You could make the case that every week of this season has been Hell Week for the Knicks. You definitely could. However, what the Knicks have in store for them this week is pretty heinous. The Knicks have the Blazers, Clippers and Nuggets all on the road this week. Weeeee!
First up in this week’s potential blood bath, the Portland Trail Blazers. To help get a better sense of what the Knicks are up against tonight NBA Writer Sean Highkin of USA TODAY and Chris Lucia of Blazersedge stopped by to engage in some light chin-wagging.
The Portland Trail Blazers are 12-2, which is pretty surprising, right? What has been the biggest reason behind their hot start? Can they keep it up?
Chase Thomas (@ChaseThomasSBN) : The Blazers hot start is surprising to some degree. The Western Conference is incredibly deep this and year, and even though the Blazers haven’t had the most difficult schedule they’re still winning and doing so in a way that you can’t really call their hot start a fluke. Obviously their three-point shooting has been a big reason why the Blazers are 12-2, but their newfound depth may be biggest reason they keep it up all season.
Sean Highkin (@highkin) : I’m not surprised that the Blazers are off to a much better start than anything they showed last season. Did I expect them to be this good? Certainly not. But going into the offseason, they had two major areas of need: a starting center who can play defense (i.e. not J.J. Hickson) and a bench. Last season, their best reserve players were Ronnie Price, Luke Babbitt and Sasha Pavlovic. When any of their starters came out of the game, it was a disaster. Having the likes of Dorell Wright, Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson on the bench this year makes all the difference in the world.
Chris Lucia (@ChrisLucia_BE) : To be honest, I really didn’t see this hot of a start as realistic prior to the season. Blazers GM Neil Olshey added some much-needed depth to the Portland bench this offseason and signed Robin Lopez, a starting-caliber center. It was tough to not be excited about the new acquisitions considering the 2012-13 Blazers squad featured the least-productive bench in the entire NBA and coach Terry Stotts had no reasonable choice but to start 6’9” power forward J.J. Hickson at center.
The defense was bad, the starters played too many minutes and Portland ended the season on a 13-game losing streak, so just about any free-agent trade or signing felt like an upgrade at that point.
Stotts uses an offensive system that allows his outside shooters to consistently get open looks via ball movement and guard penetration that breaks down opposing defenses. Guards Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard and forward Nicolas Batum have all been at or above 40 percent from downtown on the season, with Matthews making half of his three-point attempts. That means Portland has three deep threats in the starting lineup alone, with guard Mo Williams and forward Dorrel Wright coming off the bench, both of whom are capable of scoring three-pointers in bursts.
Aldridge has continued his All-Star level of play, taking more shots than he ever has in a season and Lopez has had a huge impact on the boards, not only individually but also in terms of team-rebounding, as well. The defense opts to pressure the three-point line heavily and usually relies on guarding teams one-on-one without sagging much, sacrificing points in the paint and the mid-range shot. The philosophy is based on the notion that the three-pointer is the most efficient shot in basketball and mid-range twos are the opposite. So far, the Blazers have been hammered inside but have defended the arc better than any team in the NBA, and thus you see a 12-2 start to the year.
Is this level of play sustainable? Not likely; Matthews has no doubt improved his game, but he’ll probably cool off a bit eventually. The Blazers have also been fortunate enough to largely avoid injuries – knock on wood – and at some point or another, rotational guys will miss some time. But Stotts has proven his gameplan is effective on both ends of the court, even with a fairly soft schedule to start the season. Portland probably won’t end the season atop the Western Conference, but they’ve certainly raised the ceiling of where most prognosticators had them, which was typically somewhere around the edge of the playoff picture, one way or the other.
Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson and Robin Lopez have done a nifty job complementing Lillard and Aldridge so far this season. Which role player is the most important cog in the Blazers’ stellar offensive machine?
Chase: Wesley Matthews seems like the logical choice here. Matthews leads the team in PER, is lighting it up from beyond the arc, and is a great defender. Lopez does deserve a lot of praise as well for shoring up the Blazers frontline defensively. Lopez staying healthy may be the sneakiest most important piece to keeping the Blazers atop the Western Conference.
Sean: It has to be Matthews. He’s always been a good three-point shooter (somewhere in the 38-40% range every season of his career) but this season, he’s shooting the lights out. His 56.8% mark from the field is the sixth-highest in the league, and the highest of any guard. His 52.5% mark from beyond the arc is also sixth-best in the NBA. Outside of LaMarcus Aldridge, he’s been the single biggest offensive threat on this team.
Chris: I’d eliminate Robinson and Wright from those considerations, mostly because neither plays more than 15 minutes a night on average. Williams has been an underrated signing as a sixth-man, as he brings ball-handling, energy, penetration and decent three-point shooting off the bench, but he has a propensity to be a bit streaky. Batum and Matthews have been the most effective perimeter defenders on the team, both chip in tremendously on the glass for their positions and both are accurate outside shooters.Batum is more of a “glue-guy” – though it’s a bit cliché, he really does fit that bill, doing a little bit of everything on both sides of the ball. Matthews is on fire from deep, though, and his defensive effort has been consistent and contagious. I’m not in the Blazers locker room, but I’d also venture to say he’s one of the emotional leaders on the team, setting a tone of hard-work and staying hungry.It’s hard for me to choose just one of those guys, but I’d say Portland’s best role player so far has been Matthews. His outside shooting has been insane to start the year and I think his effort and intensity has been infectious. He gets the edge over Batum, but it’s a slight one.
