Back to .500 and intended puns thicken this week's plot

Wednesday, March 28th -- VS Orlando

Friday, March 30th -- @ Atlanta

Saturday, March 31st -- VS Cleveland

"Welp" must be trending in New York.

I am not going to write a long sweeping recap of New York's season. You know the ups and downs: "Eastern Conference Finals contenders" turned into "without Baron Davis, we don't have a point guard." That became "Linsanity," which became "Melodrama," which gave way to Mike D'Antoni's separation from the franchise, which led to "What's wrong with Carmelo Anthony's game?" and "Hey, Amar'e Stoudemire seems to be improving at just the right time!" All of these ups and downs led eventually to a seemingly perfect race between the Knicks and the Bucks; 50 games through the season and boy oh boy is it coming down to the wire! They're neck-and-neck, folks, and they're playing each other at the Garden on Monday! What a huge game for both teams, each hoping to prove its superiority and the Knicks' particularly hoping to eek out a win to keep the possibility of a season split with Milwaukee alive. Overall, last night's game was huge in every conceivable way. This whole week is huge in every conceivable way.

When it came time for the Knicks to embark on the final leg of this brutal season, the Knicks rolled the dice to see who would go first, and they came up snake eyes (how's that for cliche?).

Carmelo Anthony's least efficient offensive season could not realistically have come at a worse time. Amar'e Stoudemire, who carried New York's offense throughout the first part of last season with aplomb, had been mired in a back injury this summer, preventing him from balling, causing a sort of hangover of the highest order. The Knicks, in what turned out to be a fruitful effort to curb its rebounding, interior defense and leadership woes, used their amnesty clause on its only proven point guard to sign Tyson Chandler, and hired-gun Baron Davis wouldn't be ripe for picking until closer to the spring season. Everything sucked.

Fast-forward to last week, and a great case could be made that New York was the team that scared the East's elite pie crust the most. The premise of getting two offensive gurus and lighting a defensive fire under their asses, adding an elite defensive center with offensive efficiency numbers out of a video game, an old-fashioned pick and roll point guard, and surrounding them all with a cohesive bench unit, seems like enough. Although Anthony's performance has been largely disappointing, Stoudemire at full strength would take some pressure off Anthony, and Lin's steady orchestration of screen and rolls would create opportunities. And he was just arriving at "full strength & Lexington."

"Welp."

Welp, it looks like it's back, pun most certainly not intended, to the Linsanity team that originally captured the hearts of America. That team was a squad with an aim to lock you down defensively and attack you in the paint to open up looks for its second unit's shooters. A major setback to the revitalization project is the absence of Jared Jeffries, as key a defensive cog as they come, whose void is exacerbated by Stoudemire's. Makes the seas shallow. This leaves most of the heavy lifting to Tyson Chandler and rookie Josh Harrellson, as well as it calls for Carmelo Anthony to strap books to his feet and ingest as many toadstools as possible somehow to masquerade as a third big (well, shit, while we're on the subject let's take a look at last night's box score, point out that Steve Novak is the fourth biggest dude, and have ourselves a good cry).

So, while Stoudemire and Jeffries have themselves a healing race to see who can come back and provide depth first, let's look at the week ahead. Although it may look daunting, further examination reveals this weeks' matchups to be ideally set-up for the Knicks to compete despite its frontcourt woes. Last night's opponent was the first in line to lack the size to take advantage of the Knickerbockers.

Orlando Magic

- This matchup may seem like a nightmare because Dwight Howard always destroys the Knicks. However, besides him, the Magic don't have any truly daunting big men in their midst. Big Baby Davis is a bum, Earl Clark as well, and Ryan Anderson is a Novak-type who can rebound better. He is the Magic's second best player by a chasm. I don't know, I think Harrellson can guard one of the third-tier dudes, Anthony may have sparked himself a "fuck it, if I don't try hard now I'm a bum" attitude, and guard Ryan Anderson or something, who knows? But the most important feature of playing this team is obviously what in the living hell to do about Dwight Howard. This leads me into a separate Tyson Chandler tangent.

