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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some games matter: 5 key matchups for the home stretch

I was already well into writing this mid-season missive when word of the Melo deal became all but official. Which, in a way, is appropriate: it seems as though no writer, blogger, or player has been able to do his job this year without constantly being confronted with the about-faces and game-changers which made the Melodrama the unprecedented media circus that it was. But regardless of the squad we cheer out of the tunnel on Tuesday, our Bockers face a tough home stretch, as the race for the final three playoff spots gets tighter in a much improved East.

The Knicks entered the break at 28-26; good for 6th in the conference, though only 2 games ahead of Philly and 4 ahead of current 8th seed Indiana. With what is looking like basically a brand new team, it’s difficult to hypothesize how the Knicks come out of the gate. Still, we can at least take marginal comfort in the fact that Philly (SOS of .543) and 9th seed Charlotte (.513) have the 1st and 3rd hardest schedule in the Eastern Conference, respectively. The Pacers (.443) and 10th seed Milwaukee, however, boast the 2nd and 4th easiest schedules in the Conference going forward, while the Knicks stand in 6th, with an SOS of .466.

So we shouldn’t worry about a fresh-faced Knicks squad being thrown into the kind of hellish stretch that occupied much of December and January’s schedule, which should help make what will no doubt be a quick on-the-job-gelling a little easier. That said, Philly, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Indiana are all scrappy and talented enough to make us heed the rearview mirror’s wisdom: all objects are much, much closer than they appear.

So with that, let’s take a look at 5 key games in the home stretch and what each of them mean for our springtime dash to the postseason:

February 23rd – vs. Milwaukee:

“Ouch. Not much to say about this one.”

Such was the opening salvo for the recap of this disaster, played November 9th in Milwaukee. Some will remember this as the game Milwaukee led 41-19 after the first quarter. Others will remember it as Anthony Randolph’s last meaningful outing (If I had his 8,9,2,2,2 consistently from the end of my fantasy basketball bench, I’d be 1st instead of 6th). But all of us should remember taking away one thing in particular from what was, at the time, our worst performance of the season: we don’t always match up well against defensive-oriented, fundamentally sound teams. It certainly was the case that night, as the Bockers tallied a putrid eFG% of just 41%, while the Bucks – led in a balanced attack by Brandon Jennings’ efficient 19 (69% eFG%) – shot a scintillating 54% eFG% as a team.

Currently the Bucks sit at 3 and ½ games behind Indiana for the 8th and final playoff spot. With Brandon Jennings on the mend and the Bucks closer to full strength than they’ve been in months, they’re sure to come into the Garden hungry. And they’ll have the confidence teams tend to have after blowing someone out by 26.

As it’s likely to be the first time seeing Melo and Billups sporting the orange and blue, Tuesday’s matchup shouldn’t be looked at as a make-or-break game for the new look Knicks. But proving that they can take a little bump-and-grind from a team that’s actually been to the playoffs would, at the very least, be good on-the-job training for our almost inevitable run-in with the Celtics or Bulls come April.

March 13th & 15th – vs. & @ Indiana:

We’ve all seen it: the team that – for good or ill – fires its coach in midseason, hires his top assistant, only to see the team respond with a sense of immediacy few thought was possible. We saw it in Charlotte when Larry Brown departed, as Paul Silas’ loosening of the reigns helped the Bobcats win 6 of their next 8. Likewise, since firing Jim O’Brien the Pacers have gone 6-3, helping put Indiana into the 8th seed in the East with a record of 24-30.

The Knicks dispatched the Pacers down the stretch of their lone January 2nd meeting, although even that required a late flurry by Stoudemire, who scored 6 of the team’s last 7 points en route to a 98-92 win. This was also the game which saw Gallo leave with a sprained knee late in the 4th, a tweak that would keep him out for the next two weeks. Indeed, to call it a strange game would be an understatement: Indiana hoisted up 99 shots, netting an ugly eFG% of 41%. The Knicks, meanwhile, didn’t fare much better, racking up an eFG% of 47% on just 73 shots. Not surprisingly, Indiana’s +12 rebounding margin – including a 21-9 advantage on OREBs – helped contributed to their 26 shot advantage. Obviously, if the Knicks expect to even a split of this crucial home-and-home, they’ll have to do better on the boards, as it’s almost a given the Pacers won’t be as anemic in their shooting as they were for the January matinee.

