After exhausting themselves in Philly last night, the Thunder come to New York in Carmelo Anthony’s first game at MSG on an opposing team since the Knicks trade.
The day has come. Would it be hyperbole to say this is the most anticipated game of the regular season for the Knicks? Possibly. The Sixers game on Christmas day is what I personally cannot wait for, but make no mistake, this is a big moment. Carmelo Anthony is perhaps the best Knick I have gotten to watch. I was alive for Patrick Ewing but will not act like I remember any of Ewing’s golden years because I don’t.
I’ve seen every big game of Carmelo’s career. I saw his title run at Syracuse. I saw him duel with LeBron when that matchup was conceivably even. I saw him come close to the finals in 2009 and saw him arrive at my favorite team. I saw him come home to New York. I saw light up the Garden and call it his house. I saw him drop 62 points (MSG record). I saw him go to the bodega in a bathrobe. I saw him leave for the abyss known to most as Oklahoma. And now I get to watch him return.
The game itself means little tonight. The Thunder are probably exhausted after playing a three overtime classic down the turnpike in Philly last night. Russell Westbrook will be fine because he’s an android, but the rest of the starters, including ‘Melo, could be sluggish all night. The Knicks come in fresh off a win in Brooklyn, but Kristaps Porzingis will likely sit tonight as he deals with a sore knee.
Tonight is all about closure on the Carmelo Era. And if you think the fans do not care, guess again. The ticket for tonight’s game is so expensive, I thought Lin-Manuel Miranda was performing.
Melo makes his return to The Garden tonight.
Will you be there?
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) December 16, 2017
With all this non-basketball stuff being said let’s break down the hoops stuff for Melo’s return to the Garden.
Don’t talk to him like he’s the Frank from two months ago. When the Knicks played the Thunder on opening night, rookie Frank Ntilikina did next to nothing. He played seven minutes and recorded an assist as his lone stat. Tonight, the Thunder get a proper introduction to Frankie Ntillmatic, who looks like he is starting to figure it out.
Over his last seven games, Frank has begun to assert himself, averaging 8.9 points, 3.7 assists, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.4 steals. The biggest difference in his game has been his confidence. If you watched Frankie as early as two weeks ago you would notice that he seemed to stop himself from driving to the rack at times. It’s something that the rookie himself was well aware of.
“Sometimes, I have a tendency to hesitate on my shot,” Frank told reporters. “Now I feel more comfortable while getting a lot of reps. Hitting shots in the real game gives me confidence.”
With Tim Hardaway Jr. already out and Porzingis likely out, Frankie will have to be uber aggressive on offense. He has averaged 8.0 shot attempts over his last seven games, up from his season average of 6.2. Hornacek will keep Frank out of the starting lineup but has allowed the rookie to close out games, which I’d argue are more valuable minutes. If the Knicks pull this one out without their two top guys, then Feisty Frankie will be a big reason.
As mentioned before, the Knicks could be without their top two scorers. That means the other guys will have to step up the scoring. Against the Nets on Thursday, those guys were Courtney Lee, Enes Kanter, and of course, your favorite player’s favorite player, Michael Beasley.
Tonight, Lee will likely draw the unenviable matchup of Andre Roberson. That puts a further strain on where the scoring can come from. Lance Thomas hit the dagger to seal the game Thursday but most of his energy will be on slowing down Paul George. Jarrett Jack is good for some buckets, but he too will have a brutal matchup against Westbrook.
That leaves us Beasley and Sir Douglas McBuckets. Coming off the bench both will have winnable match ups. Beasley is self explanatory, give him the ball and pray he plays under control. To his credit, Beas has been a blessing for Hornacek. He played huge minutes at the four alongside Porzingis against the Lakers and stepped up with 15 points against the Nets. It seems like his scoring will be needed more than any of us expected which is not the worst thing in the world.
McDermott has been another blessing. Flipping ‘Melo for Kanter and him was like trading in a ‘97 Benz for a 2014 Accord. Are either player as flashy as ‘Melo? No. Are they better fits for what the Knicks want to do? I hate to say it, but yes. McDermott specifically has been a welcome sight. It’s good to watch someone move without the ball instead of standing there and watch the ball handler dribble the ball into the floor. The Knicks will need McDermott’s shooting and cutting more than ever tonight as he is likely looking at big minutes.
Matchup of the Night: Frank Ntilikina vs. Russell Westbrook
This was supposed to be Carmelo vs. Kristaps but that does not look like it will be possible. That leaves us with option two. The unstoppable force versus the elastic rookie. Frankie will not face Russ from the jump but will definitely be matched up with him throughout the night when he is on the floor.
In Westbrook, Frankie faces his greatest challenge. The Knicks have largely avoided the elite guards of the league so far. Frankie’s greatest opponent faced to this point is Damian Lillard, who is elite in his own right, but there is nothing quite like facing Russ. If there was a Marshawn Lynch in the league, it’s Russ. He runs at your face over and over, eventually causing opponents to break. In last night’s triple OT game in Philly he was the only starter who never seemed tired. He just kept on coming until the Sixers ultimately bent.
Frankie cannot bend. He will have to use every inch of that seven-foot wingspan to contain the one-man wrecking crew. If Russ is able to get going the Thunder could run away with this. But if he is contained, or even better frustrated by the rookie, then all hell can break loose for OKC. Big night for ‘Melo obviously, but it’s also a big night for Frankie who can take another quantum leap in his deceptively rapid development.
Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. EST on MSG and NBA TV. If you’re looking to snag a ticket look no further than TicketIQ.
UPDATE: 6:30 p.m. EST.