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Tinkering Knicks Head Down I-95 to Face Streaking Sixers

Photo: Errol Anderson
The Knicks’ new look backcourt faces Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and the Philadelphia 76ers in only the two teams’ second meeting of the season.

How cruel is the universe that Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis only got to lock horns once this season? This was supposed to be one of the premiere rivalries of the season. Instead, the remaining meetings will be a little more than two ships passing through the night.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the Knicks have to keep on pushing. They come into this contest losers of their last six games. The deadline saw Willy Hernangómez (to Charlotte), Doug McDermott (to Dallas), and Joakim Noah (sort of) leave. In their place, former 2015 lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay was brought in from Denver and Luke Kornet and Isaiah Hicks were called up from the G League.

Revenge should be on the mind of the Knicks as they head down the I-95 to Philly. In their previous meeting on Christmas Day in MSG, it was the Sixers who left town with the W. The Sixers come in winners of three in a row and are in the midst of making a playoff push. Can the Knicks serve as a roadblock on the latter end of a back-to-back? Let’s break it down.


Jarrett Jack Watch

Jarrett Jack played eight minutes in Sunday’s loss. Let us take a moment and rejoice. The question is, can Hornacek resist playing his guy on the second leg of a back-to-back? We’ll get to Mudiay and Frank Ntilikina momentarily, but Jack’s time of seeing 20-plus minutes on a nightly basis should be over. If he logs single digit minutes once again we can start to trust Hornacek’s judgement.

Dynamic Duo?

Emmanuel Mudiay had quite the debut. He posted 14 points and 10 assists in 29 minutes of action. His shot did not fall as much as he probably would have liked to (5-of-14 from the field), but his court vision was a massive plus. The 10 assists speak for themselves, but how he led shooters to their shot was fantastic to see. Also great to see, and what was most noteworthy about his debut, was who he shared the floor with for most of his action, Frankie Ntillmatic.

This is the storyline that should be the focus of the second half of the season for both the team and fanbase alike. Ntilikina and Mudiay were on the floor together for 29 minutes on Sunday. Between the two, there were only three turnovers. Frank pieced together his best offensive performance since last month in Brooklyn. He hit both three-point attempts and all four attempts from the charity stripe as he played off the ball, a position we’re likely to see for the remainder of the season.

It appears the plan to play Mudiay and Frankie together, which is great for the Knicks. Mudiay’s willingness to penetrate make him the natural choice to handle the ball majority of the time. Moving forward, Frank will be the one who has to adjust his game. He has to continue to trust his jumper and rely on his defensive chops. For Mudiay, his vision seems to be there so shot selection should rise to the top of his priority list.

The soft spot on this Sixers team is at the guard position. Given their size, both Mudiay and Frankie should give Ben Simmons some trouble. Typically, Simmons has a substantial size advantage, but Hornacek can throw either guard at him.

Matchup of the Night: Joel Embiid vs. Enes Kanter

During that Christmas Day tilt, Enes Kanter feasted to the tune of 31 points and 22 rebounds. The Christmas smorgasbord was not lost on the Philly side of things. Embiid also had a strong day as he roasted the Knicks for 25 points, 16 rebounds, and three blocks. With Porzingis out, Kanter plays that much bigger of a role for the team on both sides of the floor. His sole purpose in this contest will be holding his own against the now All-Star Embiid.

It is a tall task (no pun intended) to say the least for Kanter. Embiid is one of the five best centers in the league, and I’d argue he is the best at his position right now. Embiid devoured the Clippers last game with 29 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks, two assists, and a steal. Kanter will have to be as physical as he has ever been to keep Embiid at bay, and even that might not be enough.

If Kanter is able to neutralize Embiid’s production like he did on Christmas Day, then the Knicks have a shot. If he’s anything less than stellar, then the Knicks are at the mercy of the Crowned Prince of NBA Twitter.

Which reminds me, what an intriguing matchup of Twitter personalities. Embiid’s antics are well known, but Kanter is quietly a top quality follow. He body bagged Jared Dudley a few weeks back and has always been known to chirp at opponents. If anything goes down between these two you can bet it will spill over onto social media.

Staff Writer, The Knicks Wall • Ahead of the Spread • Hardwood & Hollywood • Heat Check Podcast

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