The New York Knicks have little time to celebrate sweeping the season series against the San Antonio Spurs. They head on the road to face the Orlando Magic on Saturday night, for the second time this season.
The Knicks won in Orlando on November 13, but not without a fight. The Magic proved to be a feisty opponent and have actually performed quite well in their first season sans Dwight Howard.
Yes, the team has lost seven games in a row, but the defense employed by first-year head coach Jacque Vaughn has performed fairly well. Orlando ranks ninth in points allowed and 10th in rebounding, with the team's only real struggles coming on offense.
The Knicks are a defensive team and will take full advantage of Orlando's shortcomings on offense. This means playing a focused game and not getting cocky. After all, the Magic just recently forced the defending champion Miami Heat into a hard-fought overtime game.
Orlando may have lost, but their last two losses by a combined four points show that they are turning a corner. The Magic will have an upset on their minds come Saturday night.
Against the tough Knicks, however, that is easier said than done.
Time: Saturday, January 5, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: MSG, Fox Sports Florida
Records: New York Knicks (22-10) vs. Orlando Magic (12-20)
Betting Line: Not available as of Friday, January 4, 1:18 p.m. EST
Injuries: Raymond Felton (finger, out), Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Iman Shumpert (knee, out), Al Harrington (knee, out), Glen Davis (shoulder, out), E'Twaun Moore (elbow, out)
Key Storyline: Orlando Seeks Vengeance for Early Season Loss to New York
Though the Magic lost to the Knicks earlier in the season, it was not a bad defeat. New York did not pull away until the fourth quarter, and Orlando's young and stingy defense kept them in the game from start to finish.
The Knicks won 99-89 thanks to 25 points from Carmelo Anthony, but the Magic never had a problem keeping the game close. Nikola Vucevic led all players with 10 rebounds and has since established himself as a fine young center.
That game also happened to be at the Amway Center, so the Magic will definitely be out for revenge tonight. Losing once at home was bad enough, but losing there again to the Knicks is unacceptable.
Vaughn will be driving that message home throughout the game tomorrow night, doing all he possibly can to help break his team's lengthy losing streak. He had better hope that the Knicks lack some bounce in their step following their big win against the Spurs, otherwise the struggling Magic could be in for more disappointment.
Key Matchup: Tyson Chandler vs. Nikola Vucevic
The Knicks are back to being an excellent defensive squad, and the man to thank for that other than head coach Mike Woodson is center Tyson Chandler. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Chandler has picked up right where he left off last season.
This year, he is averaging 12.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and also leads the NBA in field goal percentage thanks to key layups, dunks and alley-oops formulated by his point guards.
A lot of the reason that Chandler has been able to do so well is his size, which at 7'1", 240 pounds, makes life difficult for many opposing centers. Orlando's Nikola Vucevic is just learning how to be an everyday center, so getting past Chandler's defense will be key in the Magic's quest for vengeance.
Vucevic is an inch shorter than Chandler, but he still has the athleticism and prowess at the 5 to make the battle between the two one of epic proportions. He is only averaging 11.1 points and 10.5 rebounds on the season but turned in the performance of a lifetime against the Miami Heat on New Year's Eve.
That night, Vucevic had 20 points to go with a career-best 29 rebounds. Orlando may have lost, but playing that type of defense against the defending champions is impressive, win or lose.
The former USC Trojan will need that same tenacity when posting up against Chandler. The only way to defeat the Knicks' center is to want to win more than he does, and the only way the Magic have a shot at winning is to cultivate that mindset.
If Orlando loses heart, the experienced Knicks get the upper hand and license to absolutely destroy the Magic on the court.
X-Factors: Steve Novak & J.R. Smith
One thing that the Knicks have done well all season besides play excellent defense is to shoot three-pointers. The Knicks rank first in threes made and fifth in three-point percentage and will need to succeed in that department with Orlando playing tough defense on the interior.
Fortunately, Mike Woodson has one of the best three-point specialists in the league in Steve Novak. The former Marquette star only averages 7.6 points over 24.7 minutes per game but currently ranks eighth in field goal percentage, having made 44 percent of his attempts from downtown. Last season, Novak led the league in the category at 47 percent.
The Knicks need him to do well tonight, far better than the mere three points he scored on November 13. Novak has a habit of being unstoppable once he gets into a groove, and the Magic will have even more trouble slowing him down once he's fully locked in.
Should Novak struggle from downtown, however, the Knicks have J.R. Smith to help out. In a season where he is arguably the Sixth Man of the Year, Smith is averaging 16.6 points and 5.2 rebounds.
And that's just for the season. Over his last five games, the numbers Smith posted are MVP-like. Through that stretch, Smith averaged 25.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 steals per contest.
Simply put, the Knicks need both Novak and Smith to be effective against the Magic in order to come away with a win. Smith had 21 points off the bench the first time the Knicks went to Orlando, and he needs to have that type of night again, both in making threes and creating his own shot off the dribble.
Both men provide balance to the Knicks' attack, which will throw off the young and inexperienced Magic.
To the Magic's credit, this game will be close. Unfortunately, they will come out on the losing end with their eighth consecutive loss.
The Knicks are just too focused and deep this season to lose a game to a lottery team like Orlando, and their commitment to defense and depth will be the difference-maker in this game. Tyson Chandler will show Nikola Vucevic who really owns the paint, while Carmelo Anthony and Jason Kidd sink clutch shot after clutch shot. Even Amar'e Stoudemire will continue to look better as he works his way back to full strength.
Who will win?
However, the Knicks will shine the brightest in the fourth quarter. Following key threes from Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson in the third, Woodson will look to Novak and Smith to help Anthony come through in the final frame.
Novak will be left wide open for multiple threes, while Smith will sink important shots and show just how dangerous he is despite not being a starter. Smith may even rise to the occasion and throw down an incredible dunk again, silencing the Orlando crowd and permanently swinging the pendulum towards the Knicks.
The game won't be a blowout, but one thing will be clear by the final buzzer. As talented as the Magic are, they still have a long way to go before becoming the Knicks.
New York Knicks 105, Orlando Magic 98