The New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks are two teams that play a very similar game, and that should make for an interesting contest tonight. Head coaches Mike Woodson and Larry Drew (Woodson’s former assistant) both employ an isolation offense combined with a tough defensive approach, and the two teams’ first meeting back on Jan. 27 showed just how close a game between them could be.
New York ended up winning 106-104 thanks to a three-point play from star forward and leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, who finished the game with 42 points. But that was at Madison Square Garden, and Round 2 is set to take place at Philips Arena in Atlanta.
The Hawks have gone 24-13 on their home court this season and while the Knicks may be on a nine-game winning streak, Atlanta will surely look to ride the home crowd’s cheers en route to playing spoiler.
With the Knicks fully locked in and playing like they did early this season, that’s going to be a tough task to undertake. Throw in that these two teams could very well face each other in the playoffs, and it becomes an even better game to watch.
Time: Wednesday, April 3, 7 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN, MSG
Records: New York Knicks (47-26) vs. Atlanta Hawks (42-33)
Injuries: Lou Williams (knee, out), Zaza Pachulia (achilles, out), John Jenkins (concussion, day-to-day), Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Kurt Thomas (foot, out), Amar’e Stoudemire (knee, out)
Key Matchup: Carmelo Anthony vs. Josh Smith
The Hawks are one of the better defensive teams in the league, and slowing down Anthony’s scoring attack could swing the pendulum in Atlanta’s favor. The former Syracuse star has been nothing short of fantastic for the Knicks this season, averaging 27.9 points (second in the NBA) and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from the field and 38 percent from long range.
Anthony has been even better over his last five games, posting 31.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and even 1.6 steals per contest while making 45.5 percent of his attempts and 44 percent of his threes. As much as Knicks fans would love to see those types of numbers against Atlanta, it’s going to be tough for Anthony to be his usual lights-out self when he’s guarded by Smith.
Atlanta’s dynamic forward has made the most of his contract year and is averaging 17.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and even 1.8 blocks per game. That’s not at all bad for someone just 6’9″, 225 pounds.
Smith has also been great over his last five games, over which he has averaged 19.2 points, seven rebounds, 1.4 blocks and two steals per game. That’s the type of player he needs to be when guarding Anthony, absolutely overwhelming him on both sides of the floor.
This is a battle that can easily be fought to a stalemate and when it comes to Anthony vs. Smith, there’s no telling who will win. All that can be said is that whichever player gets the slightest upper hand is most likely going to be on the winning team.
X-Factor: J.R. Smith
The Knicks are going to need a spark against Atlanta’s tough defense, and Smith is a player who can play that role perfectly. He has done an excellent job as New York’s sixth man this year, averaging 17.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while shooting 41 percent from the field and 35 percent from beyond the arc.
Smith has also been incredibly streaky, but has been solid as of late. Over his last five games, he has posted 26.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while making 51 percent of his shots and 50 percent of his threes. Once just a shooter and dunker, the man has done an excellent job of working to create off the dribble this year, making himself a complete player.
But Smith’s hot streak appears to have faded over his last two games. He has made just 33 percent of his field goals over that stretch, though, he has averaged 14.5 points and nine rebounds.
This means that Smith just needs to show off his new versatility in Atlanta. He must drive the lane, create off the dribble as well as pull up for jumpers, be they in three-point territory or on the elbow. As long as he can keep the Hawks guessing, the Knicks have a chance.
Otherwise, a 10th straight victory becomes harder to accomplish.
This game is going to be a close one from start to finish, with neither team willing to give the other any breaks. However, by the final buzzer, I’m picking the Knicks to win in a nail-biter.
Anthony will have another fine scoring game, while Smith also contributes his fair share by constantly mixing up his attack. Tyson Chandler will play some excellent defense in the paint and also be a force on offense, while guys like Iman Shumpert and Kenyon Martin also contribute their fair share on both sides of the court.
Smith and teammate Al Horford will do a fine job of keeping the Hawks in the game from start to finish, but it’s just not going to be enough. New York has too much momentum behind it and when push comes to shove, the Knicks are the better team on the floor.
New York Knicks 105, Atlanta Hawks 100