The Knicks face off with the last team their fearless leader, Tom Thibodeau, coached: the Timberwolves, who are sitting in last place.
The New York Knicks (14-16) look to bounce back after laying an egg against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. The Magic were decimated by injuries in this one, missing Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Cole Anthony, and Markelle Fultz. But despite this, the Knicks fell by 18 points due chiefly to a lifeless showing from the bench pieces—Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Immanuel Quickley all combined to score just 21 points.
New York’s chance at redemption comes in the form of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team sitting in the Western Conference’s cellar with a 7-24 record. The Timberwolves are winners of two of their last ten and own a 3-12 road record, tied for second-worst in the NBA. Minnesota’s defense is nothing short of porous—they allow an average of 115.2 points per game.
Here are some keys to the game as the Knicks aim to usher in another winning streak after seeing their three-game streak end at the Magic’s hands.
Nerlens Noel must stay out of foul trouble
Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most skilled big men the league has ever seen. With the brute strength and physicality of a center and the shooting prowess and mobility of a guard, Towns is a threat to score from all three levels. He’s a handful both on the block and beyond the three-point arc, making him a nightmare matchup for any player in the league. Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau no doubt has Towns circled on the defensive gameplan. But, luckily, coach has just the player necessary to keep him in check. His name is Nerlens Noel.
Noel is an awesome shot-blocker. Top five, to be exact—he’s swatting away 1.9 shots in just 19.0 minutes of action this season. With otherwordly timing and impressive hops, Noel wreaks havoc as a swatter against opposing bigs. Additionally, he possesses the strength necessary to bang with Towns down low, whether it be to secure a rebound or battle for post position. Add in that Noel ranks in the 94th percentile in steal percentage in 2020–21, and Towns should be in for a dogfight. That is, if Noel can stay on the floor.
Noel has been an uber-valuable defensive force for the Knicks at times this season. But foul trouble has plagued him, as he sits in the 26th percentile among bigs in foul percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. Noel has played such sporadic minutes because he has often been yanked preemptively due to racking up multiple fouls in short spurts. Considering how active Noel is defensively, it’s challenging to avoid the whistles. But he must be uber-disciplined in this matchup and make it a point of emphasis to defend without fouling. Without Noel to hold down the fort, Towns could be in for a monster scoring performance.
Get the reserve floor generals involved early to shake off their rust
When news of the Rose trade first broke, there was a widespread belief that Quickley would see a relegated role because the two play the same position. Although these worries were futile, Thibodeau has played the two point guards together frequently. The pairing makes for a dynamic scoring tandem, and when at the top of their games, they can go toe-to-toe with the best reserves in the NBA.
High pick-and-roll sets should be the play of choice for the second unit in the early going to help Rose and Quickley regain their confidence. Prioritize getting Quickley open for pull-up treys and create space for Rose to dash his way to the rim when it’s his turn to run the show. New York’s bench unit has been crucial to their success this season. Quickley and Rose are the top two scoring options off the Knicks bench, and as such, it is of supreme importance that they recapture their mojo from games prior.
When Quickley and Rose perform below expectations, this New York team struggles to reach the 100-point mark, as evidenced by their 89 points in Wednesday’s defeat. Expect Quickley and Rose to crack double-digits in scoring versus a lifeless Minnesota defense lacking any imposing rim protectors. Thibodeau will assure the two are involved from the get-go, which should spark confidence in the two and result in a bounce-back offensive showing.