Mike Woodson is the head coach of the New York Knicks, but his team's playing the Atlanta Hawks tonight is more than just another game. Before he joined the Knicks' staff as an assistant to Mike D'Antoni in 2011, he coached Atlanta for six years and turned the team from a lottery squad into a perennial contender, posting a 206-286 record.
He was then let go after assistant Larry Drew supposedly spoke to the higher-ups in Atlanta's front office and made his plea for the head coach's job. Drew has since taken over the Hawks' helm, while Woodson has righted the ship in New York.
The stage is thus set for another battle of student vs. teacher. Drew has done well since taking over for Woodson, going 109-82 in two-and-a-half seasons manning the sidelines. Like Woodson, he runs an isolation system with a heavy focus on defense.
It's going to be interesting to see how the styles match up against each other. Despite uncanny similarities between the two, Atlanta is without a reliable go-to scorer, a la the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony. Lou Williams came close to filling that role, but he is now out for the season with a torn ACL.
As a result, fans should prepare themselves for a good old-fashioned defensive war in this nationally televised game, one that the Knicks would love to have in the win column.
Time: Sunday, January 27th, 6:30 p.m. EST
TV: ESPN, MSG, SportSouth
Records: Atlanta Hawks (25-18) vs. New York Knic1ks (26-15)
Betting Line: Atlanta (+5), New York (-5)
Injuries: Lou Williams (knee, out), Anthony Morrow (hip, out), Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Marcus Camby (foot, out)
Key Storyline: Can Atlanta's Defense Stifle Knicks?
The Knicks have adapted to Woodson's isolation game very well, but that doesn't mean aspects of the system of Mike D'Antoni, Woodson's predecessor, have been thrown away. New York has slowed its pace quite a bit since Woodson took over in March of last season, but still takes advantage of using the run-and-gun every so often and utilizing open three-pointers.
As a result, the Knicks are eighth in points scored, fourth in team three-point percentage at 38 percent, and are also second in three-pointers made.
The Knicks also play some tough defense, ranking eighth in points allowed at 96.1 per game. The Hawks rank sixth at 95.8 per game, so it's clear that this game is going to be close.
This means that the Knicks need to take full advantage of Atlanta's lack of a reliable scorer.
Joe Johnson was traded to the Brooklyn Nets over the summer, and Lou Williams is no longer an option. This leaves the defense-oriented Josh Smith as the top scoring option, but he isn't one to go off and consistently score 20 or more a game.
Throw in that Devin Harris is nowhere near as consistent as he needs to be at the 2, and the Hawks could be in serious trouble tonight. All that Larry Drew can really hope is that his team's defense holds up and that the Knicks have a poor shooting night.
Only under that circumstance could the Hawks possibly win this game, or at least keep it close from start to finish.
Key Matchup: Josh Smith vs. Carmelo Anthony
As was just mentioned, the only way that the Hawks can really win this game is to play lockdown defense and hope that the Knicks have a poor shooting night. That means having Josh Smith stick to Carmelo Anthony like glue whenever the both of them are on the court at the same time.
Anthony is having an excellent season, ranking second in scoring with 29.1 points per game while also posting 6.1 rebounds. The former Syracuse Orange has also shot 45 percent from the field and an incredible 41 percent from long range. He has continued to be a master at creating his own shot off the dribble and driving the lane, making himself nearly unstoppable.
However, Anthony has struggled over his past five games. He has posted 29.8 points through that stretch, but shot just under 40 percent from the field. In fact, for the month of January, Anthony has made just 41 percent of his shots.
This can be attributed to him not having a viable point guard in Raymond Felton getting him the ball, but that won't be the case tonight. Felton is back in the lineup, and Anthony will need to focus on scoring points despite the stingy defense from Atlanta's Josh Smith.
As usual, Smith has been a multifaceted beast of a player for the Hawks. He leads the team with 16.7 points per game, and has also posted 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest. That's not at all bad for someone who is 6'9", 225 pounds.
Smith has been great over his past five games as well, averaging 18 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and shooting 49 percent from the floor over that stretch.
While the scoring is all well and good, Smith only needs to do that as necessary tonight. His defense on Anthony needs to redefine the word "pesky," and he cannot let the Knicks' star scorer get any open opportunities. This means taking charges, not being afraid to get called for a foul and just frustrate the living daylights out of Anthony.
Offensively, Smith must do what he does best: drive the lane and draw fouls while using the jump shot as needed. If he can find that balance and take Anthony out of the game, a win for Atlanta becomes all the more likely.
X-Factors: Steve Novak and J.R. Smith
In the event that the regular scoring guys like Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony are slowed down by Atlanta's defense, the Knicks will need a lot of help from their bench sparks in Novak and Smith.
Smith has done a decent job in his second season in New York. He has averaged 16.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, but his percentages have been on a roller coaster all year long. Entering tonight's game, Smith is shooting just 40 percent from the field and 33 percent from long range.
The low numbers can be attributed to Smith having a poor January. He has averaged 17.1 points this month, but shot just 37 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc.
Against Atlanta, he cannot simply go into chucker mode and hope that his jumpers start falling. Smith has shown great prowess at driving the lane this season as well as creating off the dribble. He must utilize each and every aspect of his game in playing against the Hawks' tight defense, from his insane dunking abilities to his knack for long-range shooting.
Speaking of long-range shooting, Steve Novak also needs to have a solid performance tonight. He is only averaging 7.2 points per game on the season, but ranks fourth in three-point percentage.
In 2012-13, Novak has shot an astounding 44 percent from downtown.
Even better is that Novak has adjusted his game this season to make himself a more versatile player on offense. Rather than just wait for the ball in open territory and take the shot upon receipt, he has developed an ability to create his own shot. Just by dribbling once and taking either a step back or to the side, he is able to fake out his defender and proceed with his shot.
Novak needs to be doing that tonight and also sinking wide-open threes. The Knicks have gone 9-1 this season when he scores in double figures, and him not being intimidated by a strong Hawks defense is critical to the Knicks' chances of winning.
It may be tough at first, but Novak and Smith have just what it takes to permanently swing the pendulum in the Knicks' favor. Depending on which shots fall, that could lead to the team's fourth victory in five games.
This game is going to be close, but will get fairly one-sided in the final minutes. By that point, the Hawks' wings will have been clipped and their three-game winning streak snapped.
The national television aspect combined with the rowdy Madison Square Garden crowd will give the Knicks plenty of momentum from start to finish, and the few runs that the Hawks go on will be quickly stopped. Anthony will have a solid shooting night and lead New York in scoring, but not before suffering some bumps and bruises trying to fight past Smith's defense.
Smith himself will have a solid game, though he will focus more on defending Anthony and not so much on scoring.
Who will win?
This will leave Atlanta scrambling to find a go-to guy who can step up in the absence of Williams. Al Horford will do all he can to contribute, but will be too busy dealing with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler for most of the night. Jeff Teague will do his best to keep Atlanta afloat, but it won't be enough without an epic scoring performance from a defensive player in Smith.
Thus, J.R. Smith and Steve Novak will have excellent games off the bench, as will Amar'e Stoudemire. Their scoring will help ice the game in the fourth quarter, with key threes from Jason Kidd and defense from Iman Shumpert helping to seal the deal. The final score may not reflect it, but mark my words.
This is going to be a game that was hard-fought from beginning to end, and both teams will be extremely proud of themselves after the final buzzer.
New York Knicks 100, Atlanta Hawks 89