The Celtics came into this year hungry to avenge a gut-wrenching Game 7 defeat to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, but one problem arose... The Eastern Conference is no pushover this season.

Boston did not envision the Chicago Bulls having the NBA’s best record, the Miami Heat signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh or the New York Knicks improving with a potent threesome of Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncy Billups.

The Celtics even made an in-season trade (Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green) that dealt with possibly having to play against the small lineups of the Heat, Bulls and Knicks. Now, because of their struggles, they will have to play three very good teams to get back to the Finals. They beat New York four straight times in the regular season, but that's partly to blame because New York was in transition after the big trade. The Knicks' system is a problem for the Celtics because of their age and banged-up bodies.

Boston is very good defensively and they kept the high-scoring Knicks five points (101.2) below their season average (106.5), while scoring 11 points (107.7) over theirs (96.5). The question is... Can the Celtics do this consistently in a long series with players battling injuries like Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West.

The Knicks are potent and will create tremendous matchup problems. Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire can carry the Knicks offensively all by themselves and foul trouble looms if Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have to guard these two for prolonged periods. Glen Davis and Jeff Green will be counted on heavily because Boston's bench is very thin. This will probably become the feistiest series in the first round and I expect plenty of confrontations and technical fouls.

KEYS

The Celtics will win if...

- Boston controls the tempo and keeps the Knicks in a half-court game.

- Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are making their share of three-point opportunities.

- Keep Amare and Carmelo from attacking the interior of their defense, thus opening up a three-point barrage.

The Knicks will win if...

- They keep the tempo at a frenetic pace.

- Amare and Carmelo dominate offensively with attacks to the basket.

- Landry Fields, Shawne Williams, Chauncey Billups and Toney Douglas are knocking down three-point shots.

PREDICTION

- Series is a toss up! Boston 4, New York 3.

REST OF SERIES: CHI - IND / MIA - PHI / ORL - ATL / SAS - MEM / LAL - NOH / DAL - POR / OKC - DEN

SCHEDULE: April 17, April 19, April 22, April 24, April 26, April 29 and May 1 / Boston won the regular season series 4-0.

3. BOSTON CELTICS

6. NEW YORK KNICKS

20

Ray Allen

G

Data

F

Carmelo Anthony

7

45

Carlos Arroyo

G

G

Chauncey Billups

4

11

Glen Davis

F-C

96.6

Points scored

106.5

F

Derrick Brown

2

5

Kevin Garnett

F

91.1

Points allowed

105.7

G

Anthony Carter

25

8

Jeff Green

F

48.6

Field Goal %

45.7

G

Toney Douglas

23

4

Nenad Krstic

C

36.5

3 pt. FG %

36.8

G

Landry Fields

6

7

Jermaine O'Neal

C-F

77.0

Free Throw %

80.9

F

Jared Jeffries

9

36

Shaquille O'Neal

C

38.8

Rebounds

40.5

G

Roger Mason

18

77

Aleksandar Pavlovic

G-F

23.4

Assists

21.4

F-C

Amare Stoudemire

1

34

Paul Pierce

F

4.2

Blocks

5.8

C

Ronny Turiaf

14

9

Rajon Rondo

G

8.2

Steals

7.6

G-F

Bill Walker

5

12

Von Wafer

G

14.6

Turnovers

13.7

F

Shawne Williams

3

13

Delonte West

G

873

Accumulated playoff games

356

F

Shelden Williams

13

TEAM LEADERS

Paul Pierce

18.9

Points

26.3

Carmelo Anthony

Kevin Garnett

8.9

Rebounds

8.2

Amare Stoudemire

Rajon Rondo

11.2

Assists

5.5

Chauncey Billups

Jermaine O'Neal

1.2

Blocks

1.9

Amare Stoudemire

Rajon Rondo

2.2

Steals

1.1

Toney Douglas