Trail Blazers Battle Knicks in Thursday Night Thriller

USA TODAY Sports

It's not quite Dwight Howard returning to Orlando but Raymond Felton returns to the Rose Garden tonight with his big buddy Carmelo in tow. Will the Blazers be able to overcome the individually-oriented Knicks attack with team ball or will they fall in a futile attempt to match firepower with Anthony and crew?

The Portland Trail Blazers face the New York Knicks tonight in a game televised on TNT and scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. Pacific. The Knicks bring plenty of star power and plenty of injuries into this contest. The Blazers bring half the star power and plenty of nagging half-injuries but also more of a team concept. The Knicks have the superior record but both teams run hot and cold. The victory will likely go to the team able to execute its style with a free hand.

The Knicks are odd ducks on offense. They're 29th in the league in fast break points, dead last in points in the paint. They don't shoot well from the field and are only average at drawing foul shots. Yet they run the 6th most efficient offense in the league, nestled among offensive luminaries like the Nuggets, Spurs, and Clippers. How do they manage this? They shoot a crap-ton of three-pointers and they're pretty good at making them.

For comparison's sake, the Blazers are considered to be a prolific three-point shooting team with 23.5 attempts from beyond the arc per game. The Knicks shoot 29.2 threes per game, almost 6 attempts more than Portland. While the Blazers rank 23rd in three-point percentage at 34.7% the Knicks are 9th at 36.7%. In other words, the Knicks look like the Blazers if the Blazers could actually shoot.

The Knicks also maximize their possessions, owning the lowest turnover percentage in the league.

The rest of the New York offense is all on Carmelo Anthony. He uses an astounding 34% of his team's possessions when he's on the floor, attempting 22 shots per game and scoring 28 points in the process. It's not that complicated: let Carmelo do what Carmelo does and everybody else cleans up the rest.

With Amare Stoudemire out (again) that clean-up work offensively falls to streaky guys like J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton. Ever the talented headcase, Smith is a threat to score 30 or 5 on any given night. Felton is the same story except his range is more like 8 or 20 points and 4 to 10 assists. The Knicks are stocked with 1-on-1 players and perimeter shooters, allowing Felton to indulge his scoring-guard fantasies and giving him more room inside the arc in which to do so. If a move fails, find a shooter at the arc and call it good.

With Felton, Smith, and Anthony roaming the floor at no point is passing an integral part of New York's offense. The Blazers should be aware of this. Screens, motion...whatever else happens the guy holding the rock is also the guy who's going to shoot the rock. The rest is an extended shell game. The caveat is that any of New York's main scorers will shoot from anywhere on the floor. This isn't about green light vs. red light. They're colorblind. Every shot comes in 50 shades of gray. Whether the offense is painful or pleasurable depends on your perspective and whether the stroke is good. But hey, no matter what these three are going to keep trying to score.

New York's defense is serviceable, but not special. Tyson Chandler is the anchor, a.k.a. "only real defender in the main rotation". He's not at his peak effectiveness defensively, mostly because he's left out there on an island during so many possessions. But he can still change the game. Plus all the attention paid to those iso offensive threats leaves him free for plenty of dunks, chippies, and put-backs, allowing his limited offense to flourish.

To their credit the Knicks get back on defense and cover the lane. They just can't be bothered to defend more than 15 seconds or through more than two passes. If you move the ball you'll find an open shot. It probably won't be a dunk, but if you can hit a jumper you have a good chance of foiling them. The Knicks do excel at opportunity defense. They'll block your shot and they're good at forcing turnovers...a particular advantage since they commit so few. They're also great defensive rebounders.

The other hallmark of this year's Knicks is depth. They're not afraid to play 10 people when healthy. Injuries only compound the tendency. They take Stoudemire's minutes and give them to three people, playing 12. Imam Shumpert starts alongside Anthony but newly-signed Kenyon Martin, Chris Copeland, and Steve Novak all get run at the frontcourt positions. With Marcus Camby injured (he's played but once in their last five) they don't have a true center at backup so they go small and try to keep in a hot hand.

The Knicks start James White at shooting guard but he doesn't get many minutes. Instead they favor Smith plus Jason Kidd and the 40-year-old virg...errrrr...35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni from Argentina at point. Both rely heavily on the three on offense, mostly catching other people's leavings. Kidd can still defend well and Prigioni isn't bad.

