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.

Knicks 102, Hawks 90

[Ed’s note: My apologies to Jim, for not seeing this sooner.]

The game right before the All-Star break can be a wildcard. Some teams use it as momentum for the home stretch, while others look at is as no more than a glorified practice, essentially taking an extra night off.

While the Hawks were more than obliged to play the latter role, the Knicks looked eager to exorcise the bewildering demons of the teams’ first two match ups – both disappointing, low-energy losses – and capitalized on the Hawks’ obvious disinterestedness en route to a 102-90 win which saw New York net a TS% of 57%.

After three days of no games, ever-heightening Melo Drama, and with a sizable rest right around the corner, no one was quite sure which brand of Knicks would show up tonight. Would it be the team which, lacking their hobbled leader and co-Captain, eeked out an ugly-but-gutsy win against the Nets on Saturday? Or would it be the motley crew that hadn’t shot over 50% from the field in the six games prior, while allowing their opponents to break that threshold five times in the same span?

In the end, it was neither. Instead, what we got was a Knicks team both fired up and honed-in turning in a performance not seen since they dismantled the Spurs on January 4th. The result was an impressive, encouraging, and consistent (they very nearly scored 26 EVERY quarter) effort that saw five players score in double figures, lead most effectively by a seemingly rejuvenated Wilson Chandler’s 20 on 15 shots (including one reverse alley-oop from Felton which, if you’re honest with yourself, had you too thinking twice about including him so readily in a package for Melo).

While neither had spectacular games shooting, both Stoudemire (23 on 17 shots) and Felton (13 on 16 shots) contributed in other ways, with Stat recording three blocks and Felton dishing 11 dimes with 2 steals and a block of his own. Amar’e in particular didn’t seem fazed much by his sprained toe, which bodes well for him starting Sunday’s All Star game. Meanwhile everyone’s favorite Fields chipped in a vintage (that’s right, he’s that cool) 11 points on 5 shots (including 2 angry treys right in a pesky Mike Bibby’s grill) with 9 rebounds (all defensive), 5 assists and 2 steals.

But perhaps the most impressive – or at least nerve-calming – performance came from Gallo, who looked explosive early, even when his first few outside shots went amiss. He ended the night with 17 on 12 shots (3-8 from downtown, 4 for 4 from the line), along with 9 rebounds. He also did a more-than-serviceable job on Joe Johnson, making him work for many of his 11 points (on 12, mostly contested shots).

The first quarter started off like a game of swamp volleyball, with the two teams combining to go 9/25 from the floor.  However, after an Atlanta timeout (taken while they were ahead), the Knicks came out in a much better rhythm, scoring the next 9 points en route to a 26-19 lead at the end of the first.

The Hawks began the game getting what they wanted in the paint. But the Bockers buckled down, forcing the Hawks into deeper, largely contested jump shots. And though the Hawks ended up shooting an eFG% of 52% (including 11-22 from three), their inability to get to the free throw line resulted in a 12 point differential at the stripe –the exact difference in the game – as the Knicks went 17-21 compared to the Hawks’ 5-9.

Other than Bibby (15 on 8 shots, including 5 threes and no FTs), Horford (a very quiet 12 on 6 shots, also no FTs), and Marvin (if that’s your first name, you don’t need a last… he had 17 on 14 shots, and only 2FTs), the Hawks were pretty much in third gear for most of the game, never finding a coherent rhythm and deferring too often to the kind of isolation basketball they’ve supposedly grown out of. Meanwhile the Knicks did their part to limit the Hawks’ possessions, outrebounding Atlanta 44-38 and pushing the tempo to the tune of 18 fast break points.

Though helped in part by Atlanta’s malaise, for the second game in a row the Knicks played impressive D, holding Atlanta mostly in check while tallying as many blocks as steals (7). The second unit in particular showed a defensive tenacity that could become their hallmark down the home stretch, helping close out an impressive half that ended with the Knicks up 13.

The Hawks never got closer than 7 in what was a mostly pedestrian second half, punctuated by multiple dagger-ettes from Fields, Gallo, and Felton.

Unfortunately, Round 2 of Williams v. Williams was not to be. Although things started getting a little testy towards the end, with Horford and Felton – of all people – going jaw to jaw for a moment before the cooler heads of Stoudemire and Josh Smith – of all people – stepped in to keep things in check. On a bizarre NBA night that saw the Cavaliers beat the Lakers and both the Celtics and Heat struggle with far inferior opponents, Al Horford did his best Amar’e Stoudemire impression, racking up a technical and generally imparting a Stoudemire-of-six-years-ago demeanor that made it easy for Stat to come out of this week’s bulletin back-and-forth victorious.

And now on to a much needed All-Star Break which arrives with as many questions as it does potential thrills. Will Stat suit up? Will Blake Superior literally throw his entire body, and the ball, through the rim? Will this be the greatest All-Star Game ever? Will we be any closer next Monday to a closing of the Melo Drama than we are today? Is Stephen A. Smith really that bitter?

