By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)
Knicks vs. Rockets | Madison Square Garden
When: Thursday | 8:00 PM
Where to Watch: TNT (Postgame on MSG NETWORKS)
Where to Listen: ESPN 98.7 FM
New York (3-4): For the second consecutive time, the Knicks responded to a discouraging loss with a spirited performance on the road. Last night in Atlanta, New York won with floor spacing and by dominating the turnover battle, forcing 15 and committing only three. J.R. Smith joined the starting lineup in his second game back, and he looked much more comfortable than he did in his debut, scoring 12 points and pulling down seven rebounds in the win. Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani continue to click offensively since Tyson Chndler's injury, combining for 45 points and 15 boards against the Hawks.
Houston (5-4): James Harden sat out last night's loss in Philadelphia with a bruised left foot, although that probably shouldn't explain the Sixers' overtime win. The Rockets are figuring things out, working Dwight Howard into the flow of a team with championship aspirations. Individually, the summer's marquee free agent has been stellar -- averaging 18.2 points, 14.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game -- but how he fits with the pre-assembled pieces has been another matter. Houston tried to start him alongside center Omer Asik, but because of their limited offensive skill sets (neither can shoot or pass), the team suffered with them on the floor together, producing a measly 87.3 points per 100 possessions. Perhaps most troubling, though, is that the Rockets' defense has only been average with the two of them on the court, despite their individual abilities.
The Numbers Game
When Mike Woodson decided to insert Smith into the starting lineup, some questioned the move because of the success he'd had off the bench en route to the Sixth Man of the Year Award. But Smith was a member of eight of the Knicks' nine best offensive lineups last season (minimum 35 minutes together), his participation was topped by only Melo, who was in all nine. Perhaps the coaching staff's thinking is that maximizing their time together is a bigger priority than maintaining a starter/bench dynamic that isn't as impactful as some make it out to be.
Matchup to Watch
Carmelo Anthony vs. Terrence Jones
The Rockets have spacing issues in the front court. Asik, as we've noted, doesn't even pretend to be a scoring threat outside of the restricted area, and since the jumbo pairing with Howard wasn't working, Kevin McHale seems to have turned to Jones as the starting power forward. Jones is a more well-rounded offensive player, but has not proven to be the type of stretch-4 he was projected to be out of Kentucky. The Knicks offense will continue to run through Melo, who clearly benefits from the spacing provided by small lineups and strong ball movement. Against the Houston's work-in-progress defense, that could be exploited tonight.
What to Look For
Harden's availability tonight will be the main story heading in. He's one of the league's elite offensive players, capable of creating for himself and others off the dribble and filling it up from deep. He and Howard are deadly running the high pick-and-roll, both adept at getting to the foul line. The key for the Knicks will be building off the two things that really worked in Atlanta: winning the turnover battle and working for quality looks on offense. They also got promising contributions on the boards from wing players such as Smith and Iman Shumpert, who also dished out a career-high nine assists.