnerable to foul trouble and slumps by their stars.
Can the Knicks win the series just by matching their best players against the Celtics’ best?
“No, because I’m afraid they have more bests,” Coach said, chuckling. “That doesn’t work that way. We have to have guys that just do the little things.”
Here, then, are some other factors to consider as the Knicks and the Celtics renew their storied playoff rivalry:
The Knicks won seven straight games before losing two irrelevant games to close the season. The Celtics went 6-7 down the stretch and 10-11 in their final 21 games, giving the appearance of two teams going in opposite directions. But neither trend is as significant as it seems.
The Knicks’ winning streak included victories over five losing teams. They needed overtime to beat a depleted Orlando team and blew a 19-point lead before holding off Philadelphia.
Boston has played unevenly since trading Perkins for Green in late February. But the Celtics have proved they can snap to attention when the playoffs start. Last season, they went 27-27 in their final 54 games. Then they tore through the Eastern Conference and came within minutes of beating the in Game 7 of the finals.
The Celtics swept the Knicks, 4-0, in the regular season, but three of the games can be dismissed. The first two were played before the Knicks acquired Anthony; both teams rested their stars in the final game, this past Wednesday.
That leaves one meaningful box score: the Celtics’ 96-86 victory in New York on March 21. The Knicks played competitively for 41 minutes and held a 9-point lead in the fourth quarter, only to get over the last seven-plus minutes.
The Knicks have the N.B.A.’s seventh-best offense (110.9 points per 100 possessions), . They will be facing the N.B.A.’s stingiest defense: the Celtics allowed a league-low 100.3 points per 100 possessions.
Although the Celtics rank 18th in efficiency, they are seventh in effective field-goal percentage (weighted for 3-pointers).
If defense prevails, the Knicks are in deep trouble. They rank 22nd in defensive efficiency and 23rd in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage. The Knicks also allow , tied for the third-highest total in the league, according to . Boston allows 22.8, the fifth-lowest mark.
Billups (139 playoff games), Stoudemire (52) and Anthony (45) are rich in postseason experience. Their teammates are not. Douglas and Fields have not been to the playoffs. Neither has Shawne Williams. Turiaf has been in 26 playoff games, but as a bit player. Bill Walker played a handful of minutes for the Celtics in 2009. Roger Mason (21 games) and Anthony Carter (35) have experience but may get squeezed from D’Antoni’s rotation.
The Celtics are seasoned. Rondo, Pierce, Allen and Garnett have been to the finals twice in the last three years. Davis has played in 55 playoff games. Both O’Neals have deep playoff histories. West (45) and Arroyo (34) have been around, too.
Can the Knicks push the pace and take advantage of the Celtics’ old legs? Pierce is 33, Allen 35 and Garnett 34. Jermaine O’Neal is 32, Shaquille O’Neal 39.
Will Shaquille O’Neal, who is recovering from a calf strain, return in time to make an impact?
If the Celtics bottle up Anthony and Stoudemire, can any of the Knicks’ role players fill the void?
Most critical, can Anthony and Stoudemire become the elite tandem they are supposed to be? They have outscored opponents by just 3 points in 672 minutes together, according to ’s John Schuhmann. The Knicks are 14-14 since Anthony arrived.
Every day since the trade has been dedicated to making this All-Star alliance work. The Knicks may be out of time.