The Knicks are a familiar foe, but Sunday will be different

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The Knicks are a familiar foe, but Sunday will be different

BOSTON Whenever the New York Knicks come to town, it's always a big deal.

But when the Boston Celtics face the Knicks on Sunday, well, let's say it'll be a bigger deal than usual.

Both teams are in a relatively tight race for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, and then there's . . . Jeremy Lin.

Much has changed for the Knicks' fortunes since the Harvard graduate burst onto the scene just a few weeks ago.

He has taken a Knicks team that was seemingly headed nowhere in a hurry on a run of success that now has them thinking beyond simply getting to the playoffs.

"They're playing with spirit," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "When you watch them, the ball is moving and all that stuff. But they're playing now, like they have a chance. They believe."

And Lin, more than any other Knicks player, is the reason for that.

Since he was inserted in the starting lineup against Utah on Feb. 6, the Knicks are 9-3.

"Lin has obviously taken over the world; that's dope," said Boston's Kevin Garnett. "You always like to see someone succeed at what they love. He plays with a lot of passion. But he's given not just that team, but that city, life. I haven't really followed him much or jumped on the bandwagon. That's not my style. But I keep an eye on it."

Garnett added, "He's definitely put a spark in the city, and there's no better city to spark up than New York."

Rivers hasn't seen too much of the Knicks this season, but when it comes to Lin . . .

"I have watched him," Rivers said. "Because you have no choice. He's fantastic. He's scoring the ball at a high rate; double-digit assists every night."

But if he were all the Celtics had to worry about, they'd be in pretty good shape.

In addition to Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks also have Baron Davis, who is healthy enough to play now, and they picked up J.R. Smith, who rejoins the NBA after spending most of this past season in the Chinese Basketball Association.

"That's an impressive amount of talent on one team," Rivers said.

And the team that the C's have faced twice this season will be much tougher to put away on Sunday.

"They're definitely a lot different based on what they're doing with Jeremy Lin, getting some healthy bodies back . . . they've been playing really well of late," said Celtics Captain Paul Pierce.

The same can be said for the Celtics, who remain undefeated following the break after Friday night's 10794 win. The 107 points equaled the Celtics' season-high for points scored (at Miami, Dec. 27, 2011) this season.

And with both coming in separated by just a half game, you can expect this game will be like most Boston-New York games and won't be decided until the final minute or two of play.

Pierce expects the game to be challenging, primarily because both teams have so much at stake.

"We're both aiming for the same thing; we're aiming for position right here," Pierce said. "We're both seventh and eighth seeds now. We're playing for the Atlantic Division. We got a lot to play for. They'll come with it, but we'll be ready."

Jae Crowder: Bucks came out and "hit us in the mouth" early, good test

Jae Crowder: Bucks came out and "hit us in the mouth" early, good test

Jae Crowder and Brad Stevens react to the Celtics loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night, followed by Kyle Draper and Brian Scalabrine talking about where this loss leaves Boston in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Haggerty: Bruins plan to take it slow with McAvoy, unless . . .

Haggerty: Bruins plan to take it slow with McAvoy, unless . . .

BRIGHTON -- Nobody doubts that 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy is going to be a game-changer down the road for the Boston Bruins.

The Boston University sophomore, expected to be in the NHL next season, is the crown jewel of a draft-and-development movement led by general manager Don Sweeney over the last three years. And if McAvoy hits the ground running with the Providence Bruins over the weekend, he may even make his NHL debut with the Bruins sometime in the next 10 days, even though playing in as much as a single game with Boston this season would burn a year off his entry-level contract.

"[The NHL] is still to be determined. It will be contract first and [the AHL] as a good first step for us," said Sweeney after signing McAvoy to an ATO (Amateur Tryout Agreement). "He's made the decision to leave [college] and we're excited about that process. It leaves some options open [for McAvoy], but first and foremost gets him playing and acclimated to pro hockey."

But there's also the reality that a 19-year-old like McAvoy is going to face challenges in pro hockey. Mastering the defenseman position at the NHL level is an extremely complicated process. It's the reason we see a lot more teenage forwards take the league by storm than teenage D-men, who typically need more development time in the AHL to hone their skills at both ends of the rink.

"[The challenge] would be getting him to figure out what works at this level and what doesn't, just like if he were in Providence," said interim coach Bruce Cassidy about the theoretical possibility of McAvoy playing in Boston soon. "We've used seven defensemen here over the last eight weeks and they've done a good job for us, so we'd have to see where he fit in and go from there . . . I've seen him here and there, but I don't know enough about his individual game at this point to know what he would specifically need to do . . .

"[Defense] is a tougher position in the NHL because mistakes are magnified. If you're a forward you've got another layer of defense to support you, so you can get away with some of that stuff. I think that's why you see generally that most of the rookies that age in the NHL are forwards."

Torey Krug signed with the Bruins out of college five years ago and had a one-game cameo with them before spending the entire next season in Providence. Krug says now that, looking back, he knows he wasn't ready to play in the NHL coming out of school and needed a season to sort things out defensively against bigger, stronger, smarter and faster opponents.

"The speed itself wasn't much of an issue, but if you fall asleep even for a second it's going to turn into a scoring chance for the other team," Krug said of the adjustment from college hockey to the NHL. "These games are not easy to play in, even for veterans in the league . . .

"I thought offensively I was ready [right away], but defensively I had a lot to learn. It's a tough league to play in. Offensively it was fun, but defensively I had my share of hiccups realizing I had to go down to Providence to work on some things."

McAvoy isn't expected to follow Krug's path. He'll get development opportunities at the AHL level at the end of this season just like fellow young D-man Brandon Carlo, who used last spring's AHL experience to vault directly into the NHL this season as a 19-year-old playing top-four minutes right from opening night.

It's also the track taken by Zach Werenski last year with the Columbus Blue Jackets. An AHL playoff run fully prepped him for his breakout season as the league's best rookie defenseman.

"It's a long time ago, but I used that [ATO] myself as a benefit and I've always been an advocate of it, and I think Robbie O'Gara, Danton Heinen and Carlo all [did it]," said Sweeney. "All the players that have been able to come on and play at a very high level against men, generally in a playoff stretch drive or the playoffs themselves, it's a unique [experience].

"When you first turn pro, you're introduced to it at a really high level and you have to adjust to it on the fly. It's about structure and understanding the voices you're hearing. And reading and reacting at the pro level are all very important [skills]. [I think] it's a great on-the-job training exercise and right now Brandon is the best example of it. He's been able to jump into our lineup this year, and that's a testament to him and also the work he did last year."

So the Bruins should take their time with McAvoy, though also allow that he could be a dominant exception to the rule and become a force right out of the chute. It certainly appears Sweeney is going to leave that door ajar,  to make sure the Bruins don't miss out on anything with a young defenseman who's already drawn comparisons to Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty.