New York faces the Paul George-less Pacers for the first time this season. Can the Knicks overcome the surprisingly adequate Hoosiers?

The surging New York Knicks host the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden tonight in what will be a surprisingly competitive contest. Both teams have outperformed preseason expectations to start the season. Both teams are in rebuilding mode after losing their respective faces of the franchise to the Oklahoma City Thunder during the summer, with New York’s Carmelo Anthony and Indiana’s Paul George both traded to the latest NBA superteam, Oklahoma City.

The Knicks (4-4) have won four of their last five and are riding the coattails of the spectacular early season play of 22-year-old Latvian Kristaps Porzingis. The Pacers (5-4) have been better than advertised this year, with impressive wins over the Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, and Cleveland Cavaliers, largely off the surprising play of 25-year-old Victor Oladipo, who arrived in Indiana as part of the Paul George trade.

Porzingis and Oladipo are the driving forces behind their two rebuilding franchises hot starts, and these two budding young stars will largely decide who wins tonight’s matchup. Porzingis is averaging 29.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game, and has been unstoppable offensively from all over the floor. Oladipo is averaging 24.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game, and is having the best season of his career so far in his return to his hometown state of Indiana.

How well the opposing defense handles these two rising NBA stars will be telling tonight. Myles Turner, the Pacers 21-year old, 6’11” center will likely be charged with slowing down Porzingis. On paper, he matches up well defensively, given his combination of mobility and length, but the young Turner will have to be disciplined to stop the barrage of Porzingis isolations that form the core of the Knicks offense. Foul trouble could be an issue for the young Pacer, too.

For the Knicks, either Tim Hardaway Jr. or Courtney Lee will be tasked with slowing down Oladipo, who like Porzingis, is the focal point of his team’s offense. Stopping Oladipo’s penetration will be priority number one for the Knicks’ wings. The drive and kick game that the athletic Oladipo thrives in is set up by quick paint penetration in transition, and the Knicks defense individually and as a team will have to be on their toes to stifle this early offense.

Beyond the individual stars, the contest will be interesting stylistically. The Pacers are seventh in the NBA in pace at 103.4 possessions per contest, looking to push the ball in transition in order to put pressure on the defense and force mis-matches before the half court defense sets up. The Knicks will have to continue their recent stretch of solid defensive play and limit quick, easy Pacers buckets.

New York’s offensive strength is on the glass. New York is an excellent rebounding team, especially offensively, where the Knicks are third in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate, collecting 27 percent of their own misses. The relentless center tandem of Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn are outstanding offensive rebounders, and get the Knicks some extra possessions by banging down low. Kanter and O’Quinn can really have an impact here, as they will likely be matched up against sophomore Domantas Sabonis and veteran Al Jefferson of the Pacers. Neither can handle the activity of wrecking balls Kanter and O’Quinn, and that’s an area New York can definitely exploit tonight.

It will be fascinating to watch the contrasting strengths of the two teams tonight, both of which naturally accentuate the strength of their opponent. Teams, like the Pacers, who push the pace, often leave themselves vulnerable on the offensive glass by leaking out into transition before securing the rebound. Conversely, teams that crash the glass, like the Knicks, leave themselves vulnerable in transition by sending bodies to the boards. That battle will be crucial tonight.

Another win tonight at the Garden for the Knicks would probably propel the Knicks into an early playoff spot, something few would have expected to start the season. Hopefully the Knicks, and the indomitable Porzingis, can get the win tonight against a pesky young Pacers team.