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Preview: Houston Rockets @ New York Knicks

This is a game that many fans in New York will have had circled for a long time. For the only time this year, Linsanity will return to the arena in which it exploded onto the global stage. While the teams have met once this year already, there is no doubt that Madison Square Garden will be a louder and more electric atmosphere than the Toyota Center was. And all the eyes, all the media attention will be focused on Jeremy Lin.

The Rockets will have been shielded by the hoopla somewhat by having played the day before in Toronto. With that game being a matinee, they should hopefully be able to avoid the fatigue normally associated with back-to-backs as there will have been plenty of time to get into New York at a reasonable hour. The Knicks, on the other hand, have had a day off after a nail-biter against Cleveland on Friday (which they won after Andy Varejao missed a potentially game-tying free throw with one second remaining). Carmelo Anthony missed that game with a sprained ankle, and it’s not yet clear whether he’ll be fit to play.

It remains to be seen whether the game itself can match the offensive fireworks that were on show in the reverse fixture. In Houston, the Rockets were able to record their best result of the season to date as they shot the Knicks off the court 131-103. The gaudy scoreline was caused by a combination of white hot shooting from the Rockets (led by an on-fire Chandler Parsons) and some atrocious defence by the Knicks. It’s quite conceivable that we’ll see neither of those in this game, so don’t come in expecting a similar outcome. That loss was by far and away the worst game the Knicks have played this year, and they’ll be looking to dish out some revenge.

Lineups:

If Melo is unable to play, New York is left with a very thin front line that will necessitate them playing small for large portions of the game – he is not their only injured big body. Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace are both sidelined with what box scores call “DNP – Sore Left Foot”. The perils of fielding such an old team are that they’re bound to have niggling ailments like these hanging around. Against Cleveland on Friday, they had to start rookie Chris Copeland at power forward, and ended up with Steve Novak manning the position for the majority of the game. Obviously this won’t quite be the same if Carmelo is back – we’ll just have to see whether he has recovered from his ankle injury. With the rotation the way it is, Tyson Chandler is set to as much time on the court as he can handle – he’ll be backed up by the ‘experienced’ (read: old) Kurt Thomas when he sits.

Expect to see a lot of twin point guard lineups. Coach Mike Woodson likes to play Kidd and Felton together, as both are capable three point shooters. They are the likely starters, with Brewer, JR Smith and Prigioni round out the backcourt rotation. Who gets the minutes is dependent on matchups. Brewer is there for his defence and I would expect to seem him put in a lot of shifts on Harden, but there won’t be a single designated player assigned to him through the game. However, he’s the only weak link in the otherwise potent array of three-point shooters that New York have arranged, so when offense is required expect to see JR Smith get more time.

For the Rockets, Patrick Patterson was missing from the Toronto game with a bone bruise, but otherwise the team is at full strength. In a game that is likely to be filled with small ball lineups from start to finish, this isn’t such a huge loss (he was missed a lot more in the Toronto game last night). In his absence, we’ll see a steady diet of Marcus Morris and Chandler Parsons at the 4, with Terrence Jones perhaps getting some spot minutes if necessary. This is Jones’ chance to make his mark – he’s guaranteed to get at least a couple of minutes each game, and he needs to get back to the promising form he showed in pre-season and his first few appearances if he’s going to stand a chance of getting more substantial time in the future.

On Offence:

In their previous matchup, a simple pick-and-roll was all it took to tear the Knicks defence to shreds. Asik would draw Chandler out of the lane by coming out to set a pick, and the ball handler, be it Harden or Lin, would exploit the wide open space that left to great effect. The blame for this had to be shared between all parties – the perimeter defenders did a terrible job of staying in front of their man, Chandler did a terrible job of recovering back to the paint after the pick-and-roll action had begun, and the help defence did a terrible job of coming across to cut off penetration when it happened. However, by all accounts these faults were an aberration – while the Knicks are only middle of the pack defensively (17th in defensive efficiency), they can usually count for slightly better play in all departments.

The book on containing Harden at this point is to put a lockdown perimeter defender on him, or failing that to trap him aggressively on the pick-and-roll to force the ball out of his hands. This causes the Knicks problems – their perimeter is filled with great three point shooters who are not exactly known as great defenders, and Chandler is at his most effective when he stays back to prevent penetration. In fact, one plausible explanation for why he was so poor in the game in Houston was that he was caught in two minds about how much pressure he should put on Harden and ended up in no-man’s land a lot of the time.

Of course, everyone will be looking for Linsanity to rear its head, and Lin should be able to find plenty of lanes to drive, but given the general flow of Rockets games recently it’s unlikely that he’ll be a major impact on the game. You never know though – when he was in New York he fed off the crowd, and there will likely still be a sizeable component of Lin fanatics around to cheer him on.

