The New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors may be on the two opposite ends of the Eastern Conference paradigm overall, but their recent play actually points toward them being closer than anyone realizes.
Toronto got its third consecutive victory on Tuesday night with a thrilling, 109-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets. Rudy Gay knocked down his second game-winning jumper in six games with the Raptors and has given them the alpha-dog type scorer they had hoped for thus far. Unfortunately, there won't be any time for Toronto to bask in its glory with a game versus the Knicks on tap Wednesday.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have had plenty of time to stew after getting embarrassed on national television by the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. Carmelo Anthony had a game-high 42 points, but he was just one of two New York players in double figures. J.R. Smith may as well have called in sick, scoring just six points on 1-of-9 shooting, and Amar'e Stoudemire scored in single digits for the first time since Jan. 11.
Three days is a long time to carry frustration in the NBA, but if the Knicks have any anger left in their tank, expect a voracious attempt at expelling it on the Raptors. But both teams will certainly be looking to get a victory before the All-Star Weekend festivities in Houston, so this should be a competitive matchup.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of Wednesday night's contest, including a look at the key matchups and storylines for the game.
Start Time: Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Madison Square Garden in New York City
Team Records: Toronto Raptors (20-32) vs. New York Knicks (32-17)
TV Info: MSG Network
Live Stream: NBA League Pass (Pay service)
Raptors Injury Report (Via CBS Sports)
Linas Klieza, Knee, Out
Mickael Pietrus, Knee, Out
Knicks Injury Report (Via CBS Sports)
Marcus Camby, Foot, Out
Rasheed Wallace, Foot, Out
Key Storyline: Will Evolutionary Amar'e Continue to Dominate?
Rampant worries about the effect Amar'e Stoudemire's return would have on the team's chemistry have long been assuaged. Stoudemire has not only morphed into a willing role player since returning to action, he's been arguably the NBA's best sixth man since January.
He's averaging 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 23.0 minutes per night, which translates to a 22-7 line when prorated over 36 minutes. His win shares per 48 minutes (.210) are the highest since 2007-08, when Stoudemire played at MVP levels the entire season for Phoenix.
As one would expect, Stoudemire seems to be growing more comfortable in the sixth man role with every passing game. There was an admittedly slow start, but over the past 12 games, Stoudemire has been a monster. He's shooting 64.3 percent from the field and averaging 16.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
While Stoudemire may view this sixth man role as a short-term proposition, we may be seeing who he should be for the remainder of this season and perhaps longer. He gives the Knicks an unbelievable bench weapon, a guy who can singe-handedly carry the second-unit offense when Carmelo Anthony is off the floor.
And it's hard to discount how much these limited minutes will help extend Stoudemire's career, but that's a discussion for another day.
As for Wednesday night, it's hard to see Toronto finding much of an answer for Stoudemire. The Raptors aren't exactly what one would call an efficient defensive squad to begin with, but their struggles against in the paint are (arguably) their most noteworthy detriment. Toronto ranks in the bottom in points in the paint allowed, a product of the team allowing an exceedingly high amount of shots inside nine feet, per HoopData.
The Raptors are also allowing teams to make an above-average rate of those shots, so it's not like the opposition is fruitlessly pounding the ball inside, either. With Stoudemire on fire and Toronto's defensive inefficiencies on full display—especially with noted turnstile Andrea Bargnani back in the lineup—look for a big day for the Knicks inside.
Key Matchup: Rudy Gay vs. Carmelo Anthony
When Gay was acquired by the Raptors, the easiest assumption was that he was brought in with the purpose of being an explosive wing scorer in a wide-open offense. To a certain extent, that's true. Gay's athleticism and open-court prowess are both top-shelf and he seems exceedingly happy to be an unquestioned top dog again.
He's averaging 23.4 points per game thus far in Toronto, and Gay's player efficiency rating has jumped from a paltry 14.2 in Memphis to 19.8 with the Raptors. A ton of the statistical spike has to do with the increase in isolations and offensive responsibility, but it's impressive nonetheless.
However, Gay's biggest impact (at least so far) has been on the defensive end. According to NBA.com's stats database, the Raptors allow over 16 fewer points per 100 possessions when Gay is on the floor. That's an utterly astounding rate and backs up what you see on tape. Gay has seemed far more active on the perimeter, as evidenced by his ridiculous 2.7 steals per game with Toronto.
Of course, everything that Gay has done screams extremely limited sample size alert. It's impossible to draw any long-term conclusions over a six-game sample size in just about any sport, but that's especially the case for a recently-traded guy who is just happy to finally be out of what had to be a frustrating situation in Memphis.
For these purposes, we aren't worried about whether Gay's defensive efforts will continue over the long term. The Raptors are just far more interested in whether Gay will be able to stop the human buzzsaw known as Carmelo Anthony.
The entire NBA talk has been consumed with LeBron James' recent stretch of never-before-seen ascendance, but 'Melo hasn't been too shabby himself.
Over the Knicks' past four games, Anthony is averaging 34.0 points and 8.3 rebounds while being red-hot from the field. He's knocking down 51.1 percent of his shots, including 42.4 percent from beyond the arc, while taking a whopping 23.0 field goals per contest.
He's been a matchup nightmare from everywhere on the floor, which leaves Gay a ton of work to do on both ends. It's unlikely that Gay will take Anthony every time down the floor given his offensive responsibilities, but when he does, it will be absolutely critical that the new Raptor continues proving his worth.
Projected Starting Lineups and Key Reserves
Raptors Starting Lineup
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Rudy Gay
PF: Amir Johnson
C: Jonas Valanciunas
Raptors Key Reserves
PG: John Lucas
SG: Terrence Ross
C: Andrea Bargnani
Knicks Starting Lineup
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: Jason Kidd
SF: Iman Shumpert
PF: Carmelo Anthony
C: Tyson Chandler
Knicks Key Reserves
SG: J.R. Smith
PF: Amar'e Stoudemire
PF: Steve Novak
Though their record suggests bottom feeder, the Raptors are among the most dangerous lottery teams heading into All-Star Weekend. They are 16-13 after winning just four of their first 23 games and have wins against the Clippers and Pacers thus far in February.
However, Toronto is also on the second night of a back-to-back playing a Knicks team that has lost just seven times all season at home. One could say this has all the makings of a "schedule loss" for the Raptors, but it's pretty hard to envision them beating the Knicks as Madison Square Garden even when fully rested.
Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler should be able to freely dominate the paint, and a week off may be the only thing that could slow down 'Melo at this point.
Look for the Knicks to appease the home crowd with a relatively easy win on Wednesday.
Final Score Prediction: Knicks 105, Raptors 90
(Note: Individual statistical data is up-to-date prior to the conclusion of Tuesday night's action.)