The first of two road games, the Knicks need to beat the Cavs on Friday night to avoid a fifth consecutive loss for a teetering team.

The New York Knicks (5-7) lost the first Battle for New York on Wednesday, marking their fourth straight defeat. Things are looking bleak after New York’s hot start to the season, as they’ve skid down the standings to 10th place in the conference. They’re now back on the road for two games, starting with a 7:30 p.m. ET matchup tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers (5-7).

The Cavaliers are another young team that has cooled off after a hot start—even boasting the best Defensive Rating (DRtg) in the league at one point. They’ve lost their last three games and five of their last six. Their leading scorers—guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland and center Andre Drummond—are banged up, with Sexton and Garland unavailable and Drummond listed as probable. Former Knick Damyean Dotson has been elevated to the starting lineup, averaging 14.2 points and 5.0 assists as a starter.

Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince, both of whom acquired by Cleveland from the Nets in the James Harden trade, will likely make their debuts with their new team. Allen, a stout shot-blocker, and Prince, a 3-and-D forward, came over from Brooklyn.

New York and Cleveland faced off in the preseason twice, with New York winning both contests. They’ll face off again on January 29th at Madison Square Garden.

Getting back on track

New York hasn’t looked like the team that started this season so well. Despite the boatload of injuries, the Knicks pulled out tight victories against worthy opponents. Since improving to 5-3, their offense is operating less smoothly, their defense has been worse, and they sometimes play the unwatchable brand of basketball fans have been used to the past few seasons.

The Knicks brought fans back to the 2012–13 season with their lights-out shooting, ranking at the top of the league a few games into the season at 45.9% from beyond the arc. That unbelievable rate has fallen, to no one’s surprise. The Knicks’ three-point percentage on the season is now 35.1%, good for 20th place in the league. The Knicks’ offense as a whole isn’t doing so well, ranking 28th in Offensive Rating (ORtg), and their assist-to-turnover ratio is 27th. Their defense has slipped, too, as their once top-10 DRtg is now tied for 16th, per NBA.com/Stats.

The Cavs offer a chance for New York to rediscover its mojo. Cleveland is not just one of the two teams below the Knicks, but they’re dead last, and the only team who isn’t cracking an ORtg of 100. Especially because the Cavs are missing their three best scorers, this could be the game that gets the Knicks back on track.

Still, the Knicks will have their work cutout for them on offense. The Cavs’ defense is still a strong unit anchored by Larry Nance Jr. and JaVale McGee. Cleveland boasts the third-lowest DRtg in the league.

Time to start Knox?

Kevin Knox’s shooting has been the best (and at times, only good) part of the Knicks’ current losing streak. Over those four losses, the third-year forward has made 2.8 triples per game on 47.8% shooting from deep. His confidence and role as a spot-up shooter has made him a useful offensive weapon. Even though the rest of his game leaves much to be desired, his shooting would be very useful to have in the starting lineup.

Knox’s shooting gives R.J. Barrett and Julius Randle a reliable option for kick-outs when the defense collapses on the drives. It might even allow them to have more space if Cleveland decides not to play far off the red-hot Knox. The best move would be to move Barrett to the 2, start Knox at the 3, and give Austin Rivers his position as sixth man back.

Over the two games Rivers has started, he shot 8-for-22 from the field and recorded more fouls than assists. Rivers’ ball-dominating tendencies have clashed with those of the other ball-handlers in New York’s starting lineup—Barrett, Randle, and Elfrid Payton. He played much better in the games he came off the bench, where he faced weaker opponents and could handle the ball more with floor spacers.

Injury report

You might have missed Obi Toppin’s return to action if you blinked during the beginning of the second quarter of the last game. After missing the last 10 games with a calf strain, the rookie played just 57 seconds. Thibodeau said he yanked Toppin so quickly as a precautionary measure, citing his lack of practice time, per Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic.

Toppin is back, but plenty of other Knicks remain on the mend, the team announced Thursday. Reggie Bullock, who is dealing with a sore right hip is listed as questionable, and Alec Burks was upgraded to doubtful after missing the last nine games with an ankle sprain. Frank Ntilikina remains out due to a sprained right knee.

 

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