2011 Knicks Must Learn From 1970 Willis Reed

On Sunday, the Knicks play their first playoff game since 1994 and they do it against the Celtics in Boston.  As of noon on Saturday, no one who’s considered an “authority” is picking the Knicks to win the series.  The most optimistic pick so far, from a Knicks fan’s perspective, is Boston in 7.

But, as we’ll see, there are a number of current factors in the Knicks favor.  And if they learn from long-retired Knicks hero Willis Reed, those current factors may allow the Knicks to upset the favored Celtics. 

The Celtics have a playoff record over the past three seasons that very few teams can beat.  They won their 17th NBA Championship in 2008; lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009; and lost in the NBA Finals last year.  They have a number of future Hall of Famers and their core has played together for four seasons.   They’re playoff tested and realize that time is not on their side.  They’re hungry for another title before their talented but aging roster gets to old to beat the best.  They will be a very tough out.

The current factors I referred to are these: they have been playing poorly for the past few weeks; Shaquille O’Neal has been out with injuries, hasn’t practiced; and is a game time decision on Sunday; and Rajon Rondo, whose unusually poor play coincided with the Celtics bad end to the regular season, has been bothered with plantar fasciitis this season.  Most important for the Knicks’ chances, center Kendrick Perkins was traded in February and the team does not seem as confident as they did when he was filling the lane.  Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of the Celtics’ superior defense, is now working his magic as the Head Coach of the Chicago Bulls.  Even with a great coaching staff, Thibodeau’s loss, particularly with Perkins gone and the rest of the team searching for answers, is significant.  The current Celtics are questioning themselves and seem unsure that they can win a playoff series without Perkins.  If there’s ever a good time for the Knicks to face the Celtics, now is that time. 

Once the Celtics win a series without Perkins, they’ll no longer wonder if they can do it.  They won’t remain in their current slump for long.  And if Shaq doesn’t make it back for the first round, you can bet he’ll be ready for the second.  To quote Thandie Newton in The Chronicles of Riddick, “Kill the beast while it’s wounded.”  The Knicks could beat the Celtics in a later round but their absolute best chance is in the first.

What will give the Knicks their best chance to win the series is not only a game 1 win, but a game 1, first quarter assault.  If the Knicks come out of the locker room, score a ton, swarm on defense, keep Boston from scoring, and dominate the boards, it’ll go a long way towards reinforcing the problems that are currently ailing the Celtics.  Even though the Celtics may fight back, a dominant first quarter and, ultimately, a game one win will not only give the Knicks home court advantage for the series, it’ll do a lot of damage to the Celtics’ psyche.

Conversely, if the Knicks come out slowly and get buried by the Celts, it’ll go a long way towards giving the Celtics the evidence they need to know that they’ll be alright without Perkins.  Of course, if the game is close, the Knicks MUST win.  Otherwise, while the Celtics won’t receive the same psychological boost that they’d get from blowing the Knicks out, they’ll get proof that they can survive the first round.  And you don’t want to give a Celtics team that’s stocked with future Hall of Famers any reason to think that it’s all going to work out for them in the end.

To give themselves their best chance at upsetting the Celtics in the first round, the Knicks need to look to their past.  Willis Reed only scored 4 points in game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Lakers.  The fact that he scored them early in the first quarter after his heroic entrance to Madison Square Garden has long been credited with psyching out a strong Lakers team and inspiring the Knicks to the 1970 NBA Championship.  It wasn’t the 4 points that made the difference, it was when he scored them that mattered. 

A dominant start to game 1 by this year’s Knicks will knock the Celtics back on their heels.  Will it be enough to allow the Knicks to win the series and advance to the 2nd round?  Time will tell.  Film at 11.

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