Friday the Knicks proved themselves of punting a game if they feel like it. Well, ok, they’ve already proved that a few times this year. But their effort against Cleveland showed that, if this team bears any comparison to the pre-Melo squad, it’s that they’re both eminently capable of the old-fashioned, Marbury-era no-show.
I raise the point because tonight the Knicks are in Atlanta for a game which may not be well worth winning. A win would bring the Knicks to 2-2 against the Hawks this year, and just three games back of them in the loss column. A loss, by contrast, is a double whammy: New York would be six games back of ATL for the fifth seed, and the Hawks would hold the tiebreaker. (Even with a loss the Knicks would still be 5.5 ahead of ninth-place Charlotte, over whom the Knicks hold a tiebreaker. This team will make the playoffs.)
That fifth seed is no-man’s land for these Knicks. It seems ridiculous to be griping about playoff matchups after a third embarrassing loss to Cleveland, but to me Orlando, the likely fourth seed, is the worst of all first-round matchups for the Knicks. New York has two wins each over Miami and Chicago (although they haven’t beaten Boozer and Noah together), and they’ve given the Celtics all they can handle—aren’t these all better matchups for this team?
Here’s the problem (insofar as we can call this a problem): this is the kind of game where these Knicks usually show up. Tonight’s matchup features a national spotlight on ESPN, some trash-talking and even some fisticuffs. Those have been pretty heavy motivating factors thus far in the Amar’e era. I’m happy with a win, as always, but for the first time in many years, the Knicks have other concerns.
PG – Kirk Hinrich: Dropped 21 on Oklahoma City Friday after a few subpar games since joining Atlanta. Has suddenly become a much better shooter in all facets at age 30.
SG – Joe Johnson: Averaging just 17 PPG since February 1.
SF – Marvin Williams: Has the size and agility to bother Carmelo Anthony.
PF – Josh Smith: Has missed two games with a knee injury, but it looks like he’ll play tonight. Jason Collins has started in his absence. Hey, remember when he’d stopped shooting threes because he was terrible at them? Yeah, he couldn’t fight that feeling anymore. He’s slightly less terrible these days, though.
C – Al Horford: Is not afraid of Amar’e Stoudemire.
Your Chauncey Billups Update: It’s not looking good for our grizzled war admiral as his thigh remains deeply contused. The various beat reporter Twitters are using words like “game-time decision” and “unlikely.” We shall see.
Hawks Rotation: If you spent the three days after the Melo trade wandering the streets in an LSD haze, as I did, then you may have missed the Hawks’ acquisition of Hinrich and Hilton Armstrong in exchange for Mike Bibby, a first round pick and cap fodder. The trade leaves the rotation much the same as before, with Hinrich’s strong perimeter D an upgrade over Bibby’s air traffic controller approach. Jeff Teague goes a million miles an hour as the backup point guard, Damien Wilkins spells the wings, and the incredible combination of Armstrong, Collins, Zaza Pachulia, Etan Thomas and Josh Powell…probably spend a lot of time staring at each other and feeling the doppelganger effect.
…And yet the Knicks would probably welcome any of those five guys.
Hawks Schedule: The good news for Atlanta is that they’re in the midst of a stretch of 10 out of 11 games at home. The bad news is they have the Thunder, Lakers, Nuggets, Heat, and three games with the Bulls in the span. They also have the Knicks, if you would consider that bad news.
The Hawks have still played the league’s easiest schedule by a surprising margin given it’s already March, and strength of schedule isn’t the only metric that makes one question if they’re for real. Not only have they had the league’s easiest slate of opponents, they haven’t actually beaten them by very much, with just a +0.81 point differential. The Knicks’, by contrast, is +0.63. The next month may show whether this team is a threat – beating the Knicks would be a nice start for them, and as discussed above, it might not be so terrible for the Knicks either.