The New York Knicks are on a three-game winning streak, and will face a key test when the Sacramento Kings come to town tonight. On paper, it would appear that the Knicks have this in the bag, but that's where paper is wrong.
Believe it or not, the Kings defeated the Knicks at Sleep Train Arena back on December 28 in a game that can only be described in one word: epic.
Now that the scene has shifted to Madison Square Garden, New York is out for revenge. The team is a little banged up, but the key players are healthy and ready to go against a team that is bound for the lottery once again.
New York will be looking for Carmelo Anthony to have another good game, but also just a better team effort in general. As a whole, the Knicks looked god awful in their first game against Sacramento. Head coach Mike Woodson will now be looking to establish his team's dominance early, letting the Kings know just who ranks among the NBA's elite.
That means defeating a team that, despite flaws all around, can get hot quickly. Defense needs to be the name of the game, and it's up to New York to set the tone.
Time: Saturday, February 2, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: MSG, ABC News10
Records: Sacramento Kings (17-31) vs. New York Knicks (29-15)
Betting Line: Sacramento (+11), New York (-11), via Bovada
Injuries: Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Marcus Camby (foot, out), Raymond Felton (finger, expected to play), James Johnson (illness, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Knicks Avenge Heartbreaking Loss on Home Court?
The Knicks faced the Kings on December 28 and, for all intensive purposes, played a terrible game. The team trailed 71-50 at halftime and, at one point, trailed by 27 points. New York also committed 17 turnovers, but turned on the afterburners in the second half and pulled ahead in the fourth quarter.
The poor performance can be attributed to the team not having Carmelo Anthony or Raymond Felton in uniform due to injury, and the Knicks will fortunately have them both back for tonight's game.
For a short while, however, it looked like the ultimate comeback victory would be pulled off without them in Sacramento.
Unfortunately, Sacramento had other ideas. Thanks to a buzzer-beating three-pointer from James Johnson, the Kings put the kibosh on the comeback and won, 106-105. Marcus Thornton led the team with 18 points, and James Johnson chipped in 17 points and seven boards.
But the scene has changed now. New York is out for revenge, and their home crowd has their back this time. Granted, it's the second game of a back-to-back, but that should not deter the team from putting in a solid effort.
Long story short, the Knicks' philosophy entering this game can be summed up in one word: No.
DeMarcus Cousins wants to try and play the low-post with Tyson Chandler? No, he's going to play the high-post and be forced to use his jump shot.
Marcus Thornton wants to nail a wide-open three? No, he has to drive the lane and try to beat the defense.
Sacramento wants to sweep the season series? No, they'll have to settle for a split.
By buying into this approach from start to finish, the Knicks can protect their home court and also send a message to Sacramento. They may have played the better game in December, but the win was a fluke.
Key Matchup: Tyson Chandler vs. DeMarcus Cousins
The Kings' best player is young center DeMarcus Cousins, and the Knicks' primary objective on defense should be to take him out of the game. Cousins is blessed with tremendous size at 6'11", 270 pounds and, despite a volatile attitude, has the talent to become an elite NBA center.
This season, Cousins has posted 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. He hasn't done much in terms of blocks, averaging less than one per contest, but his 1.6 steals indicate a new intensity in his on-the-ball defense.
Cousins also plays a fine low-post game, and has a jump shot that sometimes likes to make an appearance. When it comes time for Knicks center Tyson Chandler to guard the man, the objective will be simple: force Cousins out of his comfort zone and force him to use that jumper whenever possible.
This shouldn't be too hard for Chandler, who has been an absolute beast for the Knicks on defense. He was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year last season, his first in New York, and has continued to play phenomenally well in 2012-13.
Chandler is once again leading the league in field goal percentage, having made 69 percent of his attempts. He is also averaging 11.8 points and 10.8 rebounds to go with 1.1 blocks, and has shot an amazing 82 percent from the field his last five games.
Against Cousins, Chandler just needs to do what he's been doing since coming to New York. He must work the paint with a lockdown mentality, chasing every rebound and not taking possessions off.
The gist of the work he needs to do tonight is just exposing Cousins' inexperience, which he did in the Knicks' first game against Sacramento, That night, Cousins was held to 10 rebounds and 15 points on 5-of-14 shooting.
Chandler, on the other hand, shot 9-of-13 from the field and finished with 21 points and 18 rebounds. Even in defeat, he managed to make himself look like the better center.
The man has to do exactly that tonight, but with one small change. Instead of being the best center in defeat, he will be that man in victory.
X-Factor: Amar'e Stoudemire
I have no shame in admitting that I'm a Knicks fan, and if someone had told me this time last year that Amar'e Stoudemire would be a bench force for the Knicks with an excellent low-post game, I'd have laughed out loud. Today, I would have been forced to eat my words.
Stoudemire may have missed the first two months of the season recovering from knee surgery, but has turned into an excellent backup center to Tyson Chandler. He has also virtually abandoned his jump shot, once the strongest part of his game, in favor of playing the low-post and using his 6'11", 245-pound frame to his advantage.
Whatever work Stoudemire did with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer, it's working beautifully. He has averaged 13 points and 4.5 rebounds over 22 minutes per game, and has shot a highly respectable 55 percent from the field. Per 36 minutes, Stoudemire is averaging 20.9 points and 7.2 rebounds.
The man has also been great over his last five, posting 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds while making 65 percent of his shots.
Sacramento did not have to face Stoudemire earlier this season, but they'll be forced to deal with both his size and experience tonight. DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson must be prepared for him to play the low-post from start to finish, and allowing him any opportunities on the inside will immediately swing the pendulum in New York's favor.
This means that Sacramento's weak defense must come together and unite to stop both Stoudemire and the Knicks' interior game under any circumstances. The key to defeating the Knicks is outrunning them and outplaying them in the paint, but Sacramento is near the bottom of the barrel in most defensive categories.
This could set the tone for Stoudemire and the Knicks to control the game, something that Sacramento cannot afford to let happen.
The Kings will enter this game looking to make a statement and to their credit, they will go on their share of runs at certain points. Unfortunately for them, the Knicks will be fully focused and ready to avenge their loss from December 28.
With the rowdy Madison Square Garden crowd cheering them on, New York will coast to victory in the fourth quarter, turning what was a close game at some points into a blowout. Carmelo Anthony will score over 20 points once again, and Tyson Chandler will have a double-double as he continues to make his case for a second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Amar'e Stoudemire will have another phenomenal game in the paint, perhaps even reaching the 20-point plateau. He and J.R. Smith will lead the second unit, while Marcus Thornton and Isaiah Thomas try to shoot the Kings out of a deep hole. That won't help, and an off game from DeMarcus Cousins will also sink Sacramento.
All in all, this is New York's game to lose. They are heavy favorites who have home court advantage, so there really isn't any reason that they should not dominate from the opening tip to the final buzzer.
Once that final buzzer sounds, however, the numbers will say it all. The Knicks will have a great game won on balance and discipline, something that the Kings need to learn before getting back in contention.
New York Knicks 103, Sacramento Kings 86