Game 22 Preview: Blazers vs. Knicks

Game Time: 4:30 P.M. Pacific  TV:  Comcast

The Blazers face a semi-rejuvenated New York Knicks team as they enter the Garden tonight.  The Knicks have won three of their last four games including impressive victories over the Hawks and Suns, two of the best teams in their respective conferences.  They've been spearheaded by the return of forward Al Harrington who, while never physically absent this season, seemed to have mentally checked out, perhaps in protest to coming off the bench in favor of young Danilo Gallinari.  Gallinari was out for one game and Harrington took to the starting role with gusto.  He played 40 minutes in each of the last two games, lead the team in scoring, shot well over 50%, hit threes, rebounded, and generally make an all-around nuisance of himself.  Gallinari is now back, packing his distance shooting along, but he's not regained the starting role.  In addition to those two, forward/center (center on the Knicks) David Lee has also had a fine year averaging 18 and 10 and providing a nightly scoring threat.

None of that changes the fact that the Knicks, even with the winning streak, sit at 6-15.  They've got problems in multiple areas.  The first thing you think of when you envision a Mike D'Antoni system is point guards and wings streaking down the floor looking for quick opportunities at the rim or from three.  Chris Duhon and Larry Hughes are not those guards.  Duhon is shooting 32% from the field on the year, Hughes 39%, and neither one can hit a three.  Neither can small forward Wilson Chandler.  You've a far better shot seeing New York's center and power forwards take a shot from the perimeter than their guards or small forwards (unless you move Harrington to SF).     This leads to a lot of teams running back against the Knicks and packing the lane, daring them to shoot as quickly or slowly as they please.  The Knicks have little functional bench to speak of and almost no bigs worth a second look besides the ones we've mentioned.  They suit up 12 players and depend heavily on 4, maybe 5 on a good night.

The Knicks also have systemic problems.  One glaring issue is fast-break points, where they rank 28th out of 30 teams on the year.  That's not fatal if your roster is built to grind it out in the halfcourt and you're not coached by a fast-offense guru.  But the reality for the Knicks is that they don't win until they start approaching 110 points in a game.  It's awfully hard to do that when you're netting fewer than 10 on the break.

That 110 number brings up another problem:  defense.  The Knicks are allowing 109 per game, a bunch of them coming in the paint.  They don't have shot-blockers at all.  Smart opponents don't waste time shooting jumpers.  They push inside knowing that they're either going to get an easy look or a foul.  New York is running a 5+ attempt deficit at the foul line per night.  Their perimeter defenders are marginally better...sometimes.  But they're still getting killed by the fact that most of their best offensive players lack defensive chops and vice-versa.  This is one of the reasons Nate Robinson hasn't been playing.

Topping it off, the Knicks are getting killed on the boards on a nightly basis.  They have some decent individual rebounders (Lee in particular) but the corporate effort just isn't there.  They're among the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league and in the lower third defensively.  Now maybe you're saying, "Mike D'Antoni...rebounding...his guys never have emphasized it."  But remember this offense is not running like a typical D'Antoni system.  They're slow, at least compared to the Phoenix days, depending more on possessions than the blitz.  If you're going to run almost -7 on the boards every night you had better have some kind of souped up offense under the hood.  That would be a "no" on most nights here.

Despite all of that, New York is a dangerous opponent for Portland tonight and not just because of the 3 in 4 momentum.  Portland has been strong in interior defense.  The Knicks shoot jumpers and loft shots over your forwards instead of scoring at the rim...a process the Blazers have yet to stop consistently this year.  Robinson has been in D'Antoni's doghouse but if he's unleashed he's a matchup nightmare for the team.  Ditto Al Harrington.  They are able to probe specific weaknesses that the Blazers have trouble compensating for.  If the Knicks do get on a roll and get near that magic 110 number the Blazers are highly unlikely to match.  Nor do the Blazers have the option of brutalizing them inside with Oden anymore.  Joel Przybilla is a fine option but realistically anybody could grab rebounds and protect the cup against this team.  Someone to muscle through them and score at the rim would be helpful.  That's not Joel...at least not on his own.  If Joel is scoring tonight it means a bunch of things are going well for the Blazers.  But Joel's not going to be able to turn a game around at the offensive end like Greg could have.

Pivotal Points to the Game

1.  Energy is the key in this game:  first, last, and always.  Without energy the Knicks get easy breakaway buckets that push their offense.  Without energy you take stupid shots when you could have quality ones.  Give the Knicks a reason to break down on either end and they will.  One or two guys might go off but they won't be scoring 40 apiece and you win.  Let guys like Duhon and Hughes have strong games along with their frontcourt and you're in for a long night.  Just keep the pressure on.

2.  On the defensive end realize that their forwards aren't traditional and focus your defense accordingly.  It's perfectly OK to double team outside of just the post tonight.  Ideally you want to hawk their forwards anytime they get near the painted area, not just when they're near the rim.  Get the ball out of the hands of Harrington and Lee and into the hands of that starting backcourt, shooting long balls.

3.  On the offensive end you just have to make them make decisions.  They're decent at getting back so you'll need to run your halfcourt offense but that shouldn't equate to dribbling and jumpers all night.  Penetrate and kick.  Screen and pop.  Make them play coordinated defense and they'll probably not do it.

4.  A big game from Martell Webster wouldn't hurt, eh?

Final Thoughts and Links

Effort.  I want to see effort tonight no matter what.  Give me that and I'll be pleased.

One of the best blogs in the universe for, like, forever has been PostingandToasting.  Check it out for the Knicks vibe.

You can enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.  Remember, just enter "0" for the Oden question and send your well-wishes to Greg as you do so.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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