- Chandler has been doing Championship-type things around the Knicks vicinity, with rings and pictures of trophies and things of that nature. I think the Knicks' win last night bringing them to .500 and, effectively, a clean slate for the year, might energize Chandler to start really raising his expectations from the defense. I think a big showing from him on Dwight Howard, even to guard him the whole game without fouling out or something to stop that huge muscle child man, would go a long way. Some great defense started in the second half of last night's game; the Knicks held the Bucks to just 28 points combined in the third and fourth quarterberries. Chandler contributed nine free throw attempts partially due to five offensive rebounds last night. Remember when it was a big concern that his wrist hurt? "Welp."

- The Magic are the easiest puzzle to solve in the NBA. If you can contain Dwight Howard enough that their shooters aren't open enough to hit threes consistently, you win. If you can't contain Dwight Howard, he will overwhelm you on the boards, and hit open jump shooters. I love watching Dwight Howard vs. Tyson Chandler because I think they both take it personally. I think this game will be aesthetically ridiculous if Jeremy Lin can play anywhere near 100%.

- Ryan Anderson tho! This Macaroni Romo looking Muh-fughuh has led the Magic in scoring the last four games(!), hittin' himself 28, 28 & 29 in three of 'em. Goddamn this guy can shoot, and it'll be mighty upsetting if the Knicks can't figure out a way to face-guard him. . He rebounds pretty well, too, 7.6 a game.

- Jason Richardson isn't having a great year, ditto Jameer Nelson, ditto Hedo Turkoglu, ditto Quentin Richardson, ditto Chris Duhon (who gets minutes), ditto Glen Davis. This team is third in the Eastern Conference. Dwight Howard is incredible.

- Orlando is 17th in offensive efficiency, and 11th in defensive efficiency despite having pretty much exclusively shit defensive players. Again, Dwight Howard is really good. He's also the reason Orlando is an elite defensive rebounding team, yet they're an ugghh offensive rebounding team. Remember though, long shots often lead to long rebounds. That benefits the likes of Landry Fields and Iman Shumpert, who are athletic enough to grab those long arcing rebounds in the midrange area over the likes of Hedo Turkoglu and an aging Richardson.

- Orlando plays slower than molasses, slower than a chubby boy wearing glasses, slower than a car that's empty where the gas is, they rank 27th in pace. That last corny rhyming car comparison wouldn't have been necessary if they were 25th or 26th, but 27th?! If you add their rank (27) to the Knicks' rank (30) it totals the number of teams in the NBA! Tell 'em what they won!

- They won what should be an entertaining struggle to see which team can have its way with the game's tempo. The Knicks are home, so everybody who's all's going should get loud.

- The Magic turn the ball over a lot, almost as much as the Knicks. Since Baron Davis figures to play a decent amount in this game, a dream scenario would be Davis reliving his past kleptomaniacal ways with Shumpert as his sidekick. That would capitalize on the Magic's penchant for coughing it up, spark the transition game and throw the Magic off their molasses game. This season has been a relatively stellar one on the road for the Magic, who boast the third best road record in the NBA.

Atlanta Hawks

- Seven overtime games so far this season? Okay guys, you need to work on making up your mind. Are hawks generally indecisive? I can't picture a contemplative hawk, so they don't exist. But shucks, Joe Johnson has been clutch as heck this year. He holds opposing shooting guards to a sub-ten PER, but courtesy of 82games.com:

Joejohnsonclutch_medium

He plays 86% of the Hawks' clutch minutes, is great offensively, great defensively, and I'm not 100% sure how to interpret that "W-L -- 84.6 Win%" guy over there on the right, but it reminds me of CC Sabathia at the all-star break, so I'm inclined to think it's great.

- Like Orlando, Atlanta is a team that cannot (well, shouldn't be able to) capitalize on the Knicks' frontcourt woes. With Al Horford out, Zaza the Peculiar, world renowned magician, represents the only really decent big player on the peach-birds. The next couple of guys in line for being "bigs" are Josh Smith and the most menacing of Freeway impersonators, Ivan Johnson. The Knicks should count their lucky stars they can match up against a wing-oriented team, and I'm excited to see who Shumpert matches up against. Things might get wacky with defensive assignments.

