After dropping back-to-back road games against top Eastern Conference teams, the Knicks are home against the lowly Magic.

There are no moral victories to celebrate for this New York Knicks (20-21) team.

Although it is refreshing to not get mopped by the powerhouse teams of the Eastern Conference in back-to-back away games, it’s frustrating to watch the Knicks drop two games they could have easily won. New York has fallen to the eighth seed, a great accomplishment compared to where the team was a year ago, but frustrating nonetheless in the context of this season in which the Knicks climbed as high as the fourth seed.

Tonight’s matchup against the Orlando Magic (13-26), owners of an eight-game losing streak, is a prime opportunity to get back to .500 and bounce back after two gut-wrenching defeats. The game is scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be the first of four consecutive matches at Madison Square Garden.

The embattled Magic are even more battered than when they faced the Knicks a month ago. Evan Fournier is out, and the Magic will miss his scoring badly. Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross are the two players New York needs to keep at bay. Vucevic, an All-Star center, is a dangerous shooter from the perimeter and the post. Ross is a microwave scorer who can heat up in an instant. The Knicks got a front-row seat to watch Ross go off in their February contest, where he scored a then-season-high 30 points and converted five of his six three-pointers.

There’s no excuse for either of their shots to be uncontested. It’s critical for the Knicks not to sag too far off of Vucevic in pick-and-pop plays. He is going to let that thing fly, which is a problem for New York, as he shoots 6.5 attempts per game and makes 41.6% of them. He’ll make some tough shots here and there in the post, something with which they can live. Just don’t let him shoot without someone in his face.

Conversely, the Knicks can’t play too high up on Ross, who has the handle and the hops to take it to the rim with ease. Forcing him to give the ball up should be their priority. Quick double teams and hedging on the pick-and-roll—when the screener’s defender jumps out at the ball handler, momentarily stopping them and allowing the defender to get back into position—could impede Ross’ progress.

Those two are the only ones who should give New York any trouble. A laundry list of injuries has shrunk Orlando’s rotation and forced them to call upon players from the G League. Their point guard rotation consists of Michael Carter-Williams and former Knick Chasson Randle. Anyone other than Vucevic or Ross giving the Knicks problems would be a bad, bad sign.

Losing streaks are extra damaging in this tightly packed middle class of the conference. The difference between the fourth seed and 11th place is fewer than five games. The Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, and Atlanta Hawks have all passed the Knicks in the standings thanks to winning streaks of five games, four games, and six games, respectively. A three-game skid could severely hamper New York’s playoff push, even with 30 games left on the schedule.

No Rose, All Thorn

Derrick Rose is likely to miss his seventh straight game due to health and safety protocols. There isn’t a set date yet for when he’ll be back, per SNY’s Ian Begley.

The second unit offense has been miserable without Rose. For minutes at a time, the Knicks struggle to score. Alec Burks had a fine game against the Sixers, but he isn’t built to burden that much responsibility on a consistent basis. Without anyone to apply downhill pressure, which Rose does aptly with his speed and crafty layup package, the Knicks’ offense sputters. Staggering Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, and Immanuel Quickley, who has been elevated to the starting lineup in the absence of Rose and Elfrid Payton, is a necessity.

New York’s disorganization on offense is especially harmful in clutch scenarios. Their Offensive Rating in clutch time is in the bottom half of the league, and they have a record of 8-10 in such games because of it. Randle, always the guy to lean on, has had trouble finding open shots when the Knicks need it most. Part of this is a coaching flaw: Tom Thibodeau needs to do a better job finding space for Randle to operate when it’s winning time. Rose’s playmaking and quickness off the dribble can help in this area.

With Rose, the Knicks are 7-3. Over their last six games, New York is 2-4 and have only beaten teams who aren’t in the playoff picture. Rose has been the offensive spark New York needed, and provided some surprisingly active defense. His presence, or absence, is felt by the team.

Robinson’s Return Looms

Mitchell Robinson recently returned to practice and had the cast on his hand removed. The third-year center has been out for a month due to a fracture on his hand for which he underwent surgery.

Getting Robinson is critical. Although Nerlens Noel has done a tremendous job stepping up, resuming the one-two punch with both shot swatting centers will help get the Knicks defense back on track. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks’ Defensive Rating ranks 18th in the league over the past two weeks. After spending months jostling for position in the top three, New York’s Defensive Rating is now sixth in the league, per NBA Stats.

It’s no secret that New York’s offense, even at full strength, is solid at best. Their defense has propelled them to this surprisingly successful season. That side of the ball is paramount to New York keeping their pace in the playoff race. Gaining one of their best defenders—perhaps the best—is a hugely important step in regaining their defensive prowess.

UPDATE: 1:33 p.m. ET.

Immanuel Quickley is out with a sore left ankle, per the team. The only healthy point guards remaining on the roster are Frank Ntilikina and Jared Harper with Derrick Rose, Austin Rivers, and Elfrid Payton still out.

 

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