It’s the LaMelo Ball show as the Knicks get their first look at the exciting rookie against the Hornets on Monday night after dropping two games.
After losing two consecutive games to bring the Knicks back to .500, New York (5-5) will try to get back in the win column on Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets (5-5) at the Spectrum Center. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. ET.
The Knicks have been a roller coaster through the first 10 games of the season, as they’ve had a three-game win streak and a pair of two-game losing streaks. That being said, despite New York’s most recent losing streak, a 101-89 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and a 114-89 loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Knicks are ahead of where most fans expected them to be at this point.
The Knicks have had eight games in their first 10 against playoff teams from the 2019–20 season and still managed to get out of that stretch at .500. That’s a solid accomplishment for a young team whose Vegas O/U was set at 22.5 wins on the season. Despite the Knicks’ schedule easing up over the next 10 games, it’ll be important for New York to get back to where they were early last week and continue to string together good performances as the dreaded West Coast trip begins in just 10 days.
That being said, here are some things to look for in this matchup between the Knicks and the Hornets.
The Red-Hot Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets, who were expected to be just a few games better than the Knicks this season, started 2-5, but have won their last three games to move to .500. This featured a 102-94 win over the Hawks, a 118-110 win over the Pelicans, and a 113-105 win over the Hawks. What’s been the difference between the last three games? It’s been the play of Hornets’ rookie and third overall pick LaMelo Ball.
Ball is a player that Knick fans clamored for in the offseason until New York fell to no. 8 in the lottery. Now, he’s living up to the hype. Over the Hornets’ winning-streak, Ball is averaging 15.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 8.3 assists while shooting 51.4% from the field and 35.7% from three.
Additionally, he became the youngest player in NBA history to have a triple-double in Saturday’s game against the Hawks. He had 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists in 31 minutes played on 9-of-13 from the field, 3-for-5 from beyond the arc. Slowing down Ball is going to have to be a priority for Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks.
— Talen Wobton-Tucker (@WorldWideWob) January 10, 2021
Furthermore, a big part of the Hornets’ success this season has come from an unlikely source: Terry Rozier. Rozier is averaging 20.3 points per game through the first 10 games of the season. A major knock on Rozier for his entire career has been his inefficiency, but that hasn’t been the case this year. Rozier is shooting 46.6% from the field, and 43.8% from deep, both of which would be career highs if the season concluded today.
The Hornets’ backcourt also features Devonte’ Graham, who was a candidate for Most Improved Player last season. Graham is only averaging 10.9 points per game thus far after averaging 18.2 last season, but he’s still an offensive threat for Charlotte.
A Different Mitchell Robinson?
It was a frustrating start to the season for Mitchell Robinson between his foul troubles during the preseason and the first game. However, Robinson’s discipline has done a 180 since then, and he’s been an instrumental part in this team’s success early in the season.
Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in 29.2 minutes per game. If these numbers remain at this pace, Robinson would shatter his career-high in minutes per game in a season. His current highest for a season is 23.1 in 2019–20.
This newly found discipline is what’s allowing Robinson to get these minutes. He’s yet to foul out in a game this season, and yet to record over four fouls in a single game thus far. Against Indiana, Robinson had 16 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks, and against Utah, he had nine points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks. Both performances, his best of the season, were in wins.
While Mitchell Robinson still has to clean up some mental lapses, there has been a decrease in them this season, which is a massive step in the right direction.
After matching up against potential MVP Nikola Jokic on Sunday, Robinson will have a much easier road on Monday night as the Hornets rank 21st in points in the paint per game at 45.0. Additionally, Charlotte’s starting center Cody Zeller will be out with a fractured hand, so Bismack Biyombo will start instead.
Potential Defensive Battle
One reason the Knicks have been able to win five games is their lockdown defense. Tom Thibodeau’s reputation as a head coach has always been that he’s great defensively, and that’s held up early in this season. While Thibodeau has found early success in New York, so has Hornets’ head coach James Borrego.
The Knicks rank third in opponent points per game and first in opponent three-point percentage this season, per NBA Stats. The Hornets rank 11th in opponent points per game and fourth in opponent three-point percentage. What’s so incredible about these numbers is that both teams were expected to rank towards the bottom of the league defensively based on their rosters.
In terms of the Knicks, they have been tremendously improved defensively despite having such a similar roster to last season. Players like Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle have looked a lot better on defense, and team effort has increased as well. The question going forward will be whether or not this was a fluke 10-game stretch, or it’s something that’s sustainable long-term.
Frank Ntilikina, Obi Toppin, and Alec Burks are expected to remain out for the Knicks.