An 82-game NBA schedule is a complicated journey. While over the course of the season the better teams will win more than they lose there is a reason even the best teams typically lose at least a ¼ of their games.
Injuries, peaks and lows, and timing with schedule all have an impact on individual games. If the Knicks and Suns Monday night meeting at Madison Square Garden took place two weeks ago it would have been a completely different game. New York was struggling and the Suns were thriving. Not only was Phoenix playing better than New York, but the team's strengths matched up well with the weaknesses of the opponent.
Fast breaks to attack NY's poor transition defense and a deadly two-headed pick and roll combo with Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe initiating the offense had the potential to lead to a victory by a significant margin. It was setting up to be a blood bath.
Monday, January 13th has arrived and the game isn't what it looked like it would be two short weeks ago.
Here are five things to watch for in tonight's game from New York's perspective:
1. Since the New Year has hit the Knicks have won five out of six, including victories against the Spurs and Heat. The one loss came against the Rockets, a game they probably should have won.
On the season, NY has an offensive rating of 102.2 and defensive rating of 104, which come in at 17th and 22nd in the NBA, respectively. During the month of January, those numbers have improved dramatically. The Knicks ORtg comes in at 107.5 and a DRtg of 100.3. If those were extrapolated through the entire season NY would have the fourth best offense and eighth best defense.
2. The Knicks defense has mainly improved because opponents have struggled shooting threes against them. During this six game stretch teams have shot 31.5% from three in 23 attempts compared to the 36.3% on 22.8 attempts on the season. Some of this is luck and missing open shots, part is the Knicks defense is a little more sound. They are defending the pick and roll smarter, fighting through screens instead of switching and the rotations are cleaner as a whole. There are still lapses to take advantage of.
3. The Suns need to create easy baskets out of Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani's off ball defense. Players have tendencies to try to attack both in post ups and isos, but that's not the smart way to go at their weaknesses. Simply running your normal sets and putting them in situations where they have to guard in space will cause more problems and break the Knicks defensive scheme.
4. The one constant this season has been the fantastic play of Carmelo Anthony. Melo is hitting the boards better than he has his entire career along with carrying New York's offense on his back. While still at times prone to settling into old habits, he's making smart passes out double teams creating good shots for his teammates and been automatic in catch and shoot situations. Since December 1st Melo is hitting 46.3% of his three pointers. His shooting percentages in their entirety look like this -- 47.3%/46.3%/86.3% (FG%/3P%/FT%)
5. Finally, the biggest reason for the Knicks turn around is the rise of Anthony's supporting cast. Iman Shumpert decided to join this NBA season and has knocked down 19 of his last 34 attempts from behind the arc. The above-mentioned Bargnani and STAT have gone from being huge negatives to positive contributors. Ray Felton's return to the offense allowed the Knicks to get back to their pick and roll attack that was so successful the previous season. Backup, unknown point guard Toure Murry has brought defense and energy to the second unit. Kenyon Martin filled in tremendously for Tyson Chandler and when healthy Chandler was rounding into top-notch form. J.R. Smith even found his shot in New York's last win against the 76ers. Instead of Melo playing well and every other player being garbage, everything is starting click. The Knicks look like an actual NBA level basketball team, one the Suns are running into 6 games too late.
Ed note: This marks the Bright Side debut of new writer Bryan Gibberman. Suns fans should recognize Bryan from his work on local radio, SB Nation Arizona, and arizonasports.com in recent years. Now, we get a piece of Bryan as well. Bryan will provide features as well as write regular Practice Reports throughout the season when the Suns are in town. Welcome Bryan!