Whatever the answers to these questions, the now 28-26 Knicks can know one thing for sure: they’re the first to be over .500 at the All-Star break since the Bockers of 2000-01. Back when the only Felton we knew was Felton Spencer.

Lakers 113, Knicks 96

For the second time in three nights, the Knicks played a team from Los Angeles who came into the Garden on the second game of a back-to-back. And, for the second time, the Knicks looked like the more tired team. With their 11th loss in their last 15, the Knicks dropped to .500 for the first time since November 28th, while remaining a game and a half ahead of Philly for the 6th seed in the Conference.

But while Phil Jackson certainly brought a more tested and talented squad to the World’s Most Famous, the Garden’s Charmin-soft rims didn’t seem to know the difference: the Lakers shot a very loud 54%, including a solid 6 for 15 from distance. In fact, of the players who took more than one shot, only Ron Artest (2-9) and Steve Blake (2-5) managed to shoot below 50% from the field. It was the 5th time in 6 games the Knicks have surrendered over 50 for FG%, with the lone exception being a 100-98 loss at Philly a week ago.

Meanwhile, the Knick’ shooting woes continued, as they once again mirrored their opponents’ proficiency with a head-scratching under-50% outing for the 4th time in 5 games. Overall the Knicks shot 41% from the floor, including 5-20 from downtown. The lone bright spot – at least statistically – was Raymond Felton, who banked 20 with a gaudy TS% of 75%. Stat, meanwhile, again had trouble getting to the rim against the Lakers staunch interior, netting 24 on 20 shots. Ironically however, and despite playing in the veritable Laker forest of bigs, Stoudemire managed to grab 10 boards for the first time since pulling down 12 against the Thunder on January 22nd – a string of 8 games that has coincided with an equally confounding overall rebounding famine for the Knicks.

Despite the co-captains being somewhat effective, the rest of the rotation struggled to find a rhythm. Though continuing to show an increasing acumen for taking it to the tin, on this night the whistles were silent for Gallo, who went 4 for 15 (including 0 for 6 from deep) and finished with 12 points and 6 boards in 38 minutes. Fields, who seems to have hit at least a few bricks on the “Rookie Wall” the last few games, was deafeningly silent, going 2 for 6 (0 for 1 from 3) en route to a +/- (-17) that was second only to Wilson Chandler’s -18. For his part, Chandler – who had the unfortunate task of guarding Gasol for much of the night – played with slightly more confidence than we’ve seen in the last few games, netting 13 (5-10 from the field), 5 rebounds and 4 assists in a heavy 34 minutes off the bench.

Kobe did his Kobe thing in the first quarter, picking his spots and channeling performances past in tossing up 19 on 5-7 shooting, before finishing with an irritating 33 and a TS% of 82. For a while the Knicks kept up, and trailed by only 2 at the end of 1. For much of the first quarter and the first part of the second, the ball was moving on O, guys were getting open looks, and Ray in particular was honed in, scoring 14 and dishing out 4 assists en route to a lone-bright-spot kind of night.

Then the second quarter happened. Felton and Stat went to the bench – as did Kobe and most of the Laker starters. Mozgov, who played a rough-but-passable game en route to 7 points and 11 boards on 3-9 shooting, quickly to into foul trouble, opening up the middle for the Lakers, who began exploiting the Knicks weak interior D. This episode featured 6’8” Wilson Chandler stranded helplessly on Pau Gasol, with Amar’e guarding Bynum. It was also around this time that the Knicks apparently figured “we’re having such a swell time playing defense, why don’t we turn the ball over 9 times in the quarter and 4 times in 5 possessions?” The result was a 14-point halftime lead that found both the Garden crowd and the KB forum eerily silent.

The Knicks actually outrebounded the Lakers 44-41, including 13-7 in OREBs. While there were a few inevitable lapses – which happens when you’re playing against two smart, athletic 7-footers – the Knicks also showed at least a tentative propensity for boxing out, all but eliminating by the third quarter what was, in the first half, a sizable rebounding margin. Still, particularly in the first half, it seemed all of L.A.’s offensive boards came at times when the Knicks needed a change of possession the most.
New York never made a serious run in the second half, closing to within 10 only once, and the Lakers pulled away early in the 4th as Luke Walton led the team down the home stretch. Actually, I don’t know what happened in the last three minutes. ESPN actually spirited me away to overtime of the Cavs-Clippers game. Apparently, “relevance” only begins where 26-game losing streaks end.

Despite perhaps the worst coupling of games this year, if the last two LAX-fests have taught us anything, it’s that the end of a back-to-back can actually turn out favorably. With the Sixers and Bobcats lurking in the shadows, tonight’s game in Newark presents a definite litmus test for our faltering cagers. Fall below .500, and get ready to hear the Chris Sheridans and Ric Buchers of the world play the gut-‘em guitar for the next two weeks. Go in and dominate in an arena that just weeks ago was selling last-minute Nets-Cavas tickets for 50 cents, well, that’s what good teams do.