The Blazers are 11th in the league in DRtg at 104.1, so there has to be some areas of weakness . What are they and how might the Knicks possibly exploit them?
Chase: Disrupting passing lanes to keep the Blazers from getting good looks on the perimeter is going to be critical for the Knicks to stay in this game. Starting Prigioni-Shumpert-Metta makes a lot of sense in this matchup to try and inhibit the Blazers three-pointer assault.
Sean: The Blazers’ success on defense this season has come from their ability to force teams to take long twos where they would normally take threes. The best counters are either to attack the paint and home to get Aldridge and Robin Lopez into foul trouble or shoot a high percentage from midrange. Expect a lot of Carmelo Anthony isolations in this game.
Chris: Well, the Knicks can try to score easy buckets inside via guard penetration and establishing somebody efficiently in the post, though it appears those aren’t really strong suits for New York. Moving the ball well and forcing Lillard, Matthews and Batum to expend extra energy securing the perimeter would be a good start. Connecting on threes would be the second key, but the list of Knicks’ player shooting over 35 percent begins and ends with Pablo Prigioni.Taking the easy shots allowed by Portland’s defense – mostly inside and from the mid-range – plays right into their hands. Portland has been outscored in the paint almost every game this season, yet only two of the 12 teams they’ve played so far have been able to ride that strategy to victory. Scoring inside is almost always a factor, but to beat the Blazers right now it needs to be complemented with efficient outside shooting, and that’s a tough task against this motivated Portland defense.
Matthews and Batum have been deadly from three-point range, especially catch and shoot opportunities with Matthews hitting 54 percent and Batum making 45 percent. Are most of the Blazers three-point attempts good looks, and if so, how should the Knicks defend the perimeter to try and make things harder for them?
Sean: Terry Stotts’ offense is based primarily around ball movement. The high percentages the Blazers have been shooting this year aren’t luck — they come from working to turn good looks into better looks. Disrupting the passing lanes and forcing them to take long twos instead — essentially, beating them at their own game — as the Chicago Bulls did in the first half on Friday is the best way to take them out of that comfort zone.
Chris: Stotts’ offense allows for a ton of open shots, and I think you’ve seen the positive overall results in the standings and the individual stats. Matthews and Batum’s shots are largely within the flow of the offense. Occasionally, they’ll fall victim to a case of “heat-checking” where they’ll attempt some step-back threes if they’ve made a few in a row, but really, it seems like they’re playing pretty unselfishly. Williams and Lillard tend to dominate the ball when they’re in the game, taking more difficult shots at time, but Lillard has established himself as a legitimate threat from outside and defenses cannot sag on him at all when he has the ball. He’ll launch a 25-footer with 10 seconds on the shot clock if he feels a defender isn’t respecting his outside shot, and he seems to make it enough to warrant a ton of defensive attention whenever he has the ball.If the Knicks could force Portland’s wings to dribble more than necessary, things might get a bit dicey for the Blazers. Fighting through screens, staying home on their individual assignments, not biting on pump fakes and generally being as pesty as possible around the arc should be effective. The Blazers will always make the extra pass if it means a better look for a teammate, so forcing them to use up the shot-clock could maybe punish Portland for being maybe too unselfish times, but it’s hard to string together an effort like that for 48 minutes against a team that sticks to its game plan, launching open outside shots whether or not they’re falling at the usual high-rate. So far, this gamble has paid off for Stotts and his offense.
Who ultimately wins this game and why?
Chase: I think the Blazers win this one in a blowout. Look for Damian Lillard to have a big night as I expect the fans to not be so kind to Felton once again, which could lead to a really erratic night from him. He also has a bad hip so Lillard should be able to penetrate and find open guys on the perimeter all night long, unless Woodson decides to play Prigioni-Shumpert-Metta together for most of the game. For the Knicks to win this game they’ll have to out-shoot the Blazers from beyond the arc and I just don’t think they currently have the personal to pull it off at the moment.
Sean: The Blazers have all of the confidence right now, while the Knicks are a mess. They’re a completely different team defensively without Tyson Chandler out there, and the injury to Raymond Felton weakens their point guard position, meaning they don’t have a real counter to Damian Lillard and Mo Williams. I have to go Portland here.
Chris: The Knicks are a weakened team and have been woefully inefficient offensively, owners of a 3-9 record and a current five-game losing streak. The Blazers, on the other hand, have won 10 straight behind their aforementioned outside shooting and effective defensive game planning. If one or more of New York’s players reverses the current trend of the season and can hit some shots with consistency, they’ll have a chance if they can also execute defensively and stifle the Blazers shooters.Portland could also go cold and start missing shots, but they’ve been on such a good roll lately and when implemented properly, this Blazers offense provides high-percentage shots for multiple players. Eventually, it seems like the shots always start falling and Portland has so many weapons from deep that it’s unlikely all their shooters would simultaneously lose their touch, but it’s happened before and could again if the Knicks do their part by playing disciplined defense.Really, though, it seem like New York doesn’t have much of a chance of winning in Portland on the road, especially considering the current opposite trends of both teams. I’d guess the Blazers have a great chance of picking up a win at the Knicks’ expense, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the final score isn’t decidedly close.