Marcus Morris will be getting more playing time than usual with Patterson out. The box score from the Toronto game would appear to show that he had a pretty good game in that time, registering 19 points on 6-11 shooting to go with 6 rebounds. However, one thing that really stood out was that he was reckless when driving, often running into traffic and getting called for a charge or getting his shot blocked. It was great to see assertiveness from him, but he needs to keep himself under control and be prepared to do something to take him past the help defender once he’s beaten his man.

It will be interesting to see which version of Omer Asik turns up tonight. I’ve noticed his clumsiness on the ball seems to come in phases – when the ball is actually sticking in his hands he becomes a competent roll man, but if he’s out of the groove then attempting to dump the ball to him in anything resembling traffic is license for a turnover. More of the former will be required tonight to get the offence going. A big man surrounded by shooters only works if the big man requires attention, and if he’s in stone-hands mode that’s probably not the case. He’ll have his hands full jostling with Chandler for boards, and it should be an entertaining battle to watch. Last game he got a vicious elbow in the throat for his troubles, but hopefully tempers will remain a bit calmer than last time around.

After getting torched by him last game, I’d expect the Knicks to pay a bit more attention to him in this game. He went through a period where he would frequently throw a pump-fake on the three point line to get past his defender but then find himself without much of a plan having taken a couple of steps inside the line. The last few games have been better in that regard, but he needs to keep it up because whenever this happens it causes the offence to bog down. If he can maintain the decisiveness he showed last time around it won’t be a problem, but then it’s much easier to make confident decisions when every shot is going in.

On Defence:

The Knicks offence has been drawing rave reviews from NBA watchers league-wide, and when you look at the numbers it’s not hard to see why. They currently stand at #2 in the league in offensive efficiency, shooting a blazing 41% from behind the arc, which when combined with a league leading 29.4 three point attempts per game leaves them making an average of 12 threes per game (for comparison, the Rockets are in second place with 9.7 per game). They whip the ball around the perimeter beautifully, with Jason Kidd doing an excellent job of finding open shooters.

Usually the reason those shooters are open is the play of Carmelo Anthony, who is a mismatch no matter who is defending him. He poses an unenviable dilemma to every team in the league – do you put a Power Forward on him (in which case Melo will face him up and blow by him over and over again), or do you go with a Small Forward (in which case Melo will bully him in the post)? It’s still unclear whether he’ll be playing, but if he is, then last game seemed to show that Chandler Parsons was the Rockets’ best hope here. When Anthony took him into the post he did a great job of holding his ground. He will need to curb his tendency to give shooters slightly too much space on the perimeter though, because Carmelo is never reluctant to let it fly if you give him the slightest bit of space (he tends to make them, too).

If Melo isn’t around, then the Knicks’ plan B is the pick-and-roll with either Felton or Kidd handling and Chandler setting the screens. In my opinion, Tyson Chandler is the best pick-and-roll big man in the league at the moment. His dives to the basket are quick and powerful and he has two guards who are more than willing to put the ball up near the rim for him to throw down. Providing help to cut off his head of steam is essential, or he will make the defence look silly. I’ve always felt that he was slightly underrated in all of the Linsanity hysteria – a large part of Lin’s success was derived from the chemistry he developed with Chandler – it’s much easier to tolerate Lin’s sometimes wild drives to the rim when there’s such an adept garbage man hanging around the basket to clean things up, and having to worry about the lob kept defences on their heels.

In any case, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Chandler being around has helped Felton rediscover the form that made New Yorkers love him last time he was there. He is in his element running the pick-and-roll, where he looks for his own shot a lot but mixes it up enough to keep the defence guessing. Over his last 5 games he’s averaging over 20 shots per game, and he will continue to take plenty of them if Melo is out. Limiting the amount he gets into the paint is key to rendering him inefficient. He’s a 33% career three point shooter, but this year he’s been able to post 40.6%. Eventually I expect him to regress to the mean, but there’s not guarantee it will be in this game.

Jason Kidd’s orchestration of perimeter ball movement is peerless – he does a great job of being unpredictable with where the ball goes, making it difficult for opposing defences to rotate correctly. This is going to be especially difficult for the Rockets, who are generally poor at closing out on shooters. They allow 38.4% on opposition three pointers (good for 27th in the league), and given how New York are moving and shooting the ball it seems likely that mark will be exceeded. Here are some three point numbers for New York’s shooters this year:

  • Kidd: 48.3%
  • Anthony: 45.5%
  • Novak: 44.7%
  • Felton: 40.6%

Leaving any of those guys open is going to be bad news, and given that they can conceivably put them all on the floor at once that puts opposing teams in something of a bind. Someone’s going to be open.

Summary:

While having Anthony around obviously changes the dynamics quite considerably, with or without him in uniform the Rockets will be facing an uphill battle to contain the Knicks and their incredibly potent outside shooting. If the Rockets are to counter it will have to be through a strong offensive showing of their own, probably led by large amounts of penetration from Harden. Lin is unlikely to be a significant factor, but if he can get into the lane he may be able to relax into a groove. I’m expecting the Knicks to remain perfect at home and the Rockets to perpetuate their road losing streak though.

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