One of the most epic rivalries in basketball history will feature its fourth and final round of the regular season on Sunday night when the Boston Celtics visit the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. These teams flat-out don't like each other, and the fact that they could meet in the playoffs is only going to add to this game's intensity.
For the Knicks, it's about winning the season series. Boston has dominated them in years past, and the shoe finally appears to be on the other foot.
In Boston's case, it's just about salvaging a season series split and not being absolutely dominated again. The Celtics have not been their usual dominant selves this season, ranking No. 7 in the Eastern Conference and visibly slower with age.
They'll have to fight those obstacles in order to defeat the Knicks again this season, but a rowdy MSG crowd could prevent them from doing so. This game is going to be a dogfight from start to finish, and one that the fans should not miss for any reason.
Time: Sunday, March 31, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: CSN HD, MSG
Records: Boston Celtics (38-34) vs. New York Knicks (45-26)
Injuries: Rajon Rondo (knee, out), Jared Sullinger (back, out), Kevin Garnett (ankle, out), Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Amar'e Stoudemire (knee, out), Kurt Thomas (foot, out), Tyson Chandler (neck, day-to-day), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Who Reigns Supreme in 2013?
Boston and New York did not meet until January this season, and their first matchup on Jan. 7 was one for the ages. In a now infamous game, the Celtics defeated the Knicks 102-96 on the back of a double-double from Kevin Garnett, plus 23 points from Paul Pierce. New York was angry following the loss, and showed an extra bounce in its step in Rounds 2 and 3 as a result.
The next meeting was in Boston on Jan. 24, just a few weeks later, and the Knicks managed a well-earned 89-86 victory thanks to 28 points from Carmelo Anthony.
Round 3 was just a few days ago, on March 26, and New York ran the table thanks to Garnett's injury. Anthony and J.R. Smith combined for 61 points in a 100-85 victory, and Knicks fans would love to see their team win the season series on Sunday.
But that depends on multiple factors. The Celtics are still one of the better defensive teams in the league, ranking ninth in points allowed, and some lockdown defense could be enough to stop the Knicks' seven-game winning streak.
This means that New York must be committed to taking full advantage of the aging, short-handed Celtics. Be it containing Paul Pierce or forcing every single one of Boston's shots, defense needs to be the name of the game.
On offense, it's just a matter of Anthony and his teammates keeping up the hot streak. Shots must be chosen wisely and communication will be key.
In executing that plan, the Knicks can easily extend their streak and maintain pace in the Eastern Conference race.
Key Matchup: Iman Shumpert vs. Jeff Green
In recent games, New York's Iman Shumpert has gone back to being the electrifying guard he was in his rookie season. After being out until January while recovering from ACL surgery, it appears he finally has his legs back.
Shumpert is only averaging 6.1 points and shooting 38 percent from the field for the season, but he has been better over his last five games. Over that stretch, he has posted 7.8 points while making 56 percent of his shots and 53 percent of his threes, plus 1.8 steals per game.
With solid size at 6'5", 220 pounds, he is a phenomenal athlete with a bright NBA future.
But Shumpert is going to be at a disadvantage and have his hands full when it comes time to guard 6'9", 235 pound Jeff Green. The former Georgetown Hoya is averaging 12.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game this season, primarily as a bench spark, but he has recently stepped up his effort.
Over his last five games, Green is averaging 17.8 points and 5.8 rebounds, and has also shot 45 percent from the field and an amazing 41 percent from long range. He is a great dunker with an ever-improving outside shot, and slowing him down is going to be a tough task for any opponent.
Shumpert simply needs to be on Green like white on rice, refusing to let him win any battles or get into the paint. That alone can swing the pendulum in New York's favor, and another win over the Celtics will provide the team with plenty of momentum down the stretch.
X-Factor: J.R. Smith
J.R. Smith has been the star of the Knicks lately, and his stats on the season make him a definite candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. In his second year with New York, Smith has averaged 17.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, and has also shot 41.5 percent from the field and 35 percent from long range. He has been streaky, but still incredibly effective when hot.
Such has been the case for Smith over his last five games. Over that stretch, he is averaging 28.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per contest, not to mention shooting 57 percent from the field and 39 percent from long range.
This is because Smith has been more than just a shooter and dunker this season. Unlike he has in other seasons, he has shown a keen ability to create his own shot off the dribble and fake out defenders this season. All in all, he finally seems to be a complete player.
That's what he needs to be against Boston, as a great scoring game from him will easily push the Knicks toward a victory. He is so fast and so explosive, and the aging Celtics might not have an answer for him.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Avery Bradley
SG: Paul Pierce
SF: Jeff Green
PF: Brandon Bass
C: Chris Wilcox
PG: Pablo Prigioni
SG: Raymond Felton
SF: Iman Shumpert
PF: Carmelo Anthony
C: Kenyon Martin
The Celtics would love to salvage a season series split, but it's just not going to happen on the Knicks' home court. Boston is shorthanded, and the go-to players won't be able to keep up with established stars in Anthony and Smith.
Speaking of Anthony and Smith, both will lead the way in scoring for the Knicks once again. Smith will throw down some great dunks and sink key threes, and Anthony will just be an unstoppable force. He will sink threes, drive to the basket and create off the dribble so well that Knicks fans will finally be optimistic about the upcoming playoffs.
Throw in a game that will result in an eighth consecutive win, and they'll have even more reason to be so.
New York Knicks 105, Boston Celtics 92