The Knicks have an opportunity to redeem recent close losses and work their way back up the tight Eastern Conference standings against Ja Morant and the Grizzlies.

The New York Knicks (25-27) are in major need of a boost. They’re 1-5 over their last six games, a skid they haven’t suffered since January. They’re now the Eastern Conferences’ eighth seed after losing to the Celtics, who recently passed them in the standings, on Wednesday. Although their fight for the playoffs is aided by a play-in, which they aren’t in danger of missing out on just yet, it’s worrisome to see the Knicks continue to slip in the standings.

The home stretch of this season will show if this team is the product of a weird season or a legitimate playoff-bound squad. They have a trio of games at home to exorcise their demons and get into a new groove. Tonight’s contest pits New York against the Western Conference’s eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (26-23), who the ‘Bockers haven’t yet faced this season. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET.

Memphis is fighting for its spot in the postseason after narrowly missing it last season, a very impressive feat considering they have been without one of their best players—Jaren Jackson Jr., a lights-out shooter, and intimidating defender—all season. Ja Morant, the reigning Rookie of the Year, still leads the way for the Grizzlies. The high-flying point guard is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game, both team-best marks.

Morant’s chief sidekicks, Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks, both average 16.3 points per game. Valanciunas, who also ranks fourth in the league in rebounds per game at 12.4 and eighth in total rebounds, is as burly a big man as they come. Brooks is a 6-foot-7 forward who does most of his damage from the midrange and shoots 5.6 triples per game on 34.2% shooting.

The Grizzlies—despite missing Jackson and possibly missing starting guard De’Anthony Melton and sixth man Brandon Clarke—are still loaded with talent.

Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 forward, provides some good shooting, playmaking, and defense. Rookie wing Desmond Bane is a sniper, shooting 44.6% on threes and sinking 1.7 triples per game. Fellow rookie Xavier Tillman Sr., a 6-foot-8 big, provides some rugged interior defense. Former most-hated-athlete-in-existence Grayson Allen provides marksmanship from deep, shooting 40.2% from deep on 5.4 attempts per game, and is fresh off a 30-point performance against the Hawks.

New York can improve their odds of winning by weaponizing their slow pace, which ranks last in the league. Memphis plays at one of the faster paces in the league—101.03, the sixth-highest mark—and uses it well. Their 15.9 fast-break points per game ties with the Pacers for the league’s top spot, according to NBA Stats.

Morant, who’s armed with dangerous speed, hops, and playmaking abilities, ignites Memphis’ uptempo pace. New York has to take away as much daylight in the open court as they can.

Conversely, Memphis’ halfcourt offense is rather bad. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks and Grizzlies are neighbors in points per 100 halfcourt possessions. New York is 23rd and Memphis is right behind them. Taking Memphis out of their element, which the Knicks can do by leaning into their tortoise-like tendencies, can keep the hare from taking off.

Matchup to watch: Jonas Valanciunas vs. all comers

It’s a good thing the Knicks signed more bigs recently because Valanciunas will be a tough test. The 6-foot-11, 265-pound Lithuanian is pretty adept at drawing fouls and shoots 77.6% from the free throw line. What truly makes him a menace, though, is his ferocity on the offensive glass. Just about every offensive rebounding and second-chance point metric for Valanciunas and the Grizzlies show what a force he is when his team misses a shot.

The Grizzlies’ offensive rebound percentage goes up by 6.6% when Valanciunas is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, which ranks in the 97th percentile amongst bigs. Only Clint Capela and Enes Kanter collect more offensive rebounds per game than Valanciunas. Memphis’ offensive diet features a hefty serving of second-chance points, of which they average 15.2 per game, per NBA Stats. Valanciunas is responsible for 5.3 second-chance points per game himself and is the only player to surpass five.

Defending Valanciunas is a possession-long fight, not just when he has the ball. He keeps the spirit of Memphis’ “Grit ‘n’ Grind” era alive by muscling his way into position time after time.  New York, with Nerlens Noel, Taj Gibson, and Norvel Pelle at their disposal, will need all the foul-trouble insurance they can get.

The search for a crunch-time remedy

New York’s uninspiring offense is problematic but so awful that it’ll derail their playoff ambitions. However, one area of critical importance is their crunch-time offense. Down the stretches of close games, the Knicks need to find more ways to score in clutch situations.

Julius Randle is heavily leaned on in close games, which makes all the sense in the world given that he is New York’s go-to guy and only All-Star. But he can’t do it alone, and the guy who can help him the most is Tom Thibodeau. His offense looks lifeless when time runs down in close games. The heavy doses of 1-on-1 isolation bears resemblance to the offense of David Fizdale, and no one is getting right by that.

Alec Burks has hit numerous clutch shots this season. R.J. Barrett is fearless and eager to take clutch shots, and Immanuel Quickley is as well. Thibs has the ingredients to make a good—at least respectable—crunch-time offense, but he has yet to discover the right formula. The more time he takes to find it, the worse off New York is.

 

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