Jeremy Lin is down for the count and who knows when/if Amar’e Stoudemire will return to action. That means what’s left of the Knicks’ roster will have to carry New York for the duration. While the Knicks are still battling for the last playoff slot, they also have their sights set on the No. 6 seed in order to play Orlando in the opening round instead of either Miami or Chicago. And on the heels of last week’s trampling of the Magic, a repeat performance would not only greatly enhance the achievement of both of these goals, but also make Orlando shiver in anticipation of encountering New York in the money season. After their fourth-quarter meltdown in Indiana on Tuesday, the Knicks also has to prove that they do have a necessary killer instinct.
On the flip side, the Magic need the win to demonstrate that their humiliating performance in New York was a fluke, and that they are indeed legitimate championship contenders.
HOW THE KNICKS CAN WIN
- Forget about LeBron, Kobe and/or Kevin Durant — Carmelo Anthony is the most versatile scorer in the game. If KD is a better long-distant dialer, Anthony’s 3-point shooting is more reliable than the other two elite scorers. The difference is ‘Melo’s dynamic post-up game. With Stoudemire out, Anthony is now filling the power forward slot, which makes his offense even more unstoppable (plus he’s a better rebounder than his predecessor). There’s certainly no way that either Hedo Turkoglu, Ryan Anderson (if he makes a miraculous recovery from a freshly sprained ankle), or Glen Davis can put up any meaningful defensive resistance without considerable help. The problem is the Knicks’ spacing forces defenders to come a long way to double Anthony. And should Anthony bring his A-game into the last period, the Magic will run out of tricks.
- Assuming that Dwight Howard has recuperated from the infamous phantom punch, Tyson Chandler has the length and the defensive chops to make him labor mightily to score in the low post. In addition, Howard gets flustered when he’s doubled on the move and tends to force shots, make wayward passes, or simply commit turnovers. Chandler’s timely dive-cuts on high screen/rolls should also put him in dunk city.
- Landry Fields has to outrun and outmaneuver either Jason Richardson or J. J. Redick. Since the former adversary does pack a significant scoring punch, Fields’ defense will likewise be tested. When he’s playing opposite Redick, Fields has to tailgate his man through and around perpetual screens and never lose contact.
- Even though minor injuries and the lack of adequate conditioning have hampered Baron Davis‘ play, he still has enough gas to control New York’s offense against the imaginary defense of Jameer Nelson. At the other end of the floor, Nelson might occasionally beat Davis to open spaces and even to the rim, but will never outquick him.
- The key player for the Knicks is Iman Shumpert, he of the erratic long-distance shooting, questionable decision-making, but aggressive defense and quick-footed, powerhouse lane penetrations. Except for the possibility of drawing a charge or two, it’s hard to imagine Richardson (who will most likely start if Anderson is unavailable) raining on the rookie’s scoring parade. If Shumpert tallies 20 points or more, the Knicks will cruise.
- Since Shumpert is inept when plugged into the point guard position, Davis’ relief will be some combination of Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas. Bibby will supply unselfishness, a veteran’s poise, an occasional trey, but slow-footed defense that almost matches Nelson’s lead-sneakered offense. Defending the quicker Chris Duhon will be even more problematic. Douglas is an excellent stand-still shooter but, because of his extended bench-time, there’s no way to predict whether his daylight will be bright or dark. In the past, he’s shown a profound inability to read defenses. The Knicks will be in good shape if either of these backups is merely adequate.
- A hot hand by J. R. Smith could potentially turn the game into a repeat rout. Indeed, when Smith is cooking on all burners (and avoids quick shots), he’s just as unguardable as Anthony. In addition, he’s looking to pass more than ever and always plays hard (sometimes too hard).
- When (not if) the Magic two-time ‘Melo, they’d be fools not to have someone stay in touch with Steve Novak, who sets the pace among his peers with at least 25 3-ball attempts.
- The Knicks have to move the ball and the bodies, take good shots, and continue playing the kind of relentless defense that has been their norm since Mike Woodson assumed the command seat. This means smothering Howard and turning him in to a passer, while tagging Orlando’s perimeter marksmen.
- Smith has to control his emotions, Anthony has to make clutch shots, there has to be a modicum of player movement when ‘Melo is in his iso-mode, and the Knicks have to maintain their focus until the final buzzer.
- Moreover, because the Magic frequently lapse into listless play and appear to be frontrunners, the Knicks must play with playoff-level intensity from the get-go. In so doing, they have a good chance of putting the Magic to sleep early in the game.
HOW THE MAGIC CAN WIN
- When he gets the ball in the pivot, Howard has to begin his attack moves much quicker than he usually does in order to approach the rim before attracting a crowd. If he can set up a step higher than is his wont, he’ll also have more space to execute a quick spinning baseline move away from the incoming defensive help. Howard must also do a better job of showing when he’s involved in high screen/roll defense, and he absolutely has to dominate the boards. Needless to say, Howard has to make a fair share of his free throws.
- Anderson, Richardson, Turkoglu, and Redick will undoubtedly shoot their treys much more efficiently on their friendly home court than they did when dealing with the hostile rims in Madison Square Garden. Still, any team-wide efficiency of successful 3-balls below 40 percent could very well be disastrous. At the same time, the Magic must not settle for quick 3s and must concentrate instead on attacking the rim.
- Nelson’s pullup jumpers in the wake of screen/rolls must be on target.
- The inevitable double-teaming of Anthony must be effectively coordinated so that the only relief passes available to him will be cross-court skip-passes that will be aloft long enough for Orlando’s defense to readjust. Under the same circumstances, Howard has to be big in the lane to jam up the rare dive-cutter.
- Given the shortness of the Magic’s bench, it’s imperative that Big Baby and Duhon be at their best. This means limiting turnovers and ill-advised shots, as well as being alert on defense.
- Turkoglu has to turn back the clock, bag his treys, pile up assists, and refrain from turning his head when playing weak-side defense.
- All things being unequal, Richardson is Orlando’s best post-up scorer, an element of Orlando’s offense that has been often neglected.
- Although Smith plays belligerent on-ball defense, his tendency to reach for the ball compromises his balance and makes him liable to get beaten on dribble penetrations that are set up by nifty cross-over moves.
- The Knicks’ penchant for committing turnovers can be amplified by ambushing passing lanes and coordinated baseline rotations.
- Above all else, the Magic have to shake off their habitual lethargy and play with passion.
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR
- Which team team will play with the most intensity right out of the box? And when the first rush of fury naturally diminishes, which team will still be feisty?
- Both teams tend to experience periods of still-life offensive sequences, so scoring streaks could make the difference.
- Will the Magic pressure Davis on a full-court basis to wear him out and make all of his hamstring and lower back ailments bark and force New York to give more playing time at the point than they desire to Bibby, Douglas and Shumpert?
- Can the Knicks maximize their putbacks while minimizing Howard’s?
- Can Turkoglu possibly take the ball to Anthony to provoke New York’s go-to point-maker into foul trouble?