The Blazers have the advantage of multiple bodies to throw at Anthony defensively. They should also be able to take advantage of the rather pedestrian defense of New York's starting guards and their overall lack of enthusiasm for defending. It doesn't take much to break that shell and the Blazers don't depend on the areas where the Knicks are strongest defending anyway.

Rebounding and center play are huge concerns. J.J. Hickson often comes up small against true centers and Chandler is that. Hickson will need to move him out of the lane to have any chance at scoring. I don't know if the Blazers will sniff any offensive rebounds. They depend on the extra possessions and occasional easy points those O-rebs provide. If the Knicks switch Chandler onto LaMarcus Aldridge Hickson should be able to flourish. But Aldridge better hit his jumpers in that case. Either way, the Blazers should drive, dive, and crash the offensive boards hard if they do manage to draw Chandler away from the rim.

The Blazers are going to have to stick Damian Lillard on somebody on the defensive end. Both Felton and Smith like to score. This could be an issue, particularly if Felton comes in with a chip on his shoulder. [Insert joke about it being the last, broken Pringle here.] The other problem is that Nicolas Batum has been putting all the pressure of a soggy Kleenex on his defenders lately. If Batum doesn't make Anthony try on the defensive end this is going to be a long night for Portland. Carmelo could score 40.

Depth will also be an issue for the Blazers. Those New York reserves have played this year. Portland's reserves, not so much. This is mitigated by the Knicks being on a back-to-back while the Blazers are looking at off-days before and after this game.

Then there's the final lesson: bring in a big-name opponent and put the game on TNT and the Blazers look like world-beaters, especially at home. The Knicks could be excused for overlooking this matchup. Considering Portland's history this season (as opposed to just looking at the record) they probably shouldn't. On the other hand they got blown out by the Warriors and the Nuggets in succession, so maybe they'll come loaded for bear.

If the Blazers keep the ball moving tonight--maybe scoring a couple on the break and letting a dive to the hoop or two set up the jumpers--they could take this game. It wouldn't even be that much of a surprise, though Knicks fans would no doubt protest that assertion. But if the Blazers let the Knicks walk in both directions, turning this into the Carmelo and Angry Ray vs. the world show, they're likely to get stuck on the wrong end of the scoreboard and a couple of star performances.

[Late Update: Both Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler left the Nuggets game early with knee problems, Anthony aggravating a pre-existing condition and Chandler bruising his knee in a collision. Status for tonight's game with the Blazers is unknown at this point.]

[Late, Late Update: Anthony will leave the Knicks' road trip to return to New York for treatment. Details here. Also, Howard Beck of the New York Times reports on Twitter that Chandler is "probable" for Thursday against the Blazers. -- Ben ]

Posting and Toasting covers the Knicks scene for you.

Your Jersey Contest Form for this game.

Portland Trail Blazers tickets

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

P.S. I take the high road. That's my gig. I tend to give the most reasonable explanations possible and not to get caught up in waves of emotion.

With that in mind, I don't like the fat jokes much. I think it would be unfair to say anything horribly personal and rude to or about him. But there's no doubt that last year Raymond Felton gave one of the worst, most sub-standard bait-and-switch performances we've ever witnessed in a Trail Blazers uniform. Not only that, but he won't keep his mouth shut about how it was either not that bad or everybody else's fault. I'm not sure who else besides him came into town out of shape, missed a ton of the most wide-open threes ever seen by an NBA player, and went into business for himself as the season progressed, helping to send it into a spiral. But that's been his story, he hasn't changed it, and he can't leave it alone.

So yeah. Boo this guy. Boo him with the boo-ness generally reserved for Lakers refs and pre-Pritchard GM's. Avoid the cheap shots. Just let him and everybody else know Felton's prime place in the pantheon of Portland pariahs. You have my blessing...right up until the point that we hear, "Yeah, it was a bad year and I let everybody down" come from Raymond's lips. ("Slightly-out-of-shape-because-of-the-lockout" chance that'll ever happen.) Tonight Felton's the dancer and your boos are dollar bills. Make it rain, Portland.

P.P.S. Maybe this summer we should do a Trail Blazers version of Dante's Inferno? It could be fun trying to figure out who belongs on each level of Blazer hell.

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