December 9th, 2022. That was the last time the Knicks and the Hornets faced off. It was a pretty one-sided affair that saw the Knicks go in to Charlotte and win 121-102. Since then, a lot has changed for these two teams. Charlotte traded away Mason Plumlee, who was having a very nice season for them, lost LaMelo Ball a season-ending ankle injury, and have managed to go just 13-26 in during that span. Meanwhile, the Knicks, who were just 13-13 at the time, have acquired Josh Hart, and have continued to utilize their shortened rotation to propel themselves to a very good 26-14 record in that span. As you can see, these two teams have simply been going in completely opposite directions since their last meeting. Tonight, for the third and final time this season, the Knicks will face off against the Hornets in an attempt to push their current winning streak to 10 games while the Hornets look to play spoiler.
With Jalen Brunson listed as questionable for tonight’s game, the Knicks, who should look to rest Brunson before the big road trip, will turn to Immanuel Quickley once again. Quickley, who is coming off of a huge performance against the Celtics on Sunday night, is currently averaging 19.4PPG, 5.1RPG, and 4.9APG in his 11 starts this season. Playing against a Hornets team that ranks just 21st in defensive rating, the third year point guard is a key candidate to have another big game.
Matching up against Quickley will Terry Rozier. The 28-year old guard is averaging a career-high 21.3PPG but is doing so with his lowest field goal percentage (41.2%) since his 18-19 season, which was his final season in Boston. Since Ball’s injury, Rozier has been aggressive and has had the ball in his hands often, but it’s lead to some very inefficient results. In the those three games, Rozier is averaging 19.3PPG on 37.3% from the field with a 5 to 4.3 assist to turnover ratio. With how good the Knicks defense has been as of late, Rozier, who will likely be hounded by Quickley all night long, could struggle once again.
Starting alongside Quickley again, will be Quentin Grimes. The sophomore shooting guard has had some good shooting nights and not so good shooting nights recently but he remains a vital part of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s plans. That being said, the 3 and D specialist has seen his minutes slowly but gradually reduced as Josh Hart continues to win over the closing minutes. Charlotte does rank in the lower half (18th) in the league in opponent 3-point percentages so maybe Grimes can use tonight’s game to get hot from downtown prior to the very important stretch of games coming up.
Joining Rozier in the Hornets’ backcourt will be Kelly Oubre Jr.. Much like Rozier, Oubre is quietly averaging the most points in his career, but to do so, he has sacrificed some of his efficiency to do so. The former Kansan Jayhawk is averaging 20PPG but is shooting just 42.3% from the field and has been an abysmal 31% 3-point shooter, despite shooting a ridiculous 7.2 threes a game. Oubre does fit the mold of the type of player that used to randomly give the Knicks fits so hopefully New York has learned from what Walt Clyde Frazier would describe as their previous transgressions.
Lost in the celebration of Quickley’s amazing performance, and rightfully so, was the superb play of RJ Barrett, who will start the game at small forward. While the aforementioned Quickley took over the game late, it was Barrett that got things started off by scoring 14 of his 29 points in the crucial first quarter. The fourth year forward, who is currently averaging 19.6PPG and 5.2RPG on 43.1% from the field, continues to be plagued by inconsistency but a strong game tonight to make it two in a row could do wonders for his rhythm going forward.
Despite the fact that Gordon Hayward, who’ll be the Hornets starting small forward, hasn’t, doesn’t, and likely never will resemble the player that was in Utah, he’s been a solid player over the last few years when healthy. Plagued by injuries again, Hayward has only played in 40 games this season, but he’s still averaging 14.6PPG, 4.3RPG, and 3.8APG on 47.1% from the field. If the Hornets want any shot of surprising people and stealing a win from the Knicks, Hayward may need to rewind the clock and put on a vintage performance.
The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Julius Randle, who has yet to miss a game this season, will continue to start at power forward. The Knicks’ All-Star forward is currently averaging an absurd 25.4PPG, 10.4RPG, and 4.2APG while shooting 46.8% from the field and 35.5% from 3. Needless to say, look for Randle to continue being great.
Facing off against Randle will be P.J. Washington, who is currently in the midst of a career-year. The fourth-year forward is averaging a career-high 15.2PPG while shooting 44.1% from the field, making two 3’s a game and averaging over a block a game. He is prone to having some very inefficient shooting nights but is also capable of having himself 20+ point games so the Knicks will have to make sure that they push him towards the former.
Manning the middle once again will be Mitchell Robinson, who is coming off another monster game against the Boston Celtics. Shedding any doubts of his conditioning, Robinson played a career-high 44 minutes and scored 13 points and grabbed 14 rebounds while doing so. The big man is showing once again just how important he is to the Knicks’ success and it should be no different again tonight.
Getting just the 11th start of his young career will be rookie center, Mark Williams. The former Duke Blue Devil has been solid this season, averaging 8.4PPG and 6.6RPG in just 17.6MPG and an even more impressive 11.9PPG, 10RPG, and 1.4BPG in his ten games as a starter. Tonight may be a good test for the young center as he’ll be matched up against a very physical Knicks front court of Randle and Robinson (sounds like a law firm).
This game may be one of those non-test tests. A trick question if you will. The Knicks, who will be heavily favored in this one, will be playing at home and the expectations are that they not only beat the Hornets, but do so rather easily, or at least convincingly. But these are the exact types of games that the Knicks found ways to lose over the last few years. Thankfully, these Knicks aren’t like those Knicks, or at least that’s what we believe. If the Knicks are as good and as serious as they’ve been as of late, they should be able to beat the Hornets comfortably, hopefully comfortably enough that even Thibs pulls the starters away kind of early. Doing so, especially without the need of Brunson, would set the Knicks up nicely for the incredibly tough stretch of games that they have coming up. So while the Hornets themselves don’t seem like much of a test in a vacuum, tonight’s game could be surprisingly tell us a lot about who these Knicks are.
And as a believer in this Knicks team, I have them taking Hornets seriously, using their stifling and suffocating defense to limit Rozier and Oubre and taking advantage of a Hornets team that gives up the fifth most points in the NBA, to get out to a big lead. Expect Quickley to come up big once again with one of, but not both of, Barrett and Randle having a great game as well. Knicks take this one 120-105 to make it 10 straight wins.