After a shocking loss to the Washington Wizards on Feb. 6, the New York Knicks will look to shake off the rust from that game and dominate the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center on Feb. 8. Minnesota's roster is riddled with injuries and is basically being held together by tape, so there is really no reason that New York should not be in control from the get-go.
However, the Timberwolves are not to be counted out. They gave the Knicks a game at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 23 and have done a decent job of keeping games close, even in defeat.
Keeping the score close will be the team's key to victory when New York comes to town. As was evidenced against the Wizards, the Knicks tend to play sloppy defense when they get cocky against lesser teams, and that cannot be the case tonight.
New York needs to use this game to get back on the winning track, while Minnesota is looking for an upset win to break a recent losing stretch. The Timberwolves have lost 13 of 15, and what was expected to be the team's first good season in years has become lost.
Needless to say, this team is going to be out to play spoiler, and it's up to the Knicks' defense to prevent that.
Time: Friday, Feb. 8, 8 p.m. EST
TV: MSG, Fox Sports North
Records: New York Knicks (31-16) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (18-28)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, Feb. 7, 10:43 a.m. EST
Injuries: Brandon Roy (knee, out), Chase Budinger (knee, out), Malcolm Lee (knee, out), Kevin Love (hand, out), Andrei Kirilenko (quad, day-to-day), Rasheed Wallace (foot, out), Marcus Camby (foot, out), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Are Short-Handed Timberwolves Capable of an Upset?
As I mentioned earlier, the Minnesota Timberwolves visited the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 23, and it was an extremely close game. Not only were the Knicks out-rebounded 47-35, but they also shot just 23 percent from three-point range.
Fortunately, Carmelo Anthony went into beast mode late in the game and the Knicks won, 94-91. Anthony had 33 points, 19 of which came in the fourth quarter, and not even 21 points and 17 rebounds from Nikola Pekovic could save Minnesota.
But the landscape has changed now, and not in Minnesota's favor. Team star and double-double machine Kevin Love missed the first Knicks game with an eye injury, and he'll miss this one with a broken hand. The Timberwolves could really use the pesky nature of Andrei Kirilenko, but he may not even play due to a strained quad.
This leaves Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic as the primary go-to guys for the team, but everyone else will need to step up their efforts as well. New York is the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference for a reason, and it has what it takes to make short work of an injury-devastated team.
Yes, the Knicks just lost to the lowly Wizards, but that team at least had most of its starters available. Losing to Minnesota is borderline inexcusable, and the Timberwolves will be out to embarrass New York to the extreme.
This means that the Knicks of the early season must come out to play and absolutely take Minnesota to school.
Key Matchup: Tyson Chandler vs. Nikola Pekovic
One of the ways to beat the Knicks is to out-rebound them, and Minnesota can do that, ranking seventh in that category. This means that Nikola Pekovic will need to have another excellent game, absolutely dominating the paint.
On the season, Pekovic is averaging 16 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and has shot 51 percent from the field. His 6'11", 290-pound frame allows him to be an excellent presence in the low post, and he is the man responsible for a majority of Minnesota's defense.
However, Pekovic is not exactly what one would call a top athlete. He is slow on his feet, which could prove to be a problem against Knicks center Tyson Chandler.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Chandler has picked up right where he left off last season, averaging 11.6 points and 11.3 rebounds en route to his first All-Star appearance. He is also leading the league in field-goal percentage, having made an incredible 67 percent of his attempts.
Chandler is not only taller than Pekovic, at 7'1", but he is also quicker on his feet and more of an overall defensive force rather than just a low-post presence. Over his last five games, he has averaged 11.4 points and 16 rebounds, refusing to back down from a loose ball.
However, Pekovic was able to out-rebound and outscore Chandler the first time these two teams met. Now that the battle is going to be in Minnesota, it's safe to say that Pekovic will be fully locked in and refuse to let Chandler defeat him on his home court.
This means that Chandler has to fight past the cheers of the passionate Minnesota crowd and go after every single rebound, refusing to let Pekovic box him out and take control. On offense, he needs to be in complete communication with the rest of his teammates.
In doing so, the pendulum will swing in the Knicks' favor, not to mention leave Pekovic stunned as to how his opponent is having such a solid game.
X-Factor: Raymond Felton
The Timberwolves have an excellent playmaking point guard in second-year man Ricky Rubio. The Knicks must try to beat him at his own game, if not take him out of the game completely. This means that point man Raymond Felton needs to be in full pass-first mode, with his scoring being second priority.
This should not be too hard, as Felton is a point guard absolutely perfect for Knicks coach Mike Woodson's isolation game. He can hold his own in the scoring department and play good defense, but his primary job is to just get the ball to the go-to guys.
The former Tar Heel is averaging 14.9 points and 6.5 assists per game on the season and has shot 37 percent from downtown. The only real mark against him is his low field-goal percentage of 40 percent. That can be attributed to him getting a bit trigger-happy on offense if he starts having a good night early.
Over his last five games, however, Felton's offense has been effective. He has averaged just 11.4 points per contest, but has shot 47 percent from both the field and long range. Felton has also posted 7.6 assists through that stretch. He needs to take a similar approach against Minnesota.
This means faking out the defense with no-look passes and not being afraid to drive the lane and draw a foul by going for a layup instead of a jump shot.
Felton does not have much size at 6'1", 205 pounds. That could stop him from using his interior game, but he has to at least try.
Just one layup from him could make the difference, and the Knicks will need him to fill that type of role tonight. This is a win that the team needs badly, in spite of its position in the standings, and a blowout victory could provide plenty of momentum for the team as the second half of the season draws closer.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: Jason Kidd
SF: Iman Shumpert
PF: Carmelo Anthony
C: Tyson Chandler
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Luke Ridnour
SF: Mickael Gelebale
PF: Derrick Williams
C: Nikola Pekovic
The Timberwolves were able to keep the game close against the New York Knicks in December, but that's not going to be the case tonight. The team is just too devastated by injury and too young to make a difference against a veteran squad like New York's, and the final score is going to reflect that.
Ricky Rubio may have another solid performance in both scoring and passing, not to mention defense, but the lack of a pure scorer is going to hurt his and his team's chances at victory.
Nikola Pekovic will be solid in the paint, but Tyson Chandler will be better prepared for him this time. Pekovic may have the better scoring output, but Chandler will have the upper hand in rebounding and will also have a couple of key blocked shots.
Carmelo Anthony will have another good scoring game, reaching double figures and continuing to make a strong case for MVP. He'll receive plenty of help from Raymond Felton, who will do a great job of finding Anthony open, and the rest of the Knicks will benefit from Felton's distribution as well.
J.R. Smith will have a great night off the bench, as will Steve Novak. Even Iman Shumpert will sink some key three-pointers on top of his notoriously pesky defense.
This game is the Knicks' to lose, and their strong charge out of the starting gate will ensure that they come away with the victory—a big one at that.
New York Knicks 107, Minnesota Timberwolves 93