By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)
Knicks vs. Suns | Madison Square Garden
When: Monday | 7:30 PM
Where to Watch: MSG
Where to Listen: ESPN 98.7 FM
New York (14-22): This is more like it. As our Jonah Ballow detailed, the 2014 Knicks are back to playing the type of ball that we all expected coming off a 54-win season. In winning 5 of 6 in the new year, Carmelo Anthony's teammates have stepped up on both ends of the floor. Ball movement and unselfishness have come to define the team's recent play, and the result has been a 107.5 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) since the new year. Defensive effort has also increased, as the team is yielding only 100.3 points/100 possessions. In Saturday's double-digit win in Philadelphia, J.R. Smith returned to the lineup looking refreshed and turned in his most efficient game of the year: 14 points on eight shots, with six assists, and a +20 rating on the night. Amar'e Stoudemire continued his stellar play of late, with 21 points on 10 shots in 22 minutes.
Phoenix (21-15): You never root for injury, but the Knicks certainly dodged a bullet when the Suns recently announced that Eric Bledsoe, the budding star point guard acquired this offseason from the Clippers, would need knee surgery and be out for this game. Thought to be thinking toward the future, Phoenix has surprised most people with its success this season and is currently a playoff team in the loaded Western Conference. The dual-point-guard backcourt of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic has meshed perfectly with the rest of the roster under new head coach Jeff Hornacek; they play fast (9th in pace), shoot a ton of threes (4th in 3-point attempts), and harrass opponents by pressuring the ball and guarding the passing lanes (9th in steals).
The Numbers Game
The Knicks' effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for the value of 3-pointers) is 52% in January. That would rank them 4th in the NBA if projected over the season to date.
Matchup to Watch
Iman Shumpert vs. Gerald Green
With Bledsoe out of the lineup, the Suns go to a more "traditional" look that features Green as the starting 2-guard. He is a world-class athlete who has come into his own in Phoenix's uptempo system and has become a consistent 3-point threat, shooting 38 percent from downtown. He's started 18 games because of various injuries to Bledsoe and Dragic, so he's perfectly comfortable in a starting role. Shump, on the other hand, has started all year but his play since the start of 2014 has really been a catalyst for New York's success. He's putting up 14 points and six rebounds, shooting 53 percent from the field and 56 percent from three in the new year.
What to Look For
As was the case against Philadelphia on Saturday, transition defense will be a key against the Suns. Unlike the Sixers, however, the Suns actually execute while running (currently ranked 10th in offensive efficiency). One thing that makes Phoenix unique is that they feature bigs who can shoot; Channing Frye (6-11, 42 percent from 3) and Marcus Morris (6-9, 38%) both stretch the defense and demand coverage out to the 3-point line...Balanced scoring has been a key for the Knicks lately, with nine players scoring seven or more points in their last game. Sharing the ball from the start will be crucial against a young, deep Suns team that has shown a knack for competing for all 48 minutes...Tonight marks the beginning of a stretch of four games in five nights for New York.