An interconference showdown takes place Thursday night at Madison Square Garden when the San Antonio Spurs take on the New York Knicks. There's a bit of history between them, with the Spurs having defeated the Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals, and both teams have played some excellent basketball this season.
This game marks the second and final time that the two will face off during the regular season. New York managed an epic comeback win in San Antonio on November 15, and the Spurs will definitely be out for revenge as they seek their eighth consecutive win.
In contrast, the banged-up Knicks will look to avoid their third straight loss after losing a heartbreaker to the Portland Trail Blazers on New Year's Day. The team's defense has been lackluster as of late, and sweeping the season series against a Western Conference powerhouse would be the ultimate confidence booster.
This means overcoming injuries and not letting San Antonio's balanced attack intimidate them, which will make for an epic showdown in the Big Apple.
Time: Thursday, January 3rd, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: MSG, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: San Antonio Spurs (26-8) vs. New York Knicks (21-10)
Betting Line: San Antonio (+1), New York (-1)
Injuries: Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Iman Shumpert (knee, out), Raymond Felton (finger, out)
Key Storyline: Can Spurs Avenge Early-Season Loss to Knicks?
The Spurs appeared ready to hand the Knicks their first loss of the season back in November, but red-hot New York had other ideas. Thanks to clutch three-point shooting from J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd, plus 25 points from Raymond Felton, New York was able to pull off a 104-100 victory after trailing by 12 midway through the fourth quarter.
On San Antonio's end, Tony Parker led the way with 19 points and 12 assists.
But the stage is different now. The Knicks are slowly starting to come back down to earth, and some key players are injured. Raymond Felton is out with a broken finger, leaving New York without a key member of the starting lineup, and shooter and low-post man Rasheed Wallace is out with a stress fracture.
Unlike New York, San Antonio is at full strength and in a prime position to have a good game. The Spurs may be old, but they are one of the NBA's most experienced teams. Their core group of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have won three rings together, and Duncan won a fourth as a member of the 1999 team that defeated the Knicks.
More importantly, head coach Gregg Popovich just knows how to get the best out of his players. Even if he's benching his starters, he'll still come close to a win.
Knicks coach Mike Woodson must thus be ready for an uphill battle from the get-go, as the Spurs will definitely not make the same mistakes as the first time around.
Key Matchup: Carmelo Anthony vs. Kawhi Leonard
One thing that the Spurs did very well in their first game against the Knicks was slow down Carmelo Anthony. New York's star forward and scorer had 12 rebounds on November 15, but was held to nine points on 3-of-12 shooting.
If New York wants a remote shot at winning this game, Anthony must be in top form and play like the MVP candidate he has been all season. He is currently second in the NBA in scoring with 29.2 points per game, trailing only Kobe Bryant, and has shot 48 percent from the field. Anthony has also been deadly from long range, making 43.5 percent of his three-pointers.
He'll have to be great and then some, but he won't have an easy time by any means. Though only a second-year player, the Spurs' Kawhi Leonard is shaping up to be one of the league's best pests.
The former San Diego State Aztec is averaging 2.1 steals and 5.3 rebounds this season and has also been able to hold his own in the scoring department. He has only posted 9.4 points on average, but he has managed to make 34 percent of his threes.
Leonard's mission will be simple: shut down Carmelo Anthony. As good as Anthony is at shooting the ball with a hand in his face and creating his own shot, he's just like every other player in the league when defended heavily. He has a hard time dealing with it and, as a result, is prone to a bad shooting night.
Thus, expect this matchup to be an absolute dogfight. Anthony will look to work quickly and take advantage of Leonard's inexperience, while Leonard will try to use his great athleticism to force Anthony's offense out of the game.
It's a battle that can go either way, and whoever wins it will be on the winning team.
X-Factor: J.R. Smith
Ever since the Knicks started suffering their recent injury woes, one of their most reliable players has been Smith. He has emerged as an excellent go-to guy and is making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year with his 16.5 points per game off the bench.
Per usual, Smith has been a deadly shooter. He has made 36 percent of his threes, but his performance over his last five games is what makes him the key factor of this game.
Over that stretch, Smith has posted MVP-like numbers. He has averaged 25.4 points, 6.8 rebounds. 4.4 assists and 2.6 steals per game. His three-point shooting has not been as effective, at just 30 percent, but Smith has still done a great job of driving the lane and creating off the dribble.
He needs to do just that against San Antonio. The Spurs' defense will be out to slow down both him and Carmelo Anthony, so Smith must fight past each and every defender in order to get some points on the board.
He must also not hesitate to be a pest. His defense has improved immensely since he joined the Knicks last season, and he must not hesitate to be a force on both sides of the floor.
By remaining versatile and committing to being a complete player, he already gives the Knicks a great chance of winning this game. In the end, it's all going to come down to execution.
If there's one thing the Knicks have done this season, it's rebound well after losses. The team has suffered two bad ones in a row, both of which featured some horrific defense from them.
That isn't going to sit well with Coach Woodson, so New York will definitely enter this game with a renewed focus on defense. Against an aging Spurs team, this will pose a problem and lead to another close victory in New York's favor.
Who will win?
On top of that, the Knicks have surely watched plenty of tape of their last game against the Spurs. They will be better prepared this time around and will know what to avoid and what to expect.
Carmelo Anthony will have a fine scoring night, making his performance in San Antonio even more of a distant memory. J.R. Smith will provide plenty of support, as will Tyson Chandler. Even Amar'e Stoudemire will sink some key buckets off the bench as he slowly makes his return to the rotation.
All the same, the Spurs will put up a great fight. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will carry the team on both sides of the floor, and clutch shots from Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili will keep the game close.
Those shots just won't come at the right time, and the Knicks will snap the Spurs' winning streak and also their own short losing streak.
New York Knicks 102, San Antonio Spurs 97