vBeast of the East? New York Knicks have chance to prove something against Boston
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New York Knicks have the chance to prove they’re an Eastern Conference threat when they take on the Boston Celtics tonight at Madison Square Garden.

The New York Knicks have impressed many by starting the season 16-14. Now they have the chance to prove whether or not they’re an Eastern Conference threat when they take on the Boston Celtics at home tonight.

This season, the Celtics have been one of the most captivating teams in the league and the talk of the Eastern Conference. After losing Gordon Hayward — who they signed to a four-year, $128 million deal — to a nasty leg injury on opening night, Brad Stevens and the Celtics appeared doomed. Then, their other big offseason acquisition took over and has lead Boston to the top of the Conference at 26-8.

Ever since the Celtics acquired Kyrie Irving from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the star point guard has embraced and excelled in the role of being the leader of a winning team. Averaging 24.4 points per game going into Wednesday night, Irving has been Boston’s go-to scoring option. Whether it be attacking the rack, playing in isolation, or creating separation for open jumpers, he’s been sensational. What’s remarkable is how his point total per game is, in fact, lower than it was last year (25.2) when he was playing second fiddle to LeBron James, but it hasn’t mattered.

Irving has been a stone-cold killer, humble and proven he can run his own team. He’s also been respectable on the defensive end — which has been a big criticism of his game. Playing tight on-ball defense and defending the perimeter, Irving has become a more well-rounded player, making him even more dangerous.

Behind Irving, Stevens and the Celtics possess a very deep and talented squad.

BOSTON, MA – NOVEMBER 30: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics congratulates Jayson Tatum #0 after he scored against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second quarter at TD Garden on November 30, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

With young wings picking up the slack offensively, such as Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum, the Celtics have a killer perimeter duo.

Brown, averaging 14.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game going into Wednesday night, has been a two-way presence. Playing swarming on-ball defense, showcasing athleticism at the rim and serving as a reliable scoring option, the second-year wing has been a critical piece to the puzzle for the Celtics.

Tatum, averaging 13.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game going into Wednesday night, has taken on a starting role ever since Hayward endured his gruesome leg injury, and considering how he was thrown into a starting role on a powerhouse team and expected to produce, Tatum has been exceptional. Shooting 50.8 percent from the field, which is third amongst qualified rookies, the forward has been efficient on the offensive end. Defending the perimeter and becoming more adept at staying with his man, Tatum has made an impact defensively too.

In addition to Irving and their killer wing duo, the Celtics also have two-way center Al Horford. While not much of a low-post threat anymore, the big man can do everything else. Whether it be playing out on the perimeter, defending the paint, or hitting the boards, Horford possesses a two-way skill set. He’s also one of the better passing big men in the NBA, averaging a career and team-high 5.5 assists per game. Whether it be passing out of the post, in double teams or out on the perimeter, Horford is adept at finding the open man.

The Celtics also have a defensive-minded and energetic bench. With tough, two-way guards in Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, as well as center Aron Baynes and rookie Daniel Theis, they have a very deep and talented bench.

Beating the Celtics will certainly be no easy task for the Knicks and they’ve learned that already this season. Back in October, they lost to the Celtics in TD Garden, 110-89, in a game where they couldn’t seem to function in any way. With that game now two months old, the Knicks are a different team and the Celtics have come into their own.

Ever since their blowout loss to Boston, Jeff Hornacek has seen his team become more competitive on both ends.

Kristaps Porzingis has settled in as the team’s offensive focal point, averaging 25.5 points per game. Whether it be playing out on the perimeter, executing in the low-post, or finishing above the rim, the Zinger has been an offensive force, while serving as a shot-blocking presence (Porzingis is averaging 2.1 blocks per game).

Alongside Porzingis, the Knicks have found their rock in the middle in Enes Kanter. Hitting the boards on both ends, finishing in the paint and serving as the team’s emotional leader, the center has established himself as a pivotal piece to the puzzle for the Knicks. Kyle O’Quinn has come off the bench and provided toughness on both ends in the paint, whether it be diving on the floor, finishing inside, or blocking shots.

The Knicks have also received perimeter shooting and a defensive  presence from their wings such as Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas,  Doug McDermott and Michael Beasley — who has recently taken on the role of being a go-to scoring option with Porzingis out due to injury.

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 27: Courtney Lee #5 and Michael Beasley #8 of the New York Knicks celebrate after Lee drew the foul in the first half against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden on October 27, 2017 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Hornacek has also received production from his backcourt. With Jarrett Jack finding his teammates in all the right spots, averaging 6.1 assists per game, he’s been key to their togetherness on the offensive end at the point. Rookie Frank Ntilikina has also been a selfless player, as well as a defensive asset, pick-pocketing and playing contested on-ball defense. Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a secondary scoring outlet behind Porzingis, averaging 17.8 points per game, despite the leg injury.

The Knicks are quietly the eighth seed in the East and playing very competitive basketball. They’ve defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road, the Denver Nuggets and, most recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder without Porzingis and Hardaway. They’re a gritty team playing with a “next man up” mentality.

Injuries have struck the Knicks over the course of this season, but have never brought them down. They’ve impressed many with their play 30 games into the season, whether it be in the form of Porzingis’ rise, the cohesion they’ve showcased, or the gritty play from their perimeter players.

It’s still early in the season, but going up against the rival Celtics on primetime television on their home court will serve as an indicator as to where this team lies versus one of the NBA’s best. Going up against the likes of Irving, Brown, Tatum, Horford and company certainly won’t be an easy task. At the same time, with or without Porzingis, the Knicks have the chance to show if they can hang with the best the East has to offer and ultimately showcase whether they’re a legitimate threat in the Conference.

Robbie Stratakos is a New York Knicks/Giants Beat Writer for Elite Sports NY (ESNY); he also covers the NBA nationally. He previously wrote at Last Word On Pro Basketball and Empire Writes Back. In addition to writing for ESNY, Robbie is an MLB columnist at Baseball Essential. He previously wrote at HardBallScoop - part of Scout/CBS Interactive/247Sports, Last Word On Baseball and District On Deck. He is attending Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. Follow him on twitter @RPStratakos