The New York Knicks are on a three-game losing streak and will look to avoid making it four against the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre. The team's defensive cohesion has been nonexistent as of late, and it needs to get back on track right now so as to stay at or near the top of the Eastern Conference.
It doesn't help the Knicks that the last time they faced the Raptors, on Feb. 13, they lost a heartbreaker and just shot the ball terribly. The game was close, but New York had no answer for Toronto throughout the game.
That simply cannot be the case for Round 2. New York needs to capture some of the first-half fire that defined the team and just take the lesser Raptors to school. This won't at all be easy, given the team's recent struggles, but everyone simply must come together and unite under one common cause: come away with a big victory.
The Raptors, of course, will be out for a repeat performance, using feisty defense to make life miserable for the Knicks from start to finish. On their home court, expect nothing but a strong outing.
Toronto's strong effort combined with the Knicks' desire to get back to their winning ways should make for a great clash of youth versus experience, and not one that the fans will want to miss.
Time: Friday, Feb. 22, 7:30 p.m. EST
TV: MSG, TSN2
Records: New York Knicks (32-19) vs. Toronto Raptors (22-33)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, Feb. 21, 11:58 a.m. EST
Injuries: Rasheed Wallace (foot, day-to-day), Marcus Camby (foot, day-to-day), Linas Kleiza (knee, out), Mickael Pietrus (knee, out), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Can Knicks Right Defensive Ship in Toronto?
The Knicks may be the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, but they sure haven't played like a team on that level as of late. New York has lost three of four, and its performance against Toronto on Feb. 13 was borderline abysmal.
They only lost 99-82, but the Knicks did not look like an elite team that night. Despite out-rebounding the Raptors 52-35, they shot just 35 percent from the field and had no answers for Toronto's three-point game. The Raptors shot 43 percent from long range that night, including six threes from Alan Anderson, who led the team with 26 points.
On New York's end, J.R. Smith led with 26 points while team star Carmelo Anthony was held to 12 on 5-of-24 shooting.
That cannot be the case against Toronto the second time around. Anthony and his teammates need to be fully locked in and focused, not being afraid to drive the lane as well as mix up the offense with mid-range jumpers and threes. If the shots are not falling, the team must find a way to close a potential gap another way and not just keep shooting in hopes that baskets will soon be made.
This is going to be tough against a feisty Raptors squad basking in the acquisition of Rudy Gay, but the experienced Knicks definitely have what it takes to control the game from start to finish, starting with a strong defensive effort.
Key Matchup: Tyson Chandler vs. Jonas Valanciunas
The Knicks defense starts on the inside, and their No. 23 ranking in rebounding doesn't exactly stack the deck in their favor. However, Tyson Chandler is a great center and the team's best defensive player, and head coach Mike Woodson will need the reigning Defensive Player of the Year to have a solid game on the road.
Blessed with great size for center at 7'1", 240 pounds, Chandler has averaged 11.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game this year. He also leads the league in field-goal percentage, having made an incredible 67 percent of his attempts.
Over his last five games, however, Chandler has not exactly been the fierce and tenacious defender the Knicks need him to be. He has averaged 10.2 rebounds and 9.6 points over that stretch, but has shot just 59 percent from the field.
That isn't bad by any means, but the Knicks need Chandler to be explosive and aggressive from start to finish if they are to get out of their funk. That means using his experience to have a field day against rookie Jonas Valanciunas.
In his first NBA season, Valanciunas has shown strong potential. At 6'11", 231 pounds, he has averaged 7.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks over 21.4 minutes per game.
Those numbers may seem low for a center, but keep in mind that Valanciunas is still learning how to play the 5 on the NBA level. Per 36 minutes, those numbers rise to 12.1 points, 9.1 boards and 1.8 blocks.
Against Chandler, all that Valanciunas can really do is refuse to back down and fight him for every single rebound that comes his way. This means staying out of foul trouble, but not to the point where he plays soft.
Exposing the Knicks' weak defense is the key to a Raptors victory, and that starts with Valanciunas' effort in the paint.
X-Factor: Jason Kidd
The Knicks need Carmelo Anthony to have a strong scoring performance in Toronto on the back of some accurate shooting, but he cannot do it alone. New York needs a player who will sink the important shots when it comes time to take them, and Jason Kidd is that man.
The 39-year-old has done a solid job at shooting guard for the Knicks this season, posting seven points and 1.7 steals per game as a three-point specialist. He has shot a respectable 37 percent from long range, but has not been a strong factor on offense as of late.
Over his last five games, Kidd has shot just 16 percent from the field and 12.5 percent from downtown. His field-goal attempts are either falling short or just not getting through the hoop, and the Knicks need him to get back on track, starting in Toronto.
This means that on top of playing defense, Kidd must find a way to get open in three-point territory and actually make his shots without any hesitation. Even if it's a bit contested, that should not stop him from taking the chance.
Combined with strong scoring performances from Anthony, J.R. Smith and even Tyson Chandler and Amar'e Stoudemire, a good night from Kidd can definitely swing the pendulum in the Knicks' favor.
That isn't to say that Kidd needs to sink an ungodly amount of threes. If he can put up anywhere from seven to 10 points, then New York will be in good shape.
Otherwise, the Knicks will be scrambling for offense instead of having a solid and balanced attack, which can only send them closer to a fourth straight loss.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: Jason Kidd
SF: Iman Shumpert
PF: Carmelo Anthony
C: Tyson Chandler
PG: Kyle Lowry
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Rudy Gay
PF: Andrea Bargnani
C: Jonas Valanciunas
The Knicks need a big win, and they'll get it in Toronto. The team will enter the game with a chip on its shoulder following a string of embarrassing losses, and the New York squad that electrified the league early in the season will make its return to the court.
Tyson Chandler will have a double-double and give Jonas Valanciunas a lesson in how to be a strong NBA center, while Carmelo Anthony gets back into a groove and has a strong scoring night that garners him further MVP consideration. Due to poor shooting performances from Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, the Raptors just won't be able to keep up with the Knicks.
Thus, watch for J.R. Smith and Steve Novak to hit key three-pointers. Jason Kidd will do the same and show everyone that despite his age, he can still keep up with the young guns.
Toronto will look to Alan Anderson and Kyle Lowry to carry them, but the two of them alone won't be able to stop a Knicks squad out to make a statement. As the stunned Air Canada Centre crowd watches on, New York will do just that.
New York Knicks 103, Toronto Raptors 93