The New York Knicks are on a five-game winning streak, but face the ultimate test when they head to the Verizon Center to face the Washington Wizards on February 6. Washington has the second-worst record in the NBA and has also lost to New York once already this season.
However, the Wizards are not to be counted out. This is the same team that just defeated the shorthanded Lob City Los Angeles Clippers on February 4, and also beat the defending champion Miami Heat on December 4.
The team may be inexperienced, but know what to do when they have momentum at their backs. They'll need plenty of it against a Knicks team that is on its hottest streak since the start of the season.
New York's objective is simple: take advantage of Washington's inexperience. They have some solid veterans but no leaders, and that needs to be fully exploited.
This means that the Knicks cannot get cocky like they have against lesser opponents before, and be ready to play from start to finish.
Time: Wednesday, February 6, 7 p.m. EST
TV: MSG, CSN HD
Records: New York Knicks (31-15) vs. Washington Wizards (12-35)
Betting Line: Not available as of Tuesday, February 5, 9:14 a.m. EST
Injuries: Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Marcus Camby (foot, out), Cartier Martin (knee, out), Bradley Beal (wrist, day-to-day), Trevor Booker (wrist, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Does Young Washington Have Another Upset In Its Bones?
The Wizards may be a bad team, but can still pull off big victories if certain chips fall into place. Of their 12 wins this season, six have come against playoff-caliber teams.
They'll try to make it seven when the Knicks come to town, but history is not on their side. Washington visited New York at Madison Square Garden on November 30 and despite having a lead early, they were no match for an experienced New York squad.
The Knicks won that game 108-87, led by 20 points apiece from Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. Washington committed 17 turnovers and the best night was had by guard Jordan Crawford, who finished with 17 points.
All in all, the Wizards will be looking to have a different performance in Round 2. Despite their weaknesses and inconsistent performance on offense, head coach Randy WIttman actually has his guys playing some tough defense. This season, Washington ranks ninth in both rebounding and points allowed.
The Knicks rank sixth in points allowed, but are one of the weakest rebounding teams in the league, ranking 23rd in that category. If Washington can win battles on the boards and keep the game close, then the team has a shot at yet another upset victory.
Otherwise, they'll be sunk from the get-go.
Key Matchup: Tyson Chandler vs. Emeka Okafor
Tyson Chandler was named Defensive Player of the Year in his first season with the Knicks, and he is making a strong case for another trophy in 2012-13. He is averaging 11.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, and also leads the league in field goal percentage. This season, Chandler has made an incredible 67 percent of his shots.
This can be attributed to him being a great paint presence, and he has been in beast mode his past five games. Chandler has posted 10.2 points and 14 boards over that stretch, and has also reached the 20-rebound mark in three consecutive games. That ties a mark last reached by Knicks great Willis Reed, set in 1969.
Against a tough rebounding team like Washington, Chandler must continue to be great. He is going to be guarded by Emeka Okafor, who is on a hot streak of his own.
Okafor is averaging just 8.8 points and 8.7 rebounds on the season, and is not as effective a scorer as Chandler. In incorporating a jump shot to be used on top of his interior offense, the former UConn star has made just 48 percent of his attempts, which is low for a center.
Over his last five, however, Okafor has been hot. He has posted 11.4 points and 13 rebounds per game, and finally seems to be in a groove and using his 6'10", 255 pound frame effectively.
He'll need to use it to overcome the lockdown D of the 7'1", 235-pound Chandler, which has been no easy task for any center this season. If he can keep up his strong rebounding performances and box Chandler out as much as possible, then Washington will have a chance.
The key to defeating the Knicks is to out-rebound and out-defend them, and that's easy to do once Chandler is taken out of the equation.
X-Factor: Amar'e Stoudemire
If Chandler, for one reason or another, is off his game against Washington, then the Knicks will need yet another solid game from Amar'e Stoudemire. Ever since his return to the team on January 1, after undergoing knee surgery, the man they call "Stat" has turned into an excellent low post player after earning a reputation as a mid-range scorer and fierce dunker over his first 10 seasons.
Whatever work the man did with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer has clearly worked well. Of Stoudemire's 137 field goal attempts this season, only 28 have come outside the paint. He is committed to his new approach, and his recent performances show just how important he is to the Knicks' future.
Stoudemire has averaged just 13.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in 16 games, and has played 22.7 minutes per contest, all off the bench. His last five games, however, show a different type of player.
The six-time All-Star has averaged 18 points and 5.6 rebounds over that stretch, and he has shot an astounding 72 percent from the field. He has adjusted very well to both his new role and head coach Mike Woodson's defensive system, and he'll need to continue to be great when the Knicks take on Washington.
This means using his 6'11", 245-pound frame to take advantage of the Wizards' youth and inexperience in the paint. It means fighting his way to the basket and not being intimidated by Washington's defense. When the going gets tough, he cannot resort to his jump shot instead of trying to draw a foul under the basket.
Stoudemire simply needs to continue what he's been doing ever since coming back from his surgery, which is be great when the Knicks need him to be. Against the inexperienced Wizards, this should not be a problem at all.
As much as the Wizards would love to have this game, there is just no way it can happen. The Knicks have been too focused during their five-game winning streak, and it will extend to six at the Verizon Center.
Carmelo Anthony will turn in another excellent scoring performance, while Tyson Chandler is a beast in the paint once again. He won't reach the 20-rebound mark, but will still have enough to make a difference and swing the pendulum in the Knicks' favor.
Who will win?
Emeka Okafor will be no match for New York's dominant center, and not even clutch baskets from Martell Webster and Jordan Crawford will be enough to keep Washington in the game. Combined with solid performances from Chandler and Anthony, plus key three-pointers from J.R. Smith and Steve Novak and another solid night from Amar'e Stoudemire, the Wizards will be in for a long night against the Knicks.
By the final buzzer, New York will be celebrating yet another victory and looking towards its next game, against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 8. Washington, on the other hand, will just be left looking for another way to get the formula right with this young group of players.
New York Knicks 104, Washington Wizards 90