After a really nice four game win streak against bad teams (which isn't a bad thing -- good teams beat bad ones), this game spells trouble.
The Cavs are insanely good under normal circumstances, and they're a tough matchup for the Knicks to boot, but this game could be special for LeBron, which is a huge problem.
Why is that? Well, this is the first matchup between these two teams after the Phil-LeBron "posse" incident. Whatever you think of the implications of the word, it seems pretty clear that Phil was taking a shot at LeBron. Whether that offhand comment was right or wrong is irrelevant — the fact is, LeBron is sensitive when it comes to personal shots. That means he's probably pissed, and that means he's probably going to try really hard tonight. Which, of course, is bad; LeBron, despite averaging 24/9/7, has been coasting at about 75% of his maximum capacity for most of the season. 75% LeBron is still an MVP caliber player, but 100% LeBron is what we saw in last year's Finals. The Knicks cannot handle 100% LeBron. Nobody in the East can handle 100% LeBron. The winningest team of all time couldn't handle 100% LeBron. So...this could be rough.
The good news is that the Cavs have really struggled in their past four or so games. They lost to the Bucks, Clippers, and Bulls while averaging only 100 points per game; Monday, they barely escaped Toronto with a win. Two of those four games were blowouts. They've looked surprisingly out-of-sync on both ends of the floor during this stretch. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much that really matters, because this Cavs team is straight up chillin’ in the regular season. On the other hand, the Cavs are a pretty shallow team in current form, and they just lost cult figure/plumber/one-man meme team/enigma/ex-Knick J.R. Smith to a knee injury. The Pipe™ has had a rough start to the season as a contract holdout caused him to miss a large portion of training camp, but you just KNOW he would have gone off for 30 points and 8 threes if he had played tonight. With Smith out, one DeAndre Liggins will be starting in his place. I don't know who that is.
That means Cleveland's depth is gonna be put to the test. They just got back Channing Frye, who is an absolutely lethal 3 point shooter, after both of his parents passed away within a one month span (truly sad stuff). They've got washed-up Mike Dunleavy (note: unlike Goran Dragic, who definitely decided to drop a season high in scoring after I called him "low-key washed" and "nearing the end" in yesterday's preview, Dunleavy is basically just a spot up shooter at this point. Hopefully, this is not another jinx). Scorned ex-Knick Iman Shumpert is still there, and he may have actually developed some skills in the offseason for the first time in his life! His handle is still alarmingly similar to my own (read: terrible), but he's shooting 42% from 3 so far this year (????) after shooting below 35% in every season after 2012-13. Richard Jefferson, James Jones, and Chris Andersen are the current iteration of the three veterans that lead LeBron's
posse cadre of ring chasers; Jones and Andersen are mostly useless, but Jefferson can still hit some 3's and throw down at the rim if necessary. They round it out with Jordan McRae and Kay Felder, who are both young guys who have played under 100 meaningful regular season minutes. They can both score in bunches, as your typical spark plug off the bench, but everything else they bring to the table is lacking.
The key bench player is Frye, though, so the lack of overall depth won't be as big of a problem as you'd think; they've been using him the same way for almost a year now, and nobody can stop it. They post up LeBron at the elbow (almost always a Horns set, for those who care), and run off-ball screening action designed to force help at the rim. If no help comes, LeBron throws a dime for a dunk. If help does come, it's coming off Frye/Love/Jefferson/Irving, meaning a bunch of knockdown shooters get a bunch of easy catch-and-shoot 3's. The Cavs set a record for made 3's in the Eastern Conference Finals last year running variations of this set over and over and over again. It's unstoppable unless you switch, and if you switch, Kyrie Irving gets the rock to attack a mismatch. Also unstoppable. Lineups with Frye at center scored an inconceivable 1.4 points per possession against the Knicks in the season opener.
On top of that, they still have two of the thirty best players in the league to pair with LeBron, so it might not matter what the rest of their depth looks like. Kyrie Irving has always killed the Knicks, even when the Cavs were terrible, and he continues to get better. He's only leading the league in isolation efficiency with a preposterous 1.33 points per possession -- no big deal. But that's typical. What's new this year is Kevin Love, who looks like old Minnesota Kevin again. He's scoring 21 per game while shooting 43% from downtown. Yikes. KP is gonna have his work cut out for him on defense.
There's always a chance — this is the NBA, after all — but I'm struggling to construct a scenario where the Knicks can pull this one off. It's at MSG, so that's good, but Derrick Rose probably won't (and shouldn't) play, which will be a problem. Regardless of where you stand on Rose as a player this season, he's been a better fundamental defender than Jennings for most of the season; that's kinda a big deal when you've got Kyrie freakin' Irving coming to town. Rose's scoring has also played a big role when Melo and KP aren't hitting shots; Jennings can score in bunches as well, and obviously has a better jumper than Rose, but he's extremely inconsistent in both his decision making and scoring on a play-by-play basis. Basically, Jennings is Charlie Kelly (WILD CARD), while Rose is a relative constant (especially of late). When you factor in KP's shooting woes, 3 games in 4 nights, a back-to-back after flying to New York from Miami...it's really hard to see how the Knicks can pull this off.
If LeBron DIDN'T have a personal reason to absolutely dismantle this entire team while staring down Phil Jackson, I could see the bench being the difference maker in this game. But locked-in LeBron is big time trouble. A 40 point triple-double is non-sarcastically on the table tonight.
Here's my advice, in the worlds of Lil' Wayne (related: if you've never seen the music video for John, please go watch, because Rick Ross has a pimped-out wheelchair with spinners): "prepare for the worst but still praying for the best". This is probably gonna be bad. But, hey...you never know.
Prediction: Knicks lose, 122-103