- Mike Woodson coached a lot of these guys for years! I wonder if he knows their tendencies, or if they know his tendencies, and how that could play into the game. Maybe not at all, but hopefully heavily in favor of the Knicks. Theoretically, aside from their current coaches and themselves, does anyone in the world know more about the weaknesses of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and some of the other lingerers than Mike Woodson? Who knows how, or even if, this will manifest itself in this game, but obviously Woodson's return to Atlanta will be a topic of discussion.

- Jeff Teague is having himself a pretty good year, and we'll see if he can bring the energy and hop around Baron Davis like a goddamn pikachu, or if Baron Davis will be able to savvy around. I hope Lin is healthy for this tilt, because I think that match-up against Teague would be fun to watch.

- The Hawks have a far superior record to the Knicks (nice, round numbers: 30-20 to 25-25), but I mentioned before that they have already played in seven overtime games, which encapsulates their problem of constantly playing close games. While their record is superior to the Knicks, the Hawks' margin of victory is actually lower than New York's (2.1 compared to 2.3).

- Outkast is from Atlanta.

- While the Magic are good on the road, Atlanta has a superior home record to both Orlando and Boston, even though Atlanta's attendance is generally awful.

Cleveland Cavaliers

- Kyrie Irving is the absolute truth. His rookie numbers are quite possibly better than Joe Johnson's numbers this year. He gets better as the game goes on, he makes everyone around him better, his team's record is probably better than it should be, particularly considering injury circumstances. It's tough to oversell Kyrie Irving.

- Antawn Jamison averages 18 points per game on 17 shots per game. Blech!

- Tristan Thompson is the Cavs' other prized rookie. He is really athletic, but he's still figuring it out on the offensive end. His impact on the defensive end, however, is something. He plays the bulk of his minutes at power forward, and he holds opposing power forwards to a 12.7 PER. You can't bank on Thompson dominating a game, but you can be fairly sure his man won't either. If Anderson V. were healthy, there would be more than a few problems in the paint.

- Alonzo Gee gets quite a few minutes at small forward for the Cavs, and he's fun to watch. He's athletic, and he's a good defender. I like to see him dunk when it's not against the Knicks, so I expect Alonzo Gee to have no fewer than four dunks in this game.

- I'm not sure Daniel Gibson will be participating in this particular game, which is a real shame for him. He shoots about 45% from three point range against the Knicks historically, and I can specifically recall him hitting some big ones against the oraneg & bleu. I hope, for his health, he decides to rest up against the Knicks.

- This game is the second night of a traveling back-to-back (Atlanta back up to New York for a game like 18 hours later). The Cavs have lost their last three in a row, currently, and they'll also be on the second night of a traveling back-to-back to make things more even. The Cavaliers rank almost dead even with the Knicks in offensive efficiency, which speaks to Kyrie Irving's brilliance and the Knicks' struggles. Defensive efficiency is where things get a little diffrnt. The Knicks rank nearly 20 spots higher on points per 100 possessions than Cleveland. Depending on several factors, including Lin's health and whatnot, the Knicks could have a big defensive showing at home against Cleveland. Irving will have to chase around Monta Ellis or Brandon Jennings in Milwaukee the night before this one, and if he's anywhere near a rookie wall, shit could get exacerbated for him.

- Cleveland pushes the pace, 94.5 possessions per game, tied for ninth quickest. Want context? They're tied with Phoenix.

- Another team who can't really capitalize on the Knicks' frontcourt shallows, Cleveland doesn't have much in terms of scoring big men. Jamison is a volume scorer with bad efficiency, Thompson isn't going to shake you out of your sneakers yet, and that's about it.

Overall, it's great that the Knicks' next three opponents will not have the opportunity to take advantage of New York's biggest flaw right now. If they were playing the Pacers, the Sixers, or any other number of teams, things could be a lot worse. Hopefully, Tyson Chandler's intensity and Carmelo Anthony's new-found grit can permeate the rest of the team and light that fighter's mentality.

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