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Knicks vs. Thunder: Things to watch when New York visits Oklahoma City

Can the Knicks capitalize on size and fatigue?

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New York Knicks v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images

The New York Knicks, currently sitting sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 17-12 record, are set to face the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight at the Paycom Center. The Fighting Tornadoes (19-9) currently rank third in the Western Conference.

Despite having the NBA’s most difficult schedule in December, and losing Mitchell Robinson to ankle surgery, New York has persevered. For the month they:

  • rank fourth for field goal percentage, 50.1%
  • posted a top-five offensive rating, 122.3
  • hit a True Shooting mark of 60.6%
  • were twelfth in pace, a drastic improvement from being the league’s worst in November
  • shot 38.2% from deep, up from 37.4% last month

Defense had been New York’s strength for the early part of the season, but continues to be a sore subject in December. The Knicks ranked in the top-six over fourteen November games but have fallen to second-worst this month. However, they showed signs of life in recent wins against the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks, and seem to be learning how to survive without Mitch in the middle.

Verdict: sky not falling.

As for the league’s second-youngest team, the Thunder? They rate sixth for both offense and defense, play fast, steal the ball a lot, block shots a lot, and shoot the three-ball better than anyone not in a Heat uniform.

Recently The Athletic had moved the Oklahoma City Thunder up to the “Contender” tier. (They put New York on the third deck, called “Playoff Teams.” Ah, thy sting.)

Here are a few notes to whet your appetite.

BACKCOURT: SGA vs. Brunson Burner

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is putting on a show with an impressive 31.0 points, 5.7 boards, and 6.4 assists per game. Defensively, he’s a force to be reckoned with, leading the league in steals (2.8) and adding 0.8 blocks.

Brunson is having a career-year, too, logging nine games with 30 or more points. This season, New York’s point guard is averaging 26.1 PPG and regularly proves himself to be worthy of your All-Star votes.

Shai averaged 27.7 points, 5.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds in his last six meetings with Jalen, while Brunson averaged 20 points, 5.7 assists, and 4.2 rebounds. Same numbers for boards and dimes—weird.

Including Jalen’s days on the bench in Dallas, he has a 7-5 winning record over SGA. Look for another sterling performance from Brunson in this one. In their last meeting—a 10-point Knicks win—Jalen scored 34, and nine assists; SGA scored 30 points (all on field goals and free throws) and added five rebounds and seven assists. Man, I’m giddy just thinking about tonight’s matchup.

Speaking of—this season, Josh Giddey is posting career-lows for points (11.7), boards (5.9), and assists (4.4) per contest, and shooting 43.9% from the field. He has struggled to finish inside the paint and his playing time has decreased, but Coach Daigneault has defended him, saying, “His efficiency is down [...] But he’s still a better player than he was a year ago and it’s important—for us, for you guys, for everybody—to understand that development is not linear.”

History favors Giddey against Donte DiVincenzo: the Aussie has averaged 17 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds in four games versus DiVo, while the Knickerbocker has scored 11.3 points, 5.5 assists, five rebounds, and no minors. (I kid, I kid.)

FRONTCOURT: Bigs vs Twigs

Chet Holmgren (7’1”, 195 lbs) is showing why he was drafted second in 2022. The 21-year-old is averaging 17.3 points, 7.9 boards, and almost three blocks per game. Shooting-wise, he’s boasting a solid 53% from the floor and 37.6% from beyond the arc, knocking down 1.6 three-pointers per contest. He has a 7-foot-6-inch wingspan, which means that he could wrap you in a loving embrace twice over.

Isaiah Hartenstein is only one inch shorter, has a seven-foot-two wingspan, and weighs 55 pounds more than the asterisked-rookie (Chet missed last season with an injury). If Isaiah can stay out of foul-trouble, he should be able to leverage his weight to an advantage.

Power forward Jalen Williams (6’5”, 211 lbs) has had a promising start to his career with OKC. He was drafted 12th in 2022 and was named to the All-Rookie First Team after averaging 15 points per game. This season, he has averaged 17.6 points, four boards, and 3.8 assists. His shot is respectable, too: 50.9% from the floor and 38.2% from downtown, with 1.2 made three-pointers per game.

The Knicks have the weight advantage here, too, with the 6’8” Julius Randle weighing in at 250 pounds. In two previous matchups, Randle averaged 25 points and 10.5 rebounds, whereas Williams averaged 10.5 points and two rebounds. Expect similar results this evening.

Luguentz Dort (6’3”, 215 lbs) could be a problem tonight. Loogie to his friends [Editor’s note: unconfirmed], Dort has averaged 13.2 points and 5.2 rebounds in six games versus RJ Barrett and 24 in each of the last two. In their six match-ups, RJ (6’6’’, 214 lbs) averaged 20.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists.

Barrett needs establish himself early, as he did against Milwaukee on Christmas.

FATIGUE: Second game of a back-to-back for OKC

The Thunder flogged the Minnesota Timberwolves last night, 129-106, which can wear a body out, even youngsters such as these. How will OKC fare in the second game of a back-to-back? It’s hard to tell, because they have only played two B2Bs all season. Meanwhile, the Knicks have played a hundred, all against the Bucks—or at least that was Commissioner Silver’s original plan. For the record, New York has played five B2Bs, with seven of the ten games on the road. (They’ll play their sixth B2B this Friday / Saturday. Sheesh.)

Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks are enjoying the afterglow of a mighty Christmas Day win over the Bucks, but then had to travel to Tornado Town. New York had just concluded a five-game road trip and are now taking to the skies again . . . at the tail end of a grueling month, it would be fair for our guys to feel wrung out.

COACHING: Dags vs. Thibs

OKC coach Mark Daigneault finished second in Coach of the Year voting last season, a title twice-bestowed on Thibodeau. Winning the Dags versus Thibs showdown might be a point of pride and draw surprising craftiness out of New York’s skipper—although I’ll give you ten bucks if he ever admitted it. So far, Thibs has bested his rival five out of seven times, but this is the most talented roster Daigneault has ever had at his disposal. I’ll be keenly attuned to coaching decisions throughout this tilt, especially if the score is close down the stretch.

To defeat a top Western Conference team would give further proof that New York is not to be trifled with. Prediction: Randle scores 40, and in a Shai versus Jalen showdown, Brunson takes the dub. Knicks win in overtime. Make it so!

Go Knicks.