WALTHAM (AP) – The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics took big gambles when they shook up their rosters less than two months ago.
They’re about to find out which team was the winner.
On Feb. 22, the Carmelo Anthony soap opera ended when he and Chauncey Billups came to the Knicks from the Denver Nuggets, a trade that cost New York three regulars. Two days later, the Celtics obtained Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic from Oklahoma City and gave up starting center Kendrick Perkins, a stout defender and strong physical presence.
The transitions haven’t been smooth for either team.
And now they face each other in Sunday night’s opener of a best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series.
“It was risky for both of us,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said Saturday. “Both teams, when they first made the trade, started winning right away and then started losing right after that. It happens all the time.”
The Celtics were 41-15 at the time of the deal and 15-11 since then, finishing third in the East at 56-26. The Knicks were 28-26 before their trade and 14-14 after it, ending up at 42-40.
Boston did win its first five games with Green and Krstic and New York went 6-3 immediately after Anthony and Billups arrived.
“When you first make (the trade), everyone’s just kind of playing,” Rivers said. “Then, all of a sudden, the new system starts kicking in, their old system is still in and you completely lose the rhythm. I’d say both teams did that.
“But now, I think, we’ve had some time together. These three, four days (of practice) have been tremendous for us. I think we’ll both be ready.”
The Knicks gave up three of their top four scorers — Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. But they picked up Anthony to team with Amare Stoudemire as an imposing offensive punch.
And Billups provides the veteran savvy, playoff experience and ability to run a team and score.
“I feel good,” Anthony said. “I feel confident in where this team is at, how far this team has come. From Day 1 when I got here up until now we came a long way. And I feel very confident about going into Boston in this series.”
Stoudemire was the first piece in the Knicks improvement when they signed him as a free agent in the offseason. He averaged 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 78 games. Anthony averaged 26.3 points in his 27 games with New York, which lost its only matchup with the Celtics with him in the lineup, 96-86 after
outplaying them for almost 45 minutes.
“Any time you’re involved in the playoffs, you get a chance to really assess the team,” Stoudemire said. “We feel like we have the right tools right now to make something special happen.”
The Knicks finished with their first winning record in 10 seasons and reached the playoffs for just the second time in that span.
The Celtics won their 17th NBA championship in 2008 and lost the NBA finals last year in seven games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
But Boston will be without center Shaquille O’Neal on Sunday and likely longer because of a right calf injury. He tried running before practice on Saturday but stopped when it became too painful.
He missed 27 games with a sore right leg then returned on April 4 but played just 5 minutes, 29 seconds before leaving again with the calf problem. He sat out the remaining six regular season games.
“You want the Big Fella to be healthy,” Paul Pierce said. “You want him to be out there to give us a boost, but the guys that are in uniform out there playing, that’s all we can worry about right now.”
Besides, O’Neal’s teammates weren’t overly optimistic that he’d be ready.
His absence may not be as damaging since the Knicks aren’t extremely physical inside. And the Celtics have Jermaine O’Neal back to add bulk in the middle after he played just 24 games because of knee problems. But he sat out just two of the last eight.
“He’s going to be big,” Pierce said, “just defensively the way he guards, being able to clog up the middle. We’re going to need more than one guy to try to shut down Carmelo, Chauncey and Amare.”
Combine their experience and scoring ability and they’re a tough trio for the Celtics to handle.
“That’s a burden,” Rivers said. “Every time you get in a close game with them you know it’s extremely dangerous because they’ve got three guys that can just make shots whether you play good defense or not.”
So do the Celtics with Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Point guard Rajon Rondo was inconsistent after the trade but is the driving force behind their offense.
“We always want to get the ball in Rondo’s hands and push the ball,” Pierce said, “try to use his speed, especially in the open court.”
That should be a challenge for the Knicks, a team that allowed the third most points in the NBA, 105.7 per game. Interestingly, Denver allowed 8.1 fewer points per game after trading Anthony and Billups. The Celtics gave up the fewest in the NBA for the season, 91.1.
“When we play teams that are top echelon or top in the rankings, we tend to play better defensively,” Stoudemire said. “Hopefully, that rubs off in the series.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)