This game will be a fantastic gauge of where the Knicks are at right now.
We all know what Portland brings. They've got one of the best (offensive) backcourt duos in the league in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, they play fast, and they shoot a lot of 3's. They've also got one of the worst frontcourt groups in the league, due in part to the fact that offseason acquisition Festus Ezeli hasn't seen the floor thanks to a myriad of injuries.
Lillard and McCollum will not hesitate to pull up from 26 feet if given the space; if they're allowed to get into a rhythm with those looks, it's going to mean big time trouble. They can hit shots from everywhere, and containing them both is close to impossible. The shooting they bring to the table places massive amounts of stress on a defense; for a team currently ranked 26th in defensive rating, it's a very tough assignment.
The good news: arguably their third most important player, Al-Farouq Aminu, will miss this game. Hopefully he can use this additional free time to find himself a good barber, because this dude looks like he just spent three days in a Native American sweat lodge tripping on peyote.
Aminu is the key to the Blazers scheme on both ends, though. He's a bit undersized for the power forward spot, but in the age of small ball, he's turned into a switchable, long, rangy defender who can guard guys 2 through 4. He's a great rebounder, and he can really stretch a defense when his three ball is falling, which has become more and more common over the years. In the seven games he's missed, Portland has given up an average of 114 points per game, including 109 to the Nets on Sunday. They've gone 3-4 over that span.
Portland has instead been starting Meyers "Hair" Leonard at power forward. He's a gargantuan human with a massive advantage in height and weight who plays like Steve Novak. Seriously. His post game, defense, and rebounding are atrocious, and it's even worse at the 4, where Porzingis should eat him for lunch all night. But when the dude is taking set shots from range, he's money, and it'll be important to keep him from getting those looks. Leonard has no off-the-dribble game to speak of, though, so this should be a pretty sizeable advantage for KP.
Leonard's backcourt mate, the Portland Plumlee, is a great passer for his size, but a lot of his assists come out of "short roll" scenarios — teams trap Lillard/McCollum in the pick and roll, and they dump it off to Plumlee. He then reads the defense and makes the correct pass (you see this a lot with Draymond Green in Golden State). Mason can make those reads easily, but he's a low-key terrible finisher for a big man (this was apparent in last years playoffs, as he shot just 52% from 0-3 feet once teams built game plans for the Blazers). If the Knicks pay attention to the scouting report, they'll overplay the pass as he rolls to the rim, as he almost never tries to finish. The Clippers were able to generate some easy turnovers with this strategy earlier in the season. If it works, this can allow the Knicks to boost their defense on Lillard and McCollum by trapping a little more liberally; taking Plumlee out of his comfort zone might make him more uncomfortable than usual rolling to the rim off the dribble.
Maurice Harkless is just meh. He can kinda score, but it's whatever; he doesn't really do much on his own. They've got Evan Turner coming off the bench now, and he's been one of the worst acquisitions of the offseason through 15 games. I expect him to destroy us, because he usually does. Alan Crabbe, who stole OBJ's hair, is a fantastic shooter off the bench who can light it up quickly. They've got a couple of frisky, physical bigs as well in Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh, but their style of play shouldn't be a problem for O'Quinn and Hernangomez.
The key to beating Portland, on defense, is slowing the game down and forcing them to execute a halfcourt offense. The Knicks should throw different pick and roll coverages at Lillard and McCollum all game to keep them out of rhythm, and they should also play them extremely physically off-ball. Get in their body, deny the ball, get between them and their screen. Running them off the 3 point line will be key -- they'll get up shots, but keeping them out of rhythm and avoiding catch-and-shoot situations will be good enough to secure a W. Those guys will hit pull up mid-range looks when they’re forced off the line, but 2 is better than 3 against an explosive offense like Portland. It will also be important to get the ball away from McCollum and Lillard. They're the entire offense. Get the ball out of their hands, and good things tend to happen.
There is no key for the Knicks on offense because Portland is a terrible defensive team. They're last in defensive rating, 27th in turnovers forced per game, and boast exactly one average defensive player in their starting lineup (Harkless). As Harkless will likely be guarding Melo (who has regularly shredded players much better than him), the entire Knicks roster has A+ matchups across the board. Putting Lillard and McCollum in pick and roll situations will help induce dead legs, so I hope to see a lot of that early in the game.
Finally, this is a matchup where Hornacek can get away with playing KP at center for big minutes. There's no imposing interior presence in Portland, and playing him at the 5 will force Meyers Leonard off the floor, as Leonard has absolutely no hope of guarding Melo. There's a bunch of different things Terry Stotts could do in an attempted counter, but none are particularly threatening -- most of his options will result in Portland becoming even more of a glass cannon than they already are, and I think the Knicks small-ball unit can defend better than Portland's can.
As this game is at MSG, the Knicks might come out with defensive energy again, which will be the deciding factor as usual. Make the opposing guards uncomfortable, and this is a very winnable game. Let them get in rhythm, and it will be a struggle.
Prediction: KP nabs another double double along with 3 blocks, as he spends 8+ minutes at center. Melo dishes 5+ assists, and Big Willy Style crushes it off the bench once again with at least 5 field goals made.
Knicks win in a shootout, 112-107.