Seven of Indiana’s next 11 games are against sub .500 teams. Meanwhile, 6 of the Knicks’ next 10 are against teams above .500, a stretch that includes rematches with Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Utah, and Atlanta. By the time March 13th rolls around, we could be looking at a playoff-like atmosphere, with two old foes squaring off for their first meaningful contests in almost a decade. Short of being a disaster, losing both of these games would almost certainly change the nature and scope of the 6-8 seed scrum in the East.

March 21st – vs. Boston:

Amar’e Stoudemire is shooting 50% from 3 this year. He should be shooting 67%.

We all know the clock should have read 0.7, and not 0.3. We all know we were leading much of the way– and by 7 after 3 quarters – having forced Boston into an up-tempo game that seemed to fall right into our hands. Unfortunately, the Celtics came out firing in the 4th quarter, hitting 4 of 8 from behind the arc before Pierce closed it out with a vintage fadeaway from the wing that sucked the air out of the Garden so fast you wondered how the building managed to stay standing.  And though Stat’s buzzer-beaten three brought back for a fleeting moment an insane energy and raucousness not seen in the World’s Most Famous in what seems like eons, even Spike Lee’s manic court theatrics weren’t enough to exorcise the devil we all already knew: Stat’s gorgeous can was the thinnest of hairs too late.

The Knicks have played the Celtics tough in both contests, and seem to have an uncanny knack of forcing the C’s out of their methodical, half-court sets and into occasional track meets. But the Celtics are the Celtics for a reason: they find ways to win down the stretch, regardless of tempo or deficit. The Knicks have twice found this out the hard way.

With Boston looking at no less than the 3 seed, it’s not like this game carries critical weight for either side in terms of playoff implications – at least not looking at it today. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. If anything, the March 6th meeting could provide an important bellwether for a Knicks squad which — despite still being arguably one piece removed from a certifiable Big Three — is doubtless eager to show the original incarnation that the coming decade will mean a change of guard in the Atlantic Division.

April 12th – vs. Chicago

With the game after this one – the second night of a back-to-back, no less – being the regular season finale in Boston, you could almost combine the two in terms of importance, a la the mid-March showdown with the Pacers. But the Chicago game in particular will likely have more immediate implications for the Knicks, who, if the season ended today, would be looking at a 7 game series with their old nemesis. Of course, by the time the actual games rolls around, we could easily be looking at the Boston game as the tone-setter, if Chicago’s now full-strength squad were to make a big enough run to steal the 2nd seed from the Celtics.

Barring catastrophe, April 12th will mark the first time the Knicks have seen a Bulls squad at full strength. When the teams first met way back on November 4th – a 120-112 win that saw the Knicks net an absurd TS% of 65%, connecting on a season high 16 threes – Carlos Boozer was still recovering from thumb surgery, helping the Knicks to a +4 rebounding margin that almost certainly have been prevented otherwise. I say “almost certainly” because, during the Knicks’ 103-95 Christmas Day win in the Garden, Boozer made up for his earlier absence with a 26 and 19. However this time it was Joakim Noah missing from Chicago’s front line, as a second half Knick surge and overall balanced attack helped the Bockers eke out an important win.

With the Bulls having won 10 of their last 12, Derrick Rose playing out of his mind, and Noah set to return in just over a week, the Knicks’ final home game promises to be as amped as these two teams’ feud is bitter. While there’s a chance the Bulls could find themselves solidly seeded with no incentive to go higher than 3rd gear, Tom Thibodeau’s squad is hungry and talented enough to make this one a statement game regardless.

But if both teams wake up the morning of the 12th fighting for their respective 3rd and 6th seeds, well, expect some strange ghosts to be circling the Garden from floor to rafters, and look for both teams to treat it like the playoff game it will almost certainly feel like.

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