The Knicks have had several defining wins this year, to me, but when I think of one that is the blueprint (ugh, sorry) for what it is going to take for them to bully their way through the Eastern Conference I think of the Dec. 11 game in Brooklyn. That game had it all, didn't it? Except Brook Lopez, of course. It had rugged defense, big shots, great execution down the stretch and a heroic performance by a superstar player.
Carmelo Anthony went for an efficient 45 that night. I'll say that again. On a big stage in another episode of the battle of NY, Anthony scored 45 points on 24 shots from the field. He was simply unguardable.
That was round 2, round 3 was a blowout at MSG which some may say was when Deron Williams and his teammates officially quit on Avery Johnson. Since then the Nets have a new coach, a new philosophy and they are playing as well as any team in the conference.
Many things have changed for the Knicks since then as well. Raymond Felton and Rasheed Wallace got hurt and Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert are now back in the mix as rotational players. The Knicks are trying to figure out their combinations and their rotation while the Nets are locked in and rolling. Cue the bell, it's time for round 4 tomorrow.
Once again, the last time the Nets came to MSG they left embarrassed and with questions that needed answers that they've seemed to have solved. Williams has now found his grove and P.J. Carlesimo has him playing to his strength...and that's his physical strength. They are running more pick and roll, which Avery Johnson stubbornly refused to adjust to, and that has allowed Williams to play "down hill" on his way to the hoop. Consider this. Williams has missed ONE FREE THROW since Johnson was relived of his duties December 28th... ONE. He's 54 of his last 55. When you have a guard that efficient in getting in the lane and getting to the stripe you have a distinct advantage. Combine that with the PG play that the Knicks have had minus Felton and it's a severe advantage in the Nets' favor.
Up front it's a bit of a different story. Lopez is playing his best basketball of the season but rebounding continues to be an issue for both him and the Nets on the defensive side. Yes, it's probably the Knicks' biggest issue as well, especially with Rasheed Wallace out, but the Nets should be much better in terms of league rank. They currently sit 26th in defensive rebounds per game defensively to the Knicks 23rd. Granted they are top 10 in differential, but it's alarming that with the 7'1 Lopez along with Reggie Evans that they struggle to rebound the ball defensively. On the offensive end, the Nets do a good job of gaining possessions on the offensive boards (tied for 6th in the NBA), and that should be the Knicks primary focus defensively. In their first 3 meetings the Knicks have won the offensive rebounding battle twice with their only loss being the first game when they lost the battle 18-17.
So as the city warms up for the 4th and final installment there's a lot to digest in terms of the match up. Both stars are playing at a ridiculously high level and the Knicks need to focus on keeping Williams off the FT line and the Nets off the offensive glass if they are going to have any chance to take the season series 3-1.
This is a pivotal game and one that will certainly have the city paying attention tomorrow afternoon.