The New York Knicks are on hand tonight at the Moda Center to take on the Blazers and try to put an end to Portland's 10-game winning streak. The Knicks are sporting a streak of their own, though it's of the losing variety and has been extended to five games following a loss to the Washington Wizards Saturday night.
New York is in a state of disarray; Starting center Tyson Chandler has sat out all but four games, forward Amar'e Stoudemire's production has dropped off a cliff following recent major surgery due to various injuries and not one of the starters is shooting efficiently from anywhere on the court, for the most part. The defense has been subpar and the Knicks aren't particularly good rebounders, either. So far this season, they've done very little to solidify their preseason championship aspirations, instead struggling to stay competitive for any extended period of time.
Forward Carmelo Anthony is taking a ton of shots but is only converting reasonably well near the hoop and in a few very select spots from beyond the arc, though he has been doing solid work on the defensive boards. The next most productive rebounder on the active roster is Andrea Bargnani, not exactly known for his prowess on the glass.
Former Blazer and nemesis of many a Portland fan, Raymond Felton, will likely sit out tonight, no doubt leaving Knicks coach Mike Woodson scratching his head and trying to find someone on the roster who can run the offense. So far, no other guard in the lineup has filled the shoes of Felton as a distributor, who didn't set the bar very high when healthy, anyway.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts would be wise to use Damian Lillard and Mo Williams to attack with deep penetration, collapsing the defense and getting looks for shooters like wings Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright. The Blazers' ball movement is humming right now, with everyone playing unselfishly and committing to moving the ball around in order to find open shooters. So far, Portland has launched and converted more threes than all but just a few teams. Those extra passes should be effective in getting open looks against a Knicks team that will allow plenty of outside shots (though they have managed to keep opposing teams' three-point percentages pretty low).
Nevertheless, the Knicks' struggles have led them to a 3-9 record, and they're just not doing very many things well so far.
The only accurate three-point threat is backup guard Pablo Prigioni, who plays fewer than 20 minutes a night. Anthony, big man Andrea Bargnani and guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith are all throwing up plenty of threes, but none of them shoots efficiently. Consistently solid offensive performances have been hard to come by this year for New York. Sure, someone could catch fire and light up the scoreboard for the Knicks -- Smith and Anthony are certainly capable volume shooters who can come up with points in flurries -- but the cold streaks have far outweighed the productive stretches early on for the struggling Knicks.
New York doesn't have a go-to low-post presence, though backup forward Kenyon Martin shoots the ball relatively well from close in limited minutes. Even so, he hardly takes any shots. Instead Anthony, Smith, Bargnani and wing Metta World Peace attempt the most field-goals for the Knicks, and not one of them has shot the ball well in the first full month of play. Felton, when healthy, garners a dozen shot attempts a game as well, and Blazers fans will recall how broken his jumper was in Portland a few years ago. He's still just as bad a shooter as ever, and having him hoist up low-percentage shots all game would play directly into Stotts' defensive game plan that relies on pressure at the three-point line, giving up points in the middle and the mid-range shot in favor of removing the three-point attack from opposing teams' arsenals. It's been an effective philosophy thus far, and the Knicks seem a bit too selfish to employ the ball movement necessary to break down Portland's defense of the arc.
On the other hand, the Blazers should be able to get into their offensive sets and execute with relative ease, as there are certainly some soft spots in the Knicks defense. Aldridge and Lillard are primed to have big games because they're strong where New York isn't. Will they bring the double on Aldridge whenever he gets the ball in the post? Most teams have paid special attention to him when he gets touches, and the Knicks will likely be no exception. Aldridge's passing out of double-teams opens things up a ton for the Blazers, allowing the offense to still flow well even on nights when he struggles like he did against the Bulls Friday, when he went 4-20 from the field for 12 points and the Blazers still escaped with a victory.
Not everything will always click like this for Portland's offense, and they're bound to lose eventually, but Stotts' offensive game planning allows plenty of high-percentage looks for the Blazers. Whoever's having a hot night can be featured in any given game, and Matthews has filled that role plenty of times this year. Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Williams have all proven capable of changing the fortunes of a game with focused efforts. The Blazers' offensive attack is tough to defend when it's clicking, and this banged-up Knicks roster will have its hands full preventing the Blazers from scoring while manufacturing enough offense of its own to stay in the game for 48 minutes.
Of course, the Knicks have some scary firepower when things are going well, but it's been rather infrequent for them to string together enough solid performances on both sides of the ball to come out with a W. You may see a brilliant individual performance or two out of the Knicks tonight, but the Blazers should be able to weather that storm and counter it with a solid, collective effort.
On paper, this matchup looks to be a convincing win for Portland. The Blazers, however, have struggled at times against teams they appear to have several advantages over, and New York certainly has a few guys capable of taking a game over. Even so, Portland has shown a resolve and a never-quit attitude during the current winning streak that's dug the Blazers out of huge holes multiple times. It's probably still too early to consider a top playoff seed out West a formality for Portland after a 14-game sample size and a sizzling start, but handling the Knicks at home would be a good demonstration that they can take care of business against a team they should beat.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter
P.S. I had the pleasure of participating in a roundtable discussion about tonight's Blazers-Knicks matchup with Chase Thomas and some other folks at Knickerblogger.net. Feel free to check that out and interact with the community over there if you feel so inclined; They do great work as the New York affiliate of ESPN's TrueHoop network of blogs.