While the nine-game winning streak seemed magical at times and was extremely fun to watch, the New York Knicks can’t dwell on their disappointing loss. They must get ready for what should be a tough and important four-game west coast road trip that starts tonight against a Sacramento Kings team that has had a very Knicks-like season. Sacramento, much like New York, has spent the better part of the last decade being a losing franchise that has often been synonymous with ineptitude, losing, and frustration; but also like New York, they’ve surprised everyone this season by catapulting themselves into playoff contention. Tonight’s game promises to be a fun and interesting matchup between two overachieving teams looking to continue their Cinderella run.
Returning for the Sacramento Kings will be starting point guard, De’Aaron Fox, who missed the Kings’ last game with a minor hamstring issue. Fox, who missed the Kings’ last game against the Knicks, is having a great year averaging 25.2PPG, 6.3APG, and 4.3RPG on a career-high 51.5% from the field, making the point guard matchup a must-watch one in tonight’s contest. With Fox averaging 25PPG over his last three meetings against the Knicks, expect him to have a big game.
Brunson will be joined by Quentin Grimes in the backcourt as usual and he may end up being a key x-factor in tonight’s game for multiple reasons. First off, the Kings are 28th in the league in opponent 3-point percentage. Grimes, whose shooting has been hit or miss as of late, could play a huge role if he can get his shot going early and often. Secondly, there’s a chance that head coach Tom Thibodeau decides to deploy Grimes on Fox defensively to slow him down and to preserve some of Brunson’s energy coming off of the foot injury. If that does end up happening, Grimes’ defense on Fox could play a big role in deciding tonight’s outcome.
Joining Fox in the backcourt for the Kings will be a familiar foe, former Hawk, Kevin Huerter, who is having a career year of his own. Averaging a career-high 15.1PPG on 48.9% shooting from the field and 40.1% from 3, Huerter is a big part of a Kings team that averages the most points in the league with 121.1. If the Knicks want to slow down the elite Kings offense, they’ll have to make sure the Huerter, who averages nearly three made 3’s a game, does not catch fire.
RJ Barrett, who’ll start at small forward again, had himself a very auspicious first half against the Hornets on Tuesday night but eventually faded out as he failed to come up big in the fourth quarter. That being said, as a whole, Barrett has slowly started to show signs of being a bit more efficient, averaging 19.6PPG on an improved 46% from the field and 35.3% from downtown. As is often the case, Barrett will likely be an x-factor tonight. Will he show the type of defensive effort fans are asking for? Can he be the Knicks’ third option? And if so, can he do it at least somewhat efficiently? While it’s become increasingly hard to predict what kind of performance Barrett will have, the good news is that Barrett scored 27 points while grabbing 9 rebounds and dishing out 6 assists in his last game against these Kings.
Matching up with Barrett will be rookie forward, Keegan Murray, who is having a very solid season averaging 11.9PPG and 4.6RPG on 44.7% from the field and 40.9% from 3. While he has yet to display a high level of consistency, the former first-round pick has shown the ability to catch fire. In his short NBA career, Murray has already had eight games of 20 or more points and one 30-point game. Much like Huerter, the Knicks will have to make sure that they contain Murray to keep the Kings’ offense in check.
I’ll keep reminding everyone that Julius Randle, who’ll be the starting power forward as usual, has yet to miss a game because it’s an incredibly impressive feat for someone who plays the way he does especially considering the infatuation the teams and players have with load management these days. That being said Randle did look tired in Tuesday’s 16-point 5-17 shooting performance against the Hornets. He does get a pass because of just how good he has been both with his production and energy for much of the season. But the Knicks will need the usual Randle back tonight and luckily, he’s been amazing against Domantas Sabonis as of late. In their last six meetings, Randle is averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds on 46.7% shooting. To better that stat even more, Randle is averaging an absurd 34.4 PPG and 11 RPG on 54.9% from the field. Randle may not repeat the 46-point performance he had against Sabonis and the Kings last March and Sabonis, who plays a lot of center for the Kings may not even guard Randle a lot, we can expect Randle to be aggressive early and often in this one.
Starting at power forward for the Kings won’t be the aforementioned Sabonis but veteran forward, Harrison Barnes. On this team filled with exciting guys like Fox, Sabonis, and even the rookie phenom Murray, Barnes doesn’t always get a lot of credit or shine from the media or opposing fans, but Barnes, as he so often has done throughout his career, has been a very solid and reliable player. He’s averaging 15.1PPG, and 4.7RPG while shooting an efficient 47.4% from the field and 37.5% from 3. The Kings will look for him to provide supplemental scoring but as the most likely primary defender on Randle tonight, Barnes, kind of like Grimes for the Knicks, may be the x-factor.
Mitchell Robinson, who had some nice offensive moments in a 14-point, 8-rebound performance, will man the middle once again and he’ll have his hands full guarding Sabonis at times. Not only is Sabonis an incredibly gifted scorer and passer, but he’s also one of, if not the, best rebounders in the league. It will also be interesting to see if Thibodeau changes Robinson’s minutes a bit (spoiler, he probably won’t) seeing as the Kings like to spread out the floor a lot and let it rain from 3.
While the Kings’ starting center, Domantas Sabonis’ head-to-head stats against Randle haven’t been as dominant, he’s still having an incredibly nice season, evident by his All-Star game selection. The former Gonzaga Bulldog is averaging 18.9PPG and a league-leading 12.3RPG to go along with a career-high 7APG on an incredibly efficient 61.5% from the field. While Sabonis plays the game in a different way than Randle does, he is just as crucial to the Kings’ success as Randle is. The Kings’ big man’s numbers may not always pop out but his flawless ability to run dribble handoffs, make the right reads and be the best big man passer not named Nikola Jokic make him and the Kings incredibly hard to guard.
A battle between two subpar franchises that have become overachieving teams being led by a young core, tonight should be a very fun contest. But as interesting as their similarities are, it’s also important to note the differences. Sacramento has established itself as one of the top offensive teams in the league, boasting both the most points per game and the highest offensive rating. And they have done it with a combination of teamwork, passing, and spacing. But they have sacrificed some defense to do so, ranking just 25th in defensive rating. Then there’s the Knicks, who have the fifth-highest offensive rating in the league, but have done so in a less pretty way and by grabbing a lot of offensive rebounds. And they have a more mediocre defensive rating, ranking 17th in the league, and they’ve been even better than that since the return of Robinson. In what should be a battle of strategies and philosophies, it will be interesting to see who imposes their style more because that could end up being the deciding factor.
While the Kings are not the Kings we’ve become accustomed to watching over the last decade, neither are the Knicks. With Brunson hopefully healthy, fresh, and back in the lineup, the Knicks, led by him and Randle take a high-scoring game to take a critical victory to start off the road trip. 125-120 to make it five straight road victories.