Friday night’s win was a much-needed breath of fresh air. Up next they take on the King of the East at his house.
The Knicks are officially on the board. Following a winless preseason and first three games, the Kristaps Porzingis Era finally has its first win. The reward? Heading to Cleveland to face King of the East, LeBron James. The good news for the Knicks is the Cavaliers are playing bad basketball. They come into tonight’s contest with losses to the Nets and Pelicans. In both games, they displayed Swiss cheese defense and surrendered 110-plus points.
On the flip side, the Knicks are coming off their best defensive outing of the young season. Frank Ntilikina made his Garden debut and is already the best point guard in Knicks history if you asked someone on Seventh Avenue right now. But seriously, the Knicks played great defense against a Nets team that came in as the highest scoring in the league (it’s been a weird start to the season). The Cavaliers will be a litmus test of sorts to see if the Knicks defense took a step forward or if it was just an outlier.
Assuming LeBron and the other big dogs play — they played in New Orleans last night — this game could present a perfect challenge for the young guys. Let’s run down what to look for tonight and which matchup you should have your eyes on.
Don’t Mess Up the Rotation
Kanye said it best even though if he was referring to illicit activities, but you get the point. Last game was not only the team’s best outing, but also Jeff Hornacek’s. He played the young guys together for extended time and the results were good. Frank Ntilikina’s presence was everything Knicks fans hoped for.
The best defensive stretch of the night took place when Frank and Willy Hernangómez shared the floor with Doug McDermott, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Porzingis. Hornacek should investigate if that lineup is one that can have success. If the youth movement Knicks president Steve Mills preached in the offseason about is true, then this could be an eventual starting lineup later in the season.
Excuse My French
Let’s talk more about Frankie Ntillmatic. Fans were getting restless with the neophyte. He remained sidelined while fellow rookies showed flashes of promise for their respective squads. Friday night’s performance was like a xanax. Hornacek let Frank stay on the court for extended minutes and his rookie rewarded him with solid play in his debut.
In 22 minutes, Frank totaled nine points (4-for-11 shooting), five assists, two rebounds, and a steal. Among those five assists were a couple dimes that got the Garden faithful hyped. Beyond the box score, you saw him playing with the defensive potential that was advertised all through the pre-draft process.
As you can see from TKW’s Jeffrey Bellone’s excellent breakdown, Frank knows what’s going on. In comparison to his cohorts, it looks like his defensive awareness is turned all the way up. The Cavs are not exactly strong at point guard. Hornacek may opt to keep him on the bench to start but this an opportune time to get some positive reps.
Assuming LeBron plays this game, the Knicks are at a major disadvantage. The King has no peer in the league, but Hornacek has to find someone that can at least corral LeBron from ending the game before it starts. The perfect candidate is Lance Thomas. So far this season Thomas has not been great (he played just six minutes against the Nets on Friday), but has proven to come through when his name was called.
He’s the only guy on the roster aside from maybe Michael Beasley that can stay with LeBron. Last season Hornacek turned to Thomas to play on Giannis Antetokounmpo, as tough an assignment as you can draw. Thomas took his lumps but also held his ground. If LeBron is going to be slowed down, Hornacek will have to turn to his veteran wing once again.
Matchup of the Night: Kristaps Porzingis vs. Kevin Love
Through the first four games, Porzingis has met no equal. With the exception of an ugly game in Boston, KP has eclipsed 30 points in every game. The best player to line up opposite of him was his mentor Carmelo Anthony. I love ‘Melo to death, but even he is not checking Porzingis on defense. Kevin Love will be Porzingis’ first true challenge of the young season.
Love has been off to a great start of his own. He has had a double-double in five of his first six games. Porzingis has been rebounding better this season, but matched up against a glass cleaner like Love is the ultimate test. If the Knicks are going to win, Porzingis will have to be the central reason in some capacity. Winning the scoring battle is nice, but the rebounding battle might be a little more important tonight.
Porzingis will get his on offense but will he stop Love on defense? Will Love body him down low and win the rebound battle? Tonight, we get a decent look at where Porzingis fills out in the power forward hierarchy of the league.