Who: Charlotte Hornets at New York Knicks
When: 7:30 p.m. EST
Where: New York, New York, Madison Square Garden
TV: Fox Sports Southeast, MSG Network
The Hornets are in an interesting place right now. Eastern Conference seeds three through six are all very tightly packed in the standings [NOTE TO EDITORS: PLEASE REPLACE WITH STANDINGS AFTER TUESDAY NIGHT'S GAME], and it would do the Charlotte Hornets a lot of good to pick up wins where they can get them, starting with tonight's contest against the New York Knicks.
While it's true the Hornets have struggled on the road, only one of their final five games comes against a team with a winning percentage of .500 or better. The Knicks are well below .500, with a record of 31-47, yet somehow they are still third in their garbage heap of a division. The Hornets did lose the last time they played at Madison Square Garden, but they can't afford to drop this game yet again, lest they lose ground in the standings that they won't be able to regain.
The Knicks might make it easy on them, though. Starting point guard Jose Calderon and rookie sensation-come-New York legend Kristaps Porzingis are both questionable to play tonight, leaving the Knicks without two of their most important players. Calderon, at 34 years old, is not the player he used to be (although, yes, he still hits most of his free throws), but his injury would leave the Knicks without a viable replacement at the position, leaving the assist-deficient Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant, a poor shooter, as the only two remaining point guards.
Porzingis, of course, has had a tremendous rookie season, and has already established himself as one of the Knicks' top two players. His two-way impact is one of the few ways the Knicks win games, and his absence would make it much more difficult. Kyle O'Quinn, who's perhaps the Knicks' top defensive stopper, would get his minutes, but O'Quinn is not nearly the offensive threat Porzingis is, and the Knicks need all the help they can get on the offensive end.
The Knicks aren't a totally incompetent team, though; they're merely a bad team, but one that does have some threats. Many players in the lineup can hit their three-pointers, including Carmelo Anthony, Arron Afflalo, and Sasha Vujacic. The loss of Lance Thomas for the season hurts their ability to space the floor (as would Calderon or Porzingis missing the game), but they still have shooters out on the floor.
Defensively, the Knicks aren't nearly as bad as you might think. Robin Lopez has helped to anchor their defense from the starting lineup, O'Quinn-based bench units can shut down opposing benches, and their teamwide inside-out defense is actually pretty strong. However, their defense is very conservative, even moreso than Steve Clifford's was in his first season as the Hornets head coach, and they rarely create turnovers, leading to extra opportunities for opponents. The Hornets, who are still tops in the league in holding on to the ball, will have an easy counter to that shortcoming.
Here are a few other keys to the game for the Hornets:
- Get the Knicks into foul trouble. With a potentially very shallow rotation, the Knicks will be susceptible to breakdowns if even one starter has to sit on the bench for large stretches of the game. The Knicks aren't an undisciplined defensive team (they're about average in terms of fouling opponents), but the Hornets have been attacking the basket more and more recently. They'll surely continue that trend, so they might benefit from using their relative surplus of bodies to draw contact against the Knicks' bigs. And, on the flipside, the Knicks have the highest free throw percentage in the league, so the Hornets need to avoid giving them too many easy points.
- Utilize the big men. The Knicks' perimeter defense is better than the common perception says they are, but they do struggle on switches and to make correct rotations when opposing forwards get involved. The Hornets have a considerably more versatile roster than the Knicks do, and this is something that should be exploited. If Porzingis doesn't play, Marvin Williams alone could be a gigantic mismatch for New York.
- Remember that it's the $&#&! Knicks. Most of the Hornets looked shaky in their November 17 loss in New York, including the normally-steady Nicolas Batum, who put up a 1-9 shooting line with a grand total of zero assists. I highly doubt that will happen again, but the team needs to play more cohesively than they did in their early-season loss. That loss might have been the turning point in this team's season, as they won their next four games, and nine out of the next eleven. Just as long as they don't fall back on old, lazy habits, the Hornets should be able to take this game.