After a five-game road trip out west, the Knicks come back to Madison Square Garden to play the Portland Trail Blazers.

After finishing their west coast trip 3-2, the New York Knicks (9-9) will look to build off their 129-119 win over the Thunder when the Blazers (10-8) come into town. Fortunately for the Knicks, Portland will be without Damian Lillard in this matchup, as he nurses a Grade-1 calf strain. While this is a big loss for the Blazers, the Knicks cannot take them lightly.

Fifth-year guard Anfernee Simons has broken out to begin the year, averaging 22.9 points per game, and will look to get it going early without Lillard. Forward Jerami Grant has also found success this season, becoming a pivotal third option for Portland since being acquired from the Pistons this summer past.

Key Matchup Between Randle and Grant

For the Knicks to win this one, Julius Randle will likely need to outperform Jerami Grant. The last couple of seasons have seen both players break out into bigger roles, and their duel will prove to be important for both teams. With Lillard will be out for this one, Grant will need to take on more of the scoring duties. As for Randle, his scoring output has been great this season, but his defense will be a point of emphasis heading into this matchup.

Transition defense has been an extreme weakness for Julius Randle. He is in the 0th percentile for points per transition possession and the 2nd percentile for opponents’ points per play in transition, per Cleaning The Glass. These stats emphasize that the 27-year-old forward needs to be better with transition defense. Portland may only rank 28th overall in the league for pace, but if the Knicks’ transition defense continues to be abysmal, they may be in trouble, even without Lillard.

Randle must play to his strengths, getting physical in the paint for buckets and rebounds. Most importantly, his ability to become a secondary playmaker alongside Jalen Brunson can help the team generate better looks instead of settling for looks in isolation. Julius ranks in the 78th percentile for assist percentage to teammates. His passing game is severely underrated and is an underutilized aspect of his game that needs to be seen more against the Blazers.

RJ Barrett must continue to find his shot

Battling an illness throughout the west coast road trip, Barrett struggled for the majority of the trip. Fortunately for him, his last game saw him get back on track, finishing with 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting along with eight rebounds. His ability to find consistency will be important for tonight’s game. Portland’s defense is second in the league in opponent’s mid-range field goal percentage. Given that a majority of Jalen Brunson’s looks come from mid-range, his scoring output could take a dip in this one, which is why it is very crucial for Barrett to find his footing as he recovers from his sickness.

Alongside shooting, taking care of the ball will be important. Despite his improved contributions against the Thunder, his six turnovers were the lone issue with his performance on Monday. Coming off a couple of days of rest and practice to set him straight, Barrett will look to string some good performances together as his fourth-year campaign continues.

Who starts at shooting guard?

The last few weeks have seen an interesting development with who starts alongside Jalen Brunson in the backcourt. Evan Fournier got the start for the first seven games of the season before Tom Thibodeau opted to go in a different direction. Cam Reddish has started for the majority ever since Fournier’s demotion, but after a groin injury sidelined him for the final two games of the road trip, it’s been Quentin Grimes who has started the last couple of games for New York.

It’s likely that if Reddish (day-to-day) returns against Portland that he will start, but it has been interesting to see Grimes’ fit with the starters in these last two games. Given that the starting lineup features a big three of Brunson, Barrett, and Randle, Quentin Grimes knows he’s not the go-to guy in the offense, as he plays solid defense and helps fluctuate the offense. It’s not to say that Cam Reddish can’t provide the same for the Knicks, but a pairing of Reddish and sixth-man Immanuel Quickley coming off the bench with Obi Toppin creates a dangerous second unit for the Knicks.

With Damian Lillard out, it leaves a large scoring hole for the Blazers, giving the Knicks a prime opportunity to start on the right foot at home, with the Knicks playing seven of their next nine games at Madison Square Garden.

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