The New York Knicks' streak of 13 straight victories ended in (surprise) Chicago on Thursday, but they will not get even a moment of reflection, as they head to Quicken Loans Arena to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers less than 24 hours later.
Back-to-backs are a cruel mistress for teams locked into playoff spots, and the Knicks did themselves no favors on Thursday night by heading to overtime.
Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith both continued their brilliant scoring ways in the Knicks' 118-111 loss to the Bulls, but neither were very efficient. They combined to shoot 24-of-61(!) from the field on Thursday, jacking up shots from all over the floor with unrepentant glee.
Knicks fans can probably live with that performance considering what Smith and Anthony have brought over the past month. The duo was jaw-droppingly effective during New York's 13-game winning streak, something the entire state of New York (save for a certain city borough) is hoping will continue into the playoffs.
The remainder of the season for Cleveland is simply about moving toward the future. Dion Waiters returned to the lineup for the first time since March 20 on Wednesday night, scoring 11 points in 15 minutes in the Cavs' 111-104 loss to Detroit.
Injuries have ravaged Cleveland's entire roster this season, but it's been particularly frustrating for the team's backcourt. Injuries to Waiters and Kyrie Irving have left the duo unable to get critical minutes on the floor together.
Only a minuscule sample size of games remains this season, and the Cavaliers aren't going to push Waiters too hard, but they definitely want to see as much of that duo on the floor together as possible.
Friday, Cleveland management will get to see how Waiters and Irving fare against the hottest team in basketball.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about the upcoming clash of Eastern Conference foes.
Start Time: Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland
Team Records: New York Knicks (51-27), Cleveland Cavaliers (24-54)
TV Info: FOX Sports Ohio
Stream: NBA League Pass (Pay Service)
Knicks Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
C Tyson Chandler, Neck, Out
F Kenyon Martin, Ankle, Out
F Amar'e Stoudemire, Knee, Out
F Kurt Thomas, Foot, Out
F Rasheed Wallace, Foot, Out
Cavaliers Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
F Luke Harangody, Knee, Out
G Daniel Gibson, Shoulder, Questionable
F C.J. Miles, Concussion, Questionable
F Luke Walton, Ankle, Questionable
C Anderson Varejao, Knee/Lung, Out for Season
Key Storyline: How Will the Knicks Handle Their Post-Streak Life?
It seemed that almost from the moment Chicago ended the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak, the entire team hit the pause button. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh began missing games like they were college classes where professors didn't take attendance.
It's at least somewhat possible the Knicks employ a similar strategy here against Cleveland. Playing in the second night of a back-to-back is torturous at this juncture in the season, especially for a team already as depleted as the Knicks. Their injury report has looked like a MASH unit the entire season, and this is a team with championship-level confidence after a 13-game winning streak.
How should the Knicks handle Friday night's game?
A team-wide decision to phone it in against a lottery dweller on Friday would be more than understandable. Miami did it on Wednesday against the Wizards and somehow pulled off a victory, so it's hard to see anyone with a truly lingering injury suiting up for the Knicks.
That being said, New York doesn't have quite the same luxury as Miami. Mike Woodson's club holds a two-game lead over the Indiana Pacers for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, but a showdown on Sunday lingers. An upset at the hands of the Cavaliers and a loss to Indiana on Sunday could not only tie the race up, but also give the Pacers a tiebreaker advantage.
Or, thinking more positively, a win against Cleveland and Indiana locks up the whole shebang for the Knicks. At that point they could rest their starters for the season's final two games without feeling an ounce of guilt or fear.
As for what Woodson will actually do, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. And as long as J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony are in the lineup, that's probably just fine for New York's chances.
X-Factor: New York's Three-Point Shooting
Outside of the excellence of Anthony and Smith, the Knicks' recent ascent has been their brilliant three-point shooting from secondary players.
Much like they were doing at the beginning of the season, the Knicks are knocking down three-pointers at an insane rate. Prior to Thursday night's game against Chicago, New York was knocking down 42.5 percent of its three pointers while taking 27.5 attempts per game since March 18—the beginning of its now-ended winning streak.
That figure would be nearly two percent greater than Golden State's league-best mark, all while taking threes at a rate only eclipsed by Houston. The Knicks shot an above-average percentage rate at every single spot on the floor, with a range of 3.4 percent better (right wing) to 11.4 percent better (top of the key).
New York has had a never-ending string of three-point proficiency, knocking down shots at a rate comparable to only one other team this season: The Knicks during their hot start. That Knicks squad hit 41 percent of their threes while taking over 29 attempts per game, meaning this most recent run has been even more proficient than the last.
It's easy to see the Amar'e Stoudemire monster lurking in between those two runs. But he's not the guy taking those shots, and making him responsible for the Knicks' midseason downturn in three-point proficiency isn't fair—especially considering he was coming off the bench.
The shots are just falling now. That, and the Knicks have turned themselves into a well-oiled machine throughout the season. They've learned how to create little wrinkles in their offense to get better shots for their outside targets.
