Game Time: 7:30 PM
Opponent: Houston Rockets
There's no way to sugarcoat it: This is a terrible matchup for the Knicks.
The Rockets are currently "only" 7th in offensive rating, but most expect that number to steadily climb. James Harden is a legitimate MVP candidate this year. They already torched the Knicks in preseason (although the Knicks supposedly didn't game plan). Daryl Morey has surrounded Harden with one poor man's DeAndre Jordan and three knockdown shooters, and it is really hard to defend them. They've also brought in ex-Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, so you know they're gonna be running hard in transition and bombing 3's early in possessions.
Their entire offense is almost literally run by James “I’m a point guard now” Harden. He's averaging 32/12/7 while taking 20 shots per game and hitting them at a 49% clip.
Houston is gonna run a lot of high pick and roll, especially in semi-transition. If Harden's defender gets stuck on a ball screen for half a second, Harden will have space, and he will use that space to break down the entire defensive alignment. When he gets a step, the best defensive strategy is actually playing dead, including the coaches and assistants. Ideally, the Rockets are surprised by this nonsensical defensive strategy, leaving the Knicks time to recover to their man. That’s crazy, you say, but consider the alternative: continuing to defend even though the possession is already lost, like a personalized basketball adaptation of 300 (Joakim Noah can be King Leonidas). Given space, Harden will look back at Courtney Lee, scream "WITCH" at the top of his lungs, and burn him at the stake with an array of crossovers, pull-ups, and cheeky moves designed to draw fouls. Harden plays with poise, and when you can literally score from anywhere, poise is a destructive weapon. He's the T-1000 of pick and roll ball handlers. He'll toss ally oops to human pogo stick Clint Capela, and when you counter by sending help from the perimeter to stop the open roll man, he'll hit his shooters with pinpoint passes. The Rockets also run plays designed to give Harden a step on his defender BEFORE he gets the ball, as if it wasn't difficult enough already.
Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, and Justin Holiday will take turns trying to stay with Harden, but they'll probably get clowned. When it comes to Harden, you really just pray he's missing shots and doesn't get in rhythm.
With all that in mind, the biggest matchup here is actually KP and Ryan Anderson. Anderson is the key to the Rockets’ game plan on offense while simultaneously being their biggest weakness on defense. I bet D'Antoni has been sleeping with a picture of this dude under his pillow since 2010. Anderson is an elite shooter at the power forward spot, and he's also able to post up against smaller guys. He spaces the floor, giving the Harden-Capella pick and roll tons of room to operate. You can't help off him, which is trouble for KP, who has had issues with his defensive fundamentals on the perimeter.
But on defense ... on defense, calling Anderson a turnstile would unfairly characterize the turnstile, which can at least theoretically keep wandering drunks out of certain areas. KP can and will exploit Anderson, but he'll really need to go super saiyan for the Knicks to get a shot at this win. The Rockets are a pretty bad defensive team as a whole; the Knicks will have to keep their heads on straight when the Rockets inevitably catch fire for a couple minutes. Every Knick player has a matchup advantage on the offensive end, so they'll likely put up some numbers in their own right.
To get the win, the Knicks will need to limit Houston's role players. Harden is going to go off — there's really nothing you can do about it — but over-helping on the perimeter can cause the game to spiral out control all too easily. Harden may get 50, but he'll need his teammates to contribute 50 more to get Houston to 100.
That brings us to our X-factor: the bench. The Rockets have been atrocious when Harden is off the floor, which makes sense, since he's literally their entire offense. The Knicks are not in a great position to take advantage, though, as their own bench has generally been a flaming wasteland, especially on defense.
The good news is that Houston is ALSO coming off a back-to-back against Cleveland, and they'll be coming to MSG, where the Knicks have fed of the energy off the crowd to great effect so far. Here’s a nice, tidy formula for a Knicks win: come out punching, and keep Houston out of rhythm in the first half. Withstand the inevitable run in the 3rd quarter and maintain a disciplined, intelligent defense (I’m rolling my eyes right now) throughout the game. Tempt Harden into isolation play, and keep him under 8 free throw attempts.
So...yeah. Like I said...bad matchup.
Prediction: Porzingis leads the way with 26, Brandon Jennings does NOT hit a pull up 3 (he's now 2 for 1,488 on the season), Rose finally gets 6+ assists, and Lance Thomas makes TWO shots instead of one.
Knicks lose, 108-122.