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Preview: The Hornets and Knicks face off in a meaningful battle between two .500 teams

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While both teams are 5-5, the Hornets are hot while the Knicks are sputtering.

Atlanta Hawks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

What: Charlotte Hornets (5-5) vs. New York Knicks (5-5)

When: 7:00 pm EST

Where: Spectrum Center; Charlotte , NC

How to watch: Fox Sports Southeast, NBA League Pass

A year or two ago a Hornets-Knicks matchup would’ve been one of the most unappealing games NBA fans could have been forced to watch. But things are different in 2021. The Knicks are one of the league’s biggest surprises sporting a 5-5 record while the 5-5 Hornets have quality wins over the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, and Brooklyn Nets. This should be fun.

The Hornets have won three straight games and have looked good in the process while the Knicks have lost their last two games by a combined 37 points, including a 114-89 drubbing yesterday at the hands of the Denver Nuggets. The Hornets are catching a reeling team on the second night of a back-to-back. While it’s still early in the season, this feels like a game the Hornets need to win, and really should.

New York Knicks overview

The Knicks are led by forward/center Julius Randle who’s having a breakout season averaging over 22 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists per game. Randle has blossomed this season as a shooter and facilitator. His 7.3 assists per game dwarfs his previous career best of 3.6 back in 2016-17. He’s also shooting a career best 36.4% from the 3-point line (on 3.7 attempts per game) despite being a sub-.300 shooter on his career. Given the Hornets inconsistent post play this season, they’re going to have their hands full with Julius.

New York also features second-year guard RJ Barrett who is building on a strong rookie season last year. This year he’s averaging around 17 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game, but he’s only shooting 38% from the field.

The Knicks starters are rounded out by point guard Elfrid Payton (14.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists) who’s pretty capable at just about everything, but not great at anything. Wing Reggie Bullock is a shooter who’s struggling with his shot this year and averaging just 8.7 points on 38.5% from the field. Seven-foot center Mitchell Robinson (8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.0 blocks) has never quite lived up to his potential of being a true force in the paint. Now in his third season he looks more like a slightly better version of Bismack Biyombo than a future All-Star.

As far as New York’s reserves are concerned, guard Austin Rivers can generate points off the bench and is lighting it up from downtown this year by shooting 48.1% from the 3-point line. Forward Kevin Knox, the No. 9 pick in the 2018 draft, has struggled this season averaging just 6.9 points in 21.4 minutes per game.

How the Hornets can win

The Hornets and Knicks are pretty evenly matched on the offensive end with Charlotte sporting an offensive efficiency rating of 105.6 (21st in the league) to the Knicks 102.2 (27th). Surprisingly, the Knicks have a solid defensive efficiency rating of 104.1 (5th in the NBA) which is slightly better than the Hornets 106.2 (13th). This game might be a defensive struggle.

Offensively the Hornets should be able to exploit the Randle-Robinson combo by surrounding Knicks bigs with shooters, then knocking down their shots. Neither Randle nor Robinson are great perimeter defenders so getting them isolated in pick-and-roll situations could open up Charlotte’s offense. The Hornets also need to just find more minutes for LaMelo Ball because the offense just flows so much better with him on the court. Having Devonte’ Graham to make more than 40 percent of his shots in a game this year would help, too, and tonight would be a great time to start.

Defensively the Hornets mission is clear: Frustrate Julius Randle. Randle is traditionally known for playing bully ball, but this year he has actually shot the ball better from mid-range than he has from the paint, per his shot chart. While the tendency with Randle is to retreat to the rim when he starts driving, it may be better for the Hornets to contest his mid-range game early and see what that does. Since Randle is such a bruising, powerful offensive presence, it’s going to be up to PJ Washington, Miles Bridges, and Bismack Biyombo to show loads of toughness and grit on the defensive end.

These are the types of Eastern Conference games the Hornets need to win if they are going to creep above .500 and start positioning themselves for a playoff spot. Let’s hope they can get it done tonight at home.