For the last few years, the Celtics have served as the team that the Knicks used to test their progress toward respectability.
They haven't played yet this season, which means that the Spurs and the Heat got to be the benchmark that the Knicks cruised past on their way to first place in the Atlantic. The Knicks don't need to prove their worth now, but the Celtics are kinda in that spot.
Entering Monday night, they are 16-17 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, a very different location than they are used to occupying in the standings. They did just get guard Avery Bradley back, though, and they've won two straight games that have given Doc Rivers some confidence that things are heading in the right direction.
No nicer way for the Knicks to congratulate them by handing them the kind of optimism-snuffing thumping that the Celtics have doled out so regularly over the years. And if J.R. Smith happens to make a play along the way that makes you fall out of your chair in disbelief that players can do that, all the better.
Smith actually took a night off from dropping jaws on Saturday night in Orlando, scoring 18 points and taking a back seat to Carmelo Anthony's fourth quarter heroics in a 114-106 win. Smith saw his streak of games with at least 20 points come to an end after passing on a chance for a meaningless bucket at the end of the game to extend, which actually might be the most exciting moment of the year for a guy who has provided at least half of the 10 most exciting moments of the year for the Knicks.
The fact that Smith was capable of great athletic feats was never in doubt, but his play this season has been more about all the spaces you need to fill around that to become a basketball player. Smith's filling in those spaces as a defender, a rebounder and an offensive player who has become deadly efficient off the bench because he doesn't just see the chance to score all by himself.
Smith's increased reliability makes it easier to put him on the court in all situations, making the Knicks much more dangerous offensively. He meshes fine with Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd and is a better match for Stoudemire than Anthony at this point in the year.
It's not a Smith that the Celtics have ever faced before, which is one of the biggest reasons why this isn't the same setting for the resumption of this segment of the Boston-New York sports rivalry.