The New York Knicks are starting to look like the dominant force they were earlier this season, and they'll look to continue their winning ways when the Milwaukee Bucks come to visit Madison Square Garden.
Milwaukee ranks seventh in the Eastern Conference, and a win over New York would send a message to other playoff teams that they are not a squad to be taken lightly.
That is, it would if they can get past the experience of the Knicks. The Bucks do indeed have talent, but have already lost to New York once this season, back on November 28.
But those were the Bucks of old. Scott Skiles has since stepped down as head coach, Jim Boylan has stepped in, and other players have stepped up to help turn Milwaukee to a young and feisty squad.
New York has faced young teams all season long, and the defensive system of Mike Woodson will surely be fully locked in against the weak Bucks frontcourt. However, this is the same Milwaukee squad that twice defeated the Chicago Bulls this season, as in the same Bulls that have defeated the Knicks three times. For all we know, Milwaukee could have another upset in mind.
The stage is thus set for what is set to be a close game from start to finish, and the question presents itself: Can the Knicks keep up with the new Bucks?
Time: Friday, February 1st, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: MSG, FSN Wisconsin
Records: Milwaukee Bucks (24-20) vs. New York Knicks (28-15)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, January 31, 3:45 p.m. EST
Injuries: Doron Lamb (ankle, day-to-day), Larry Sanders (illness, day-to-day), Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Marcus Camby (foot, out), Jason Kidd (back, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Is Bucks' New Identity Enough to Get Past Knicks?
Under Scott Skiles, the Milwaukee Bucks were an offensive squad with a defensive coach. He tried to implement his system, but that was hard to do when the two best players were the offense-oriented Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Sure enough, this led to Skiles stepping down from his position in early January.
Veteran assistant Jim Boylan stepped in, and the Bucks have shown a slight improvement since. Not only have Jennings and Ellis been solid, but Larry Sanders has also shown promise as a center by leading the league in blocks.
Milwaukee will look to show off their new identity against New York, who beat them 102-88 on November 28. Carmelo Anthony led the way with 29 points, and Tyson Chandler contributed 17 points and eight rebounds. Wisconsin native Steve Novak chipped in 19 points off the bench.
The Bucks were damned by 17 turnovers, and not even 18 points from Jennings could keep the game close. Milwaukee also shot just 38.5 percent from three-point range, while the Knicks shot 52 percent from beyond the arc.
Naturally, a greater effort will be needed from Milwaukee in Round 2. They will need to take advantage of the Knicks' weak interior defense, dominating the boards and sinking shots more consistently.
If they can overcome the rowdy Madison Square Garden crowd and execute their opportunities, then the team just might have a chance.
Key Matchup: Tyson Chandler vs. Larry Sanders
Assuming that Larry Sanders is well enough to play, the Knicks are going to need to have a great game in the paint. This means that Tyson Chandler must continue to do what he has done all season long and play like the reigning Defensive Player of the Year he is.
On the season, Chandler has posted 11.9 points and 10.6 rebounds, while leading the league with a field goal percentage of 69 percent. He has great size for the position at 7'1", 240 pounds, and works the paint as though he owns the area.
Chandler's scoring and rebounding have been down over his last five games, just 8.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per contest, but he has made up for it by shooting an astounding 85 percent from the field. When it comes to playing a pure defensive center, there aren't many better than him.
That said, it's going to be interesting to see how Chandler matches up with Sanders. The former VCU Ram logged just 14 minutes in the Bucks' first game against the Knicks, but has since surprised everyone as one of the best young centers in the game.
Sanders has averaged just 8.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, but leads the league with 3.1 blocks. He has solid size at 6'11", 235 pounds, but still has a lot to learn about playing at the NBA level.
As a result, Chandler's task for the evening is to work with his teammates to ensure that Sanders has a tough night in the paint from start to finish. This means boxing him out regularly, not even giving him the opportunity to get close to the shooter or the basket.
Defensively, Chandler must stick to Sanders like glue and not leave his side once. He must use his experience to win the battle, and if he can stay out of foul trouble, it should be his for the taking.
X-Factor: Iman Shumpert
On offense, the Bucks are a team that likes to occasionally run. One of the Knicks' keys to victory is slowing them down, which means Iman Shumpert needs to be in defensive beast mode.
Shumpert has been a great one-on-one defender since returning from a torn ACL and meniscus on January 17, and that part of his game needs to come out to play against Milwaukee. Whether he's guarding Monta Ellis, Ersan Ilyasova or Mike Dunleavy, Shumpert cannot back down nor be afraid to take some lumps if called upon to do so.
The man has great size at 6'5", 220 pounds, and his overall athleticism is absolutely off the charts. He never steps back from a defensive battle, no matter how much bigger his opponent may be.
However, the Knicks could also use Shumpert's help on offense. He is still struggling to find his shot, but shaking off the cobwebs and having a solid scoring performance against the Bucks would add some extra oomph to his overall game.
This means that Shumpert cannot hesitate to drive the lane for a layup, or even rise up for a dunk if the opportunity presents itself. He must also utilize his mid-range game. I understand that his offense has yet to make a real impact this season, but the only way it will is if he continues to take his shots until they start falling regularly.
If he can do that against Milwaukee while also playing his signature defense, then the Knicks will be able to walk away with their third straight victory.
The Bucks may have a new plan entering their second meeting with the Knicks, but will unfortunately fail in executing it. The team has talent, but is just too young to march into Madison Square Garden and expect to take down the well-balanced giant that is the New York Knicks.
Milwaukee may make some noise early, but that won't last. New York's defense will show up full-time in the second quarter, thanks to Iman Shumpert locking down on his man while also sinking key baskets on the offensive side. Carmelo Anthony will have another great scoring night, slowly sneaking up on Kevin Durant for the top spot in the league. Off the bench, Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith will be as clutch as ever.
Who will win?
The real battle will go down in the paint. Larry Sanders will attempt to compensate for poor shooting nights from Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, and he will manage to have a couple of blocks against the Knicks' offense.
However, Tyson Chandler will quickly remind him just who owns the boards in the Big Apple, taking him to school from start to finish and reminding him just what it takes to be an elite NBA center. The fans will roar, and all of the Knicks players will revel in the praise.
By the final buzzer, the Knicks will have come away with another strong victory. Defeating the young Bucks won't be easy, but the team's collective effort and execution will sway the pendulum in New York's favor en route to another great victory.
New York Knicks 100, Milwaukee Bucks 89