In the two and a half weeks since the Celtics and Knicks last hooked up, things have gone really well and then horribly wrong for Boston. First, they followed up their emotional, part-of-your-balanced-breakfast brawl at MSG with three straight victories bringing their win streak to season-high six games. They followed that up with four straight losses; three of them against teams with a combined record of 41-86.
Along the way, the bench reclaimed its previous identity of not having an identity. Rajon Rondo's continued to fill the stat sheet with impressive yet empty numbers. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett hopped in the old Hot Tub Time Machine but set knob for 2018 instead of 2008. Avery Bradley got hurt again. Doc Rivers blew a gasket and delivered his now-infamous post-game rant: "Hide your kids. Hide your wives. Hide your husbands. Cuz we're tradin' everybody up in here!"
On the brightside, Jared Sullinger's been a revelation, at least relative to the nastiness that surrounds him. In fact, sources tell me that the Mayor's Office is already laying the groundwork on a 400-pound bronze sculpture of Sullinger's ass (aka The Widowmaker) for display on Causeway Street. Said Mayor Menino: "Jack Skullinger is a true hero, and will no doubt bring the Stanley Cup back to Boston. Oops, did you guys hear that? I got his name and the sport wrong. Oh man. I reeeeally hope this doesn't go viral . . ."
Anyway, the last two and half weeks haven't been all that sweet for the Knicks either. They're 2-3 since that wacky night at MSG, and neither of their wins (ironically, against the Pistons and Hornets) have inspired any confidence. On the other hand, their three losses have all come against fellow Eastern Conference contenders Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn. In all, the Knicks have lost their last five games against teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, thanks to their hot start, New York still sits atop the Atlantic Division, and only two games back of Miami for the No. 1 seed.
When the Celtics last saw the Knicks, Amare Stoudemire was less than a week removed from his season debut, and while he's managed to stay on the court in the days and weeks since, the jury's still out on how effective he'll be moving forward. At the very least, it's fair and equally depressing to say that we've seen the last of this guy:
But it's probably worth noting that Stoudemire arrives in Boston having posted season-highs (15 points, and then 17) in consecutive games.
The Knicks have also welcomed Iman Shumpert and his legendary fade back into mix. The 22-year-old, 6-foot-5 Shumpert is the closest thing New York has to Avery Bradley an amazing athlete, who's somewhat limited on offense but can dominate a game with his D. But lucky for the C's, Shumpert still isn't himself. Tonight will only be his third game of the season, and it takes longer than that to re-establish rhythm and confidence after missing nine months with a torn ACL.
But back to the Celtics. In a weird and frustrating way, there's something comforting about the fact that three of their last four losses have come against three of the worst teams in the league. Also, that their best performance, by far, came in their biggest test.
The truth is that if not for a bogus jump ball call, and a pair of unlikely last second shots by Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli, the Celtics would have beaten the Bulls last Friday, and our perception of everything would be very different. I know it's not that easy, but in many ways it is. I also know that, in a perfect world, you never want to excuse a team for "playing down to the competition," but this isn't the first time we've seen this from the Celtics. The names and faces around them may have changed, but the core of Rivers, Rondo, Pierce and KG is notorious for playing down to the competition. It's unfortunately part of who they are.
But it's something we're willing to tolerate as long as Boston still manages to bring its best against the best. And while the Knicks are far from perfect, they certainly qualify as that kind of opponent. When you factor in the division, the conference, the New YorkBoston rivalry and the Honey Nut insanity of the last time these teams played, the Celtics have an enormous opportunity to ease some tension and at least temporarily right the ship.
Or take the free fall to another level and leave Celtics Nation crying in their cereal.