The New York Knicks' 5 Biggest Tests of the Early Season

Joe Flynn@@ChinaJoeFlynnContributor IOctober 18, 2013

The New York Knicks' 5 Biggest Tests of the Early Season

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    For the first time in three years, the New York Knicks will not begin their season with a true rivalry game.

    No offense to the Milwaukee Bucks, but they don't bring the excitement factor of last year's post-Sandy opener against the Heat, or 2011's Christmas Day opener against the Celtics

    But don't worry, Knicks fans: you won't have to wait long to see the 'Bockers take on some real contenders.

    In the season's first 30 days, they will face the reigning Western Conference champ (San Antonio), their own playoff vanquisher (Indiana), and four teams they failed to beat last season (Chicago, Houston, Portland, LA Clippers). The Knicks will have plenty of chances in that first month to prove to the NBA that last season was no fluke.

    Here are the five most challenging, downright scary tests the Knicks will face in the early season.

Thursday, Oct. 31: @ Chicago Bulls

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    Not that Knicks fans need another reason to hate Chicago, but the Bulls were the only Eastern Conference team the Knicks failed to beat in 2012-13. New York is oh-for-its-last-five against the Fighting Thibodeaus, and only one-for-nine during the Carmelo Anthony era. 

    Strangely enough, their last victory against Chicago also came in the last game they faced former-MVP Derrick Rose. Rose scored 29 points in the Knicks' 100-99 overtime win, but was held to just 8-of-26 shooting, thanks to the hounding defense of Iman Shumpert.

    This will be Rose's first regular-season home game in over a year, so both he and the crowd will be hyped.

    If the Knicks are to have a chance in this game, Shumpert needs to repeat that sterling defensive effort from their last win.

    Offensively, the Knicks need to keep their composure against Joakim Noah and the hounding Chicago D. Noah has shown he knows how to get under the skin of New York's stars—both Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler got themselves ejected in the same game last year.

    The Knicks need to play smarter and tougher if they want a chance to knock off Chicago.

Sunday, Nov. 10: San Antonio Spurs

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    As any Knicks fan knows, New York beat San Antonio in both of their games last season. The first win in particular—a 104-100 November win in San Antonio, despite only nine points from Carmelo Anthony—proved New York to be a legitimate top-tier squad in 2012-13.

    Can New York duplicate that feat in 2013-14?

    Much will depend on the performance of Tony Parker. Parker is the kind of quick, dynamic point guard that usually terrorizes New York's soft perimeter D, but he had two uncharacteristically sub-par games in 2012-13.

    Raymond Felton can't keep Parker in front of him, so look for plenty of help coming from New York's two best perimeter defenders: Iman Shumpert and Pablo Prigioni. 

    Speaking of Pablo, he's part of my favorite Knicks-Spurs subplot: The Battle of the Argentines. Both Prigioni and the Spurs' Manu Ginobili are wily veterans, Olympic medalists beloved in their home country.

    Let's make it interesting, Argentina: winner of this game becomes President.

Thursday, Nov. 14: Houston Rockets

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    No team spanked the Knicks last year quite like Houston did—winning both games by an average of 20.5 points. 

    The Rockets' 120.0 PPG average was more than 12 points higher than the second-highest-scoring Knicks opponent (Oklahoma City).

    ... oh, and I heard they've added a center of some repute.

    Last year's "Linsanity returns" narrative has turned into this year's "Just please don't embarrass yourselves again."

    To stand a chance, the Knicks must slow down James Hardenperhaps the most devastating Knick opponent of last season, outside of Stephen Curry. Harden averaged 30.5 points per game on .485 shooting (.455 from three). Worse, he racked up 25 free throw attempts in those two games, making 24.

    You won't win many games when you're giving up 12 points in free throws every game to just one dude.

    As crazy as it sounds, the Rockets' addition of Dwight Howard might just play to the Knicks' benefit. Since the Knicks can't seem to stop fouling, maybe they can direct their fouls away from Harden (85.1 percent from the free-throw line last year) and direct them toward Howard (49.2 percent from the charity stripe).

    Whatever the case, just try not to lose by 20 again, fellas.

Wednesday, Nov. 20: Indiana Pacers

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    Though lacking in the dramatic flair of Linsanity, "Copelandia" did have a solid one-year run on Broadway. It's a shame to see him shacking up with the enemy.

    So where did these two teams leave off?

    Oh yes, Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Roy Hibbert blocked Melo's shot, the Pacers went on to Miami, and we all died a little inside. It helps to remember, however, that this series was far from a blowout—the Knicks had the lead in Game 6 with five minutes left in the game. 

    In truth, the turning point in the series was Game 1, when the Knicks came out flat and failed to hold serve at home.

    The Pacers had an incredible home-road split last year—30-11 at home, 19-21 on the road—and the Knicks won their other two home games by an average margin of 18 points.

    That bodes well for this game, which will be played under the shadow of the Skybridge at Madison Square Garden. This figures to be yet another in a long line of gritty Knicks-Pacers contests.

Wednesday, Nov. 27: @ Los Angeles Clippers

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    For all the crazy, breathless gossip about Carmelo Anthony going to the Lakers, there's only one LA team that poses a threat to the Knicks from an actual basketball standpoint ... and it ain't the Lakers.

    While they didn't give New York quite the beating Houston did, the Clippers also beat the Knicks by double-digits in both games last year.

    The Clippers have the game's best point guard in Chris Paul, and New York tends to struggle against elite guards. Paul did not disappoint in 2012-13, averaging 22.5 points and 7.5 assists against New York.

    Offensively, the Knicks did very little—scoring 88 and 80 points in the season series.

    Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton excelled in the first game, scoring 42 and 20 points, but the rest of the team combined for just 26 points.

    This year, they've added an old Knick nemesis in former Celtics' coach Doc Rivers. Given the fact that most people believed coaching to be the Clippers' biggest weakness, upgrading Vinny Del Negro for an NBA champion coach might have been the biggest coup of the NBA offseason.

    This promises to be a tough battle, coming in the middle of a treacherous three-game West Coast swing (they also face Portland and Denver).

    I think the Knicks would be thrilled to take two out of those three games, regardless of whom they beat.