After Tuesday night’s embarrassing, frustrating, disappointing, and heartbreaking loss to Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, the Knicks and their fans found themselves in a state of bleakness and defeat that has become too familiar for the franchise and fanbase. While tonight’s matchup is against a struggling and very beatable 11-23 Spurs team, this is looking like a crucial game for a Knicks team that desperately needs to stop it’s losing streak and do so with out some of their best players. The Spurs are listing Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott, and Devin Vassell as day-to-day but the Knicks are also going to be missing Obi Toppin and RJ Barrett, while Jalen Brunson has been listed as day-to-day.
Obviously if Jalen Brunson can go, he will. He’s a tough-nosed competitor who has fought through and played with injuries for much of the last few weeks. I’d be a lot more confident in ruling him out had the Knicks not had their epic collapse in Dallas, but I could very easily see a world where Brunson, wanting to be there for his team and feeling some desperation (especially with Barrett out), gets back out there tonight. But if the Knicks do end up resting Brunson, then it should be Immanuel Quickley getting the start once again. Quickley, in his second start of the season, had a very interesting game on Tuesday. He set a career high in assists with 15, but also went 5-21 from the field and 1-10 from 3 and he also foolishly fouled Luka Doncic on a putback with 15 seconds left. The third year guard is averaging a career-low 10.6PPG but has upped his FG% to 40.3%, which would be the highest of his career and is playing exceptional defense.
Unlike the Knicks, the Spurs know who’ll start for them at point guard. Tre Jones (6’1”, 185 lb.), who has played and started in 33 of the team’s 34 games this season, is getting his first opportunity as a full-time starter and has done an admirable job of running an offense that has some nice pieces but lacks any real explosiveness and star power. In his third season, the former Duke Blue Devil is averaging 12.8PPG and 6.5APG while shooting 43.7% from the field. He’ll rarely be the sole reason your team loses to the Spurs but he tries extremely hard on defense and is a very capable floor general.
Filling in for the injured RJ Barrett should be Cam Reddish but we all pretty much know that at this point, he’s likely never going to step on the court again as a Knick. The same can be said about Evan Fournier, which leaves the Knicks with very little, if any, wing depth. That leaves the Knicks with two options. Derrick Rose, who could make a lot of sense here but has still seen very limited minutes. And Deuce McBride, who the Knicks have looked pretty good with. I’d expect Thibodeau to turn to the veteran guard for his first start of the season.
This is where it begins to get tricky for the Spurs. Devin Vassell (6’5”, 200 lb.) has been starting for the Spurs for much of the season. The third year wing has started in 23 of the 28 games he’s played and has had a breakout season because of it. He’s upped his scoring from 12.3PPG to 19.6PPG and is also averaging 4RPG and 3.6APG while shooting 44.7% from 3 and 40.3% from 3 on seven attempts per game. If the young standout can’t go tonight, the Spurs could turn to veteran guard Josh Richardson (6’5”, 200 lb.) for the spot start. Richardson is currently averaging 10.6PPG, 2.3RPG, 2.8APG and 23.1MPG.
Sliding down position-wise with Barrett out should be Quentin Grimes who, at 6ft 4, is slightly taller than the 6ft 3 Quickley and Rose. Had it not been for the historic choke job, Grimes would have been one of the major talking points of the Mavericks game. Grimes had the best game of his young career by dropping 33 points on 12-25 from the field and 7-16 from 3 while adding 6 rebounds and 4 assists. While Grimes started the season slow, he’s recently picked it up and has upped his 3-poing % to 37.7% and is now shooting an impressive 47.1% from the field. With Barrett out again and Brunson possibly missing the game as well, expect Grimes to continue being aggressive and build off of what was an extremely good game.
Much like Vassell, Keldon Johnson (6’5”, 220 lb.) would easily get the start if healthy as he’s started in all 30 of the games he has been available in. And also much like Vassell, he’s had a breakout season. The fourth year forward is averaging a career-high 20.9PPG despite shooting a career-low 41.5% from the field and 34.2% from 3 but like stated above, he’s questionable for tonight’s game. If Johnson can’t play tonight, the Spurs will most likely lean on Zach Collins (6’11”, 250 lb.) for the start as the former Portland Trail Blazer has already started in six games this season. Collins is currently having a solid season across the board with averages of 8.9PPG (career-high), 5.8RPG (second highest of his career), 2.6APG (career-high), and 1BPG (career-high) while shooting a blistering 54.1% from the field (career-high) and 35% from 3 (second highest of his career).
Julius Randle, who just continues to be an absolute force offensively will look to lead the Knicks back to their winning ways. Randle had 29 points and 18 rebounds in the loss to Dallas and is now averaging an absurd 27.9PPG, 12.2RPG, and 4APG over his last 11 games putting him at 23.3PPG, 9.6RPG, and 3.6APG on the season. Randle, despite some of his shortcomings, has quickly catapulted himself into All-Star considerations after a slow start, and I, even as a vocal Randle critic, have to give him his flowers. If Brunson is out again tonight, the Knicks will need Randle to keep up his amazing play and I fully expect him to come through.
Starting at the other forward position for the Spurs will be Jeremy Sochan (6’9”, 230 lb.). The rookie forward is currently averaging 8.5PPG, 4.7RPG, and 2.5APG on 45.8% from the field and while he is still raw, he has shown flashes of potential and can do a little bit of everything besides make 3’s (19% on 2.1 attempts per game).
Coming off of his best game of the season (one of the best of his career), Mitchell Robinson will man the middle as usual. Against the worst rebounding team in the league, Robinson feasted against the smaller and less physical Mavericks by going off for 20 points and 16 rebounds. With the Spurs being the 10th worst rebounding team in the league, expect Robinson to have another solid game.
Getting the start at center once again for the Spurs will be Jakob Poeltl (7’1”, 245 lb.). IT seems like he’s been in the league forever, but the veteran center is still just 27. And he’s having another solid year with averages of 12.2PPG, 8.9RPG, 1.1BPG, .9SPG with an extremely high 65.7% FG%. He, much to the delight of Thibodeau and Robinson, is a traditional big so the Knicks won’t have to worry too much about pick and pops and spacing big men in this one. Poeltl, like Jones, doesn’t wow you with his stats or highlight plays but plays some incredibly solid basketball.
The Knicks are coming off of one of the most gut-wrenching losses in franchise history. We were seconds away from celebrating a gusty short-handed win against a good Mavericks team where Randle scored his 10,000th point, Grimes set a career-high in points, Quickley set a career-high in assists, and Robinson dominated with a 20/16 game but instead were left with pain and dismay. Regardless, the Knicks, as well as their fans, must turn around and put that game behind them as they have two incredibly winnable yet important games coming up.
In the 100th meeting between these two teams, I fully expect the Knicks to win this one with or without Brunson but it may not be as easy as the records suggest it should be because Gregg Popovich always has solid game plans and gets his guys to compete. Look for Randle to be aggressive with Barrett still out and either Brunson (if he plays) or Grimes to be his running mate. And expect the Knicks to take advantage of the rebound battle, where the Spurs rank 20th as a team, and the turnover battle, where the Spurs rank 28th in TOV%. Knicks, led by Randle, win this one 115-100 and FINALLY stop what has been a draining losing streak.