(Editor's Note: Tweet this. Facebook BFF this. This Q&A with Nick LaRocque, founder and administrator of ChatCelts.com, is the first part of one of the best analysis I have read about the Celtics in preparation for the playoff battle with the Knicks. Since we are posting at a furious pace during these playoffs, I am offering the interview to readers in two parts to make it a quicker read. Part II will be posted on Monday. Side Note: You might enjoy checking out and voting for your favorite highlight at Hoops Manifesto's Dunk of The Year Tournament. Round 1 ends tonight at midnight.)
Knicks Fanatics: This year the Celtics, despite a record of 56-26, appear to be more pretenders than contenders for the round-ball throne. Now that the post-season is about to start, what can we expect to see and what must we see from the Celtics if they are to win the shiny stuff.
Nick LaRocque: I think the poor play that we've seen from the Celtics since March can be attributed to several things. The first thing (and I apologize for this not being very concrete) is simply a loss of focus. This team came into the season with a huge chip on their shoulder, and this yielded some pretty impressive results: they were 29 games over .500; Dallas excepted, they had knocked off all the big dogs in the NBA at least once and looked pretty impressive doing so; They had found ways to grind out a lot of wins during times when they were missing key guys (including a stretch without Rondo and a stretch without KG). So, yeah, I think they eased up on the accelerator. Not purposefully, but because this teams goals are all about postseason success. I think they'd proven everything they could to themselves in the regular season and I think that made it difficult to maintain that focus. The big 4 have spent this week practicing and finding that urgency that they had at the start of the year. I look for them to be ready.
Secondly, if you look at the numbers, it's really the Celtics offense that has struggled during this sub-par run (many attribute it to defense because of the Perkins trade).
Their offensive efficiency and pace both went down after the trade was made (even though they won 5 in a row after the day of the trade, I think that's a good reference point to differentiate between the "good" Celtics and the "bad" Celtics). This team's offense was exceeding all of my expectations during the first half of the year. In fact, in February, all 5 starters were shooting at least 50% from the field. So, regression to the mean was to be expected. But, the pace slowing is where I really think we find the problem. When Rajon Rondo is pushing the pace and attacking, the Celtics get much better looks. He has been battling multiple health issues (plantar fasciitis, ankle trouble, finger trouble) and therefore the pace has slowed. If Rondo can't be aggressive and put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses in the playoffs, the Celtics are in trouble. I think he will be able to.
Finally, we have the trade. Look, I don't like it. I wouldn't have made it. This team was 41-14. Suddenly, they're lacking a starting center that fits their mold. Suddenly, you've shaken up the chemistry of a team that was more tight knit than any other team I've ever been a fan of. Suddenly, you've got 5 new players on this team, and you've reached the point in the season where you don't have a whole lot of practice time to get them in sync with the guys who are already there. But, I think this week will pay huge dividends. They've had long practices. Doc cut out about half of the offensive playbook. As long as they can get 20 good minutes at center each night from someone with the last name "O'Neal" and Kristic can spell them off the bench, I don't think the trade will hinder the big 4 from carrying this team as far as they're able.
Just to reiterate, there are many things that have gone wrong, and I expect all of them to be fixed tomorrow.
Knicks Fanatics: What must the Knicks do to finally beat the Celtics four times this year?
Nick: The key for the Knicks is going to come on defense. The Celtics defense has been relatively consistent all year, and I don't see any defensive areas that the Knicks can really exploit. The only time the Celtics defensive efficiency has seen any kind of serious change was during the stretch when Garnett was out. Even in recent games when their defensive performances have been sub-par (at home against the Pistons and at San Antonio), they have still won. The numbers suggest that the Celtics lose games in which they struggle offensively. This Knicks defense hasn't been very good statistically throughout the season, but I've seen them defend very well in some big games. It will take an outstanding team effort defensively to beat the Celtics. Rajon Rondo needs to be kept out of the paint. Rondo's speed makes him a really difficult assignment for Chauncey Billups, but teams have had success against Rondo by walling off the painted area and daring him to shoot. He won't usually take that shot, but what you've done is turned the Celtics into a jump shooting team. This is how they've looked for the past month. And this lack of prettiness bears out in all the important numbers.
Offensively, what most scares me about the Knicks is that they have multiple guys who can knock down threes and the fact that they get to the line. This means that the Celtics can play sound, physical defense and still be vulnerable. If the Celtics have a lead in the fourth quarter, what I'd like to see more than anything is Melo stopping the ball and trying to take the game over offensively. This plays right into the Celtics hands.
Knicks Fanatics: Give us your prediction of how this series turns out.
Nick: Celtics in 5 games.
(Chatcelts.com is undergoing a major reconstruction which will be completed shortly after the publication of this article. Visit Nick there and follow his blog on twitter @ChatCeltics. Also follow us on twitter @LINJLNY and Facebook.)