New York Knicks (5-27) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (24-7)
Sunday, December 28
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Knicks: Iman Shumpert, Cleanthony Early, Amar'e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani, J.R. Smith (questionable)
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Knicks coach Derek Fisher was brought on board this past offseason to help new President Phil Jackson install the triangle offense, leading to some enthusiasm around the team. New York has now lost 17 of its last 18 games and seven straight, however, and hasn't won since Dec. 12 in Boston.
The Knicks feature one of the least efficient offense in the NBA. Over the last five games, New York has averaged just 94.6 points per game (No. 26 in the league) and 20.6 assists (No. 25), while shooting 44.7 percent from the field (No. 21) and 30.7 percent from outside (No. 26). According to ESPN.com, the Knicks are No. 23 in offensive efficiency for the season.
New York barely scores in the paint and doesn't push the ball often. The only consistently positive takeaway from the Knicks' offense lately is that they hold on to the ball well, but that's been a recent development and is subject to change at any time.
The defense from New York is almost as abysmal as the offense. Opponents can move the ball easily against the Knicks without fear of turning the ball over, and they've allowed 48.3 percent shooting from the field (No. 27 in the NBA) and 44.6 percent shooting from deep (No. 30). New York doesn't foul much, protects the paint well and sometimes manages to dictate the tempo but, like the offense, the defense rarely puts forth a solid 48-minute performance and doesn't have much to hang its hat on.
Jackson and Fisher seem like the only Knicks left with any faith in the franchise; Forward Carmelo Anthony recently told ESPN.com that the team "is dying," wing J.R. Smith called this season so far a "nightmare" and guard Pablo Prigioni recently wondered aloud whether or not New York has enough talent to win games.
Anthony has gotten up over two-dozen shots per outing over his last five, sinking 46.9 percent of them. He's a good finisher at the rim and has hit almost half his midrange field goals the last couple weeks, but he was making just 22.2 percent of his threes heading into last night's game against the Kings. Anthony finished with 36 points in the losing effort, making 13 of his 29 shots but shooting 2-of-7 from deep. Most of his offense comes off the dribble, and for how much he dominates the ball, he doesn't pick up many assists.
Second-year guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has slid into a starting role on the wing, but that hasn't translated into a reliable field goal percentage. Hardaway is a capable scorer at the rim, but his jumper isn't that great and he's a 29 percent shooter from outside the last five games, attempting almost half his shots from long-range.
Guard Jose Calderon is mostly a jumpshooter at this point in his career. He's made almost 45 percent of his midrange shots the last five games and has cashed in on 42.9 percent of his threes. Prigioni, who comes off the bench, rarely shoots and when he does, it's not usually very pretty. He's the best distributor the Knicks have, though, and he rarely turns the ball over.
With power forward Amar'e Stoudemire out and center Samuel Dalembert relegated to a bench role recently, New York starts big men Jason Smith and Cole Aldrich in the frontcourt. Smith takes most of his shots from 10 feet out or more, making fewer than a third of his jumpers the last several games. Aldrich rarely shoots but when he does, it's at the rim and it goes in the majority of the time.
Reserve guard Shane Larkin and forward Quincy Acy play off the bench and shoot well in limited attempts. Wing Travis Wear and Dalembert don't get up many shots, neither a huge threat offensively. J.R. Smith may try to play tonight on a bad heel, but he's missed nine straight games and hasn't scored consistently all season, though he did manage to shoot 8-for-12 and score 20 points in the Knicks' loss to Portland three weeks ago.
The Blazers will likely be without power forward LaMarcus Aldridge as he continues his recovery from an upper-respiratory illness. Center Chris Kaman missed Friday's win over the 76ers as he awaited the birth of his first child, which came yesterday (congratulations to Kaman and his wife Emilie, who welcomed Barrett Christopher into the world at 12:27 a.m.). Blazers coach Terry Stotts expects Kaman to be available tonight, which will give Portland's frontcourt added depth with center Robin Lopez still out for the next several weeks and Aldridge likely requiring more recovery time.
Point guard Damian Lillard torched Philly for 28 points and nine assists Friday night, hitting nine of his 17 shots and three of his eight three-point attempts. He's nailed over half his jumpers and two-thirds of his tries at the basket the last five games, while hitting 45 percent of his eight outside shots per contest in that span. Lillard has coughed the ball up a little more often than usual lately, but his increased distribution and improved finishing at the rim have more than offset any turnover troubles for the third-year All-Star who has twice led the Blazers to overtime victories in the last nine days.
Guard Wesley Matthews went bonkers from deep against the Sixers, draining 7-of-14 attempts and bringing the "Bow and Arrow Bomb" three-point celebration to the attention of Portland fans. Matthews' scoring hasn't been great from within the arc lately, but he's been good for 45.5 percent of his threes the last five games and will again see plenty of attempts with Aldridge out.
Wing Nicolas Batum had a solid outing against the 76ers Friday night, netting 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting. A modest four rebounds and three assists may not jump off the page, but Blazers fans welcome an aggressive Batum after he's struggled with a litany of injuries all season.
Stotts started forward Thomas Robinson and big man Joel Freeland in place of Aldridge and Lopez, respectively, integrating forwards Victor Claver and Dorell Wright into the frontcourt rotation along with center Meyers Leonard. With Kaman's presumed return tonight, one of these players will likely go back to the end of the bench. Between Robinson, Freeland, Claver, Wright and Leonard, not one has gotten up more than a half-dozen shots a game the last five. Leonard and Claver have been the odd men out all season, and probably won't see much playing time going forward as Portland's frontcourt gets closer to full strength.
Backup guards Steve Blake, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe all played 16-19 minutes Friday, all struggling to hit shots from the floor with any regularity. McCollum is likely the best of the bunch at creating his own offense, but hasn't looked good from anywhere but deep lately. Blake has been a decent outside shooter, and Crabbe is having a tough stretch shooting the ball, though he rarely shoots unless left open or on a fastbreak.
Portland has been scoring a lot of points lately, relying heavily on an outside attack that has seen the team hit 41.6 percent of its 32.2 three-point attempts the last five games. The Blazers have been average at shooting otherwise, and were pulling in a pedestrian amount of assists per game recently until they sliced up Philly's defense Friday.
Portland's defense has been a strong point the last several games, as opponents have struggled to shoot well both from inside and outside of the arc while dealing with the Blazers' tough perimeter defense that limits easy ball movement. They've also uncharacteristically forced a lot of turnovers recently, an unexpected-but-welcomed development.
The Knicks don't have a single game-changing individual rebounder but are pretty good at grabbing their own misses -- of which there are many. Portland leads the league in defensive rebounds per game the last five, but hasn't been so hot on the other end. Freeland brought in 17 boards on Friday against Philly, and the return of Kaman should give the Blazers a decent advantage on the glass tonight.
Even though Portland -- the first team in the NBA to reach 24 wins this season -- is playing at home tonight against one of the most disappointing teams in the league this year, the Knicks did manage to hang close with the Blazers three weeks ago and held a small lead with a few minutes remaining before Aldridge put them away.
Portland has the talent to overpower an injury-plagued New York team, especially at the Moda Center, but Anthony and J.R. Smith -- if he plays -- are always a threat to go off individually. If the Blazers can handle those two, though, they should be able to absorb any scoring from the supporting cast and have a good chance to pick up another win and allow Aldridge to get another game's worth of rest.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
(Editor's Note: The writing of this preview was started before the conclusion of the Knick's loss in Sacramento last night and all cumulative stats are collected from the five games prior).
Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: