Pity Steve Clifford and the Charlotte Hornets (7-18). The new old coach has faced many obstacles this season, from the basketball court (injuries to LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Cody Martin, and now Dennis Smith, Jr.) to the people’s court (Miles Bridges, Montrezl Harrell, and James Bouknight). The Hornets are 1-and-4 over their last five games, field the league’s worst-rated offense, and are frontrunners in the pursuit of that basketball-playing giraffe, Victor Wembanyama.
On the other hand, this week the oft-maligned New York Knicks (12-13) have looked…alright, you got me. For the first quarter of the season, the Knicks were a perfectly mediocre team, trending downward. Most of us clamored for trades and the coach’s head. Yet, since Tom Thibodeau reduced to a nine-man rotation and replaced his beloved Derrick Rose with Deuce McBride on the second unit, the Knicks have (I give! I give!) improved.
This week, New York held the offensively-potent Cavaliers to 81 points and the Hawks to 89, and they won both games. McBride may not deliver many points, but he is a demonic defender who, when paired with Quentin Grimes and Immanuel Quickley, provides New York with a triumphant defensive trifecta that covers for a multitude of sins.
Tonight the Knicks travel to Charlotte to try to extend their win streak. As someone who fell in love with the Knicks at the dawn of the nineties, low-scoring games are my catnip. The Hornets average 109.6 points per game, and you can bet against them reaching that tonight, friends. Tip-off’s at 7:00 p.m.
Terry Rozier has played lead guard for the Hornets this season, sharing those duties with Dennis Smith, Jr. The latter is out with an injury, so Terry will play even more than his average of 37.5 minutes tonight. This year, he is netting 21.7 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 40% from the field and 31% from deep on 8.2 attempts. He’ll square off against Jalen Brunson, whose last game was possibly his worst of the season. Jalen will be looking to get back on track and should meet little resistance tonight.
Kelly Oubre Jr. started Charlotte’s last game at shooting guard and will likely do so again. He scored 28 points against the Nets on Wednesday, and he’s the team leader in points with 20.4 per game and steals (1.7). When he’s interested, Oubre can be a tough assignment, but Quentin Grimes is no slouch and, in fact, the superior player. Advantage: Grimes.
Small forward Jalen McDaniels is logging 10.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game for Charlotte this season. In nine games against RJ Barrett, the Hornet has averaged seven points and four rebounds, while the Canadian logged 16.2 points and 5.3 boards. Barrett has played poorly for most of the season, and McDaniels is a solid defender with a 112 defensive rating. This might not be the “RJ is Back!” game for which many of us are waiting. He can try again against the Kings this weekend.
An important side story is that Obi Toppin will miss two-to-three weeks with a fibula fracture. Cam Reddish had been squeezed out of Thibodeau’s recently reduced roster but will likely be re-inserted with Obi out. How will Cam respond to the opportunity? Will Thibs play RJ at power forward when Barrett shares the floor with the second unit? Wait and see, inquiring minds.
Box-score readers scratch their heads about the Julius Randle slander from the fan base. He has averaged 26 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in his last five games, and 13 boards over the past two. Those are great numbers. No, our complaints usually concern his defensive lapses and occasional sour energy. In recent games, he’s been more focused and, when aligned with good defenders, his D-related issues are less glaring. He hasn’t smiled this much since his All-Star season and a happy, committed Randle is fun to watch. Look for those good vibes to continue tonight when he faces P.J. Washington.
Aside from a blip against Dallas, Mitchell Robinson has been a machine over the last five games, collecting means of 12 rebounds and 7.2 points. Over that stretch, he has played 28.6 minutes per outing, which is an uptick from his 23.5 for the season. Maybe More Mitch = More Rebounds = More Wins? The big Cajun has averaged 11 points, 7.7 rebounds, and two blocks in seven games versus Mason Plumlee. We should be treated to another robust Robinson performance this evening against the big Plum.
The New York Knicks have a 63-56 record versus the Hornets all-time. Make it 64. The Knicks have played terrific defense over the last couple of contests, and the Hornets are held together by ace bandages and adhesive. Normally, I would caution against trap games, but the recent play has inspired optimism. I trust this line-up to give total effort, no matter the opponent. Prediction: Knicks win by 15, and I drift off to sleep, deliriously murmuring, “ECF...ECF...ECF.”
Spectrum Center. Charlotte, NC. Friday. 7:00 p.m. ET. Let’s go Bickerknockers!