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Celtics ready to square off

Rivalry could get more physical now

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 17, 2011

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WALTHAM — The Celtics left Madison Square Garden in March a little bloodthirsty. Ray Allen had been cut open. Carmelo Anthony, too. Troy Murphy was leaking blood from the bridge of his nose. Glen Davis hit the floor thanks to an elbow from Anthony.

It was a basketball game that left battle scars. But the Celtics left that game thinking about how explosive a playoff series with the Knicks would be.

Even at that point of the season, Kevin Garnett sounded drunk on adrenaline, considering the possibility of bouncing from Boston to the Big Apple.

“If it is, let’s do it,’’ Garnett said.

Now that it’s here, they expect the same drama.

“I don’t know how much more blood can be drawn in one game,’’ Rajon Rondo said. “But it’s going to be intense.’’

The Knicks’ firepower is undeniable. Signing Amar’e Stoudemire gave them a culture-changing franchise player. Adding Anthony at the trade deadline gave them an elite scorer (he’s averaged 26.3 points since joining the Knicks). Chauncey Billups is a surgical point guard with a Finals MVP trophy on his mantel.

“You can’t take any of their stars lightly,’’ said Paul Pierce. “They were a tough team earlier in the year. Amar’e with his presence, going there in the offseason really established that, really set the tone even before the trade. When they added Carmelo, it just added more icing to it. When you put those two together, it makes them even tougher. We felt they were tough before the trade.’’

It’ll be Pierce’s job to bottle up Anthony, but he’s not considering it a battle between scorers.

“I’m looking more forward to my matchup with the New York Knicks,’’ Pierce said. “I don’t really get into the one-on-one matchup because I’m not going to be the only one guarding him.’’

The Knicks have the No. 2 scoring offense in the league behind the Nuggets (106.5 points per game). Their philosophy is simple: Shots are encouraged, defense is optional. They give up 105.7 points on average, worst in the Eastern Conference and third-worst in the league.

The last thing the Celtics want to hear, though, is that they don’t want to run with the Knicks. If the game turns into a drag race, then so be it.

“Doc [Rivers] is telling us to push the pace,’’ Rondo said. “Obviously, we want to take care of the ball, go inside, and just establish a pace. Try to get it up and run different sets in the shot clock.’’

The Celtics averaged 107.8 points in four games against the Knicks this season, all wins. Pierce averaged 26 points. Garnett averaged 22.7. Rondo had 50 assists in three games, and, as always, he’ll be the catalyst in this series.

“We always want to get the ball in Rondo’s hands and try to push the ball, use his speed,’’ Pierce said. “Especially in the open court, we try to emphasize me, Ray running wide to open up the court, getting the big men running down to the block or setting screens for Rondo.

“So going into it we want to get the ball upcourt, that’s always our game plan night in, night out. Regardless of who we’re playing, we want to get out and run.’’

Rivers is always watching the shot clock, making sure the Celtics don’t wait too long to get into their sets. In order to keep the Knicks off balance, Rivers said, the faster the better.

“Our speed, [Rondo’s] speed has to increase,’’ Rivers said. “At the end of the day, we have to play with speed. Everybody, all the time.

“We can’t get into the sets at 9 on the [shot] clock. We’ve got to get into our stuff.’’

Before it turns into a shootout, though, the Celtics will have to commit to defense. The Knicks averaged 101.3 points against the Celtics in the regular season.

“It’s important that we try to control the game with our defense,’’ Pierce said. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to play our game. If they’re constantly getting up and down the court and we’re not getting any stops, then we’re playing right into their hands.

“I think it’s easy when they come down, take quick shots, and they come down and [take] the first available shot, sometimes teams do get caught into that. A lot of times when we play against those teams, the score’s in the high hundreds. But right now the focus is to have the defensive intensity. If we go out and score 115 points but we can hold a team to 80, 90 points, I’m happy.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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