One of New York's favorite sets has Carmelo Anthony doing his best LeBron James impersonation.
Taking an entry pass for an isolation post opportunity, this play design gives Anthony the ability to see the floor completely and read the defensive rotations. Here Hawks forward Josh Smith cheats, Anthony swings the ball over to Iman Shumpert to draw the closing out defender and Shumpert finds Steve Novak for the easy three.
Mike Woodson has also done a great job at getting guys open looks in the corner by calling double screens in seemingly innocuous motion sets. On this play, Raymond Felton acts like he's going to set a down screen for Shumpert—basic NBA action—and instead darts to the corner as his defender is unable to work through before allowing an open jumper.
Plenty of teams have begun implementing similar misdirections in their offensive flow; the Knicks are just better at it than any other team, save for Miami.
Of course, getting good shots is not the same as making them. Synergy ranks the Cavaliers 20th against spot-up shooters this season, which isn't bad for a team that is wretched defensively. They allow opposing teams to shoot 37 percent overall beyond the arc, showing vigorous signs of mediocrity everywhere except the left corner.
That's a good sign overall for the Knicks, but one has to wonder if any defense can stop the three-point barrage at this point.
Matchup: Kyrie Irving vs. the Knicks' Isolation Defense
Recent winning streak or not, New York remains a very suspect defensive team—most notably on the perimeter. None of its major contributors on the outside are remotely close to being plus defenders, and the problem only gets exacerbated when Tyson Chandler isn't there to clean up messes in the middle.
According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks rank 16th overall in opponents' points per possession. They particularly struggle against pick-and-roll situations where the ball-handler finishes the play and in isolation, allowing 0.87 points per possession on those plays, 27th in the NBA.
And unless Jason Kidd somehow finds his 27-year-old legs again, there isn't much the Knicks can do to fix it. Other than Shumpert, their entire perimeter rotation is filled with guys who know how to play defense but are too slow (Kidd) or guys who just never learned how (J.R. Smith, though he's been admittedly better of late).
For Kyrie Irving, matchups against the Knicks are field days as a result. The Cavs superstar scores 1.05 points per possession on isolation plays, ranking fourth-best in the NBA, per Synergy.
It should come as no surprise that the man with the slickest handles in the game is also a great isolation player. Those who dribble well tend to get better shots in isolation, and Irving has done a fair share of dribbling well this season—just ask Brandon Knight.
As such, the Cavaliers have worked to get Irving in isolation a ton when not running their standard offense.
A whopping 29.1 percent of Irving's possessions that result in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free throws are a direct result of isolation. On a team-wide level, Irving represents over a third of Cleveland's used isolation possessions, which undoubtedly plays a great deal in the Cavs ranking fifth in the league in points per possession, per Synergy.
One of Byron Scott's favorite ways to get Irving the ball in isolation comes after an inbounds play. Irving will be isolated against his man on the weak side and the inbounder will pass the ball to a big at the top of the key.
From there, the big will hand the ball off to Irving and gallivant down into the paint, where he and the remaining four Cavaliers will pretend they have any importance whatsoever on this possession.
Here, Irving pulls up on Knight, who was giving him plenty of space. Irving has an equal propensity to use these opportunities to break his man off the dribble. This is all very basic stuff, elementary almost. But Irving makes it work because he can score in a multitude of ways.
The Knicks, as mentioned, aren't great against iso sets. Irving torched them for seven of his 15 field goals in iso sets back in his 41-point effort in December, and he hit five such shots back in the teams' last meeting. New York's on-ball perimeter defense didn't improve much during the streak, so Irving should be able to have a solid outing.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Raymond Felton
SG: Pablo Prigioni
SF: Iman Shumpert
PF: Chris Copeland
C: Carmelo Anthony
PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Wayne Ellington
SF: Alonzo Gee
PF: Tristan Thompson
C: Tyler Zeller
With the streak dead and buried, it's arguable that New York can now pump the brakes a bit. The Knicks have a two-game lead over Indiana for the second seed with four games remaining, making it overwhelmingly likely they'll capture it.
Still, the risk of resting stars is just too great with Sunday's game against the Pacers lingering.
That makes Cleveland an important opponent, even if Mike Woodson would love to rest his players.
Other than a moral pat on the back, there aren't many poignant reasons the Cavaliers need to win. Coach Byron Scott is on the hot seat, but it's not like anyone in Cleveland is clamoring for his return next season. The Cavaliers are in that strange space where they're trying to build momentum for the future yet are probably better off losing.
Meanwhile, every win that piles up is another step closer for the Knicks locking up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Especially considering the prevalence of injuries throughout the roster, New York is going to need every advantage it can get—even if its ultimate destiny is losing to Miami in the postseason.
Irving should have a solid game here, as he always does. It just won't nearly be enough to take down a Knicks team that needs to keep its momentum heading into the weekend.
Score Prediction: Knicks 108, Cavaliers 94