After dispatching the then Western Conference-leading San Antonio Spurs 104-102 last night in Texas, the Knicks remained the NBA's lone remaining unbeaten team at 6-0, and they face a Grizzlies team that now leads the West at 6-1. In addition to the league's two best records, the Knicks and Grizzlies also boast the league's two best point differentials. No-one knows what the future holds, but, for the moment, this is a match-up of the two best teams in the NBA.
And it'll be showcased for the nation, with a late 8:30 tipoff on ESPN. Wednesday's game against the Thunder drew the biggest local rating ever for a regular-season NBA game on ESPN. Given that it's a Friday night and 18,000 potential viewers will be in the building instead, this one is unlikely to match that, but it should be a near-playoff-level event anyway.
I'll be on the scene tonight and will be tweeting from by perch on media row and filing a postgame notebook afterward. But first, here are four things on my mind about Knicks-Grizzlies, because a game of this magnitude deserves a bonus
1. Can Rudy Gay Complete the Hat Trick?: Sunday, against the Miami Heat, Gay matched up against the best small forward in the world, and it went like this:
Lebron James — 20 points on 10-19 shooting, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 stocks
Rudy Gay — 21 points on 7-17 shooting, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 stocks
Then, Wednesday, Gay matched up against the second-best small forward in the world, and it went like this:
Kevin Durant — 34 points on 12-21 shooting, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 stocks
Rudy Gay — 28 points on 12-21 shooting, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, zero stocks
Tonight, Gay will match-up against the third-best small forward* in the world in Carmelo Anthony, who's an early MVP candidate averaging 24 points and 8 rebounds. Can he roughly neutralize Anthony in the manner he did James and Durant? If so, it'll give the Grizzlies — and Gay's inevitable All-Star campaign — a big boost.
2. The Unavoidable Big/Small Match-Up Question: The reason for that asterisk in the preceding paragraph is that, with Amare Stoudemire out with an injury and most of the rest of the Knicks' frontcourt rotation (Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby) studying nursing-home manuals, Anthony is technically playing power forward for the Knicks right now.
The Grizzlies were able to sidestep potential match-up complications against the Heat and Thunder. The Heat only went to their small(er) alignment — James and Chris Bosh surrounded by three guards — in the fourth quarter, when they were already substantially behind. I don't think the Thunder ever really used their small lineup — Durant at power forward. Such is the respect those teams had for the Grizzlies power game. But I suspect, given the outcomes, that is was a mistake not to use small-ball earlier and more often.
The Knicks, by contrast, don't have much of a choice. Here's how the prospective starting lineups will look tonight:
PG Mike Conley Raymond Felton
SG Tony Allen Jason Kidd
SF Rudy Gay Ronnie Brewer
PF Zach Randolph Carmelo Anthony
C Marc Gasol Tyson Chandler
If you match that up directly, it would have Randolph guarding Anthony. Are the Grizzlies really going to do that? Certainly, Gay or Allen would be a more desirable defender to put on Anthony but then who does Randolph guard? Do you put him on Kidd (7.6 points per game) or Brewer (9 points per game) given that both are relative non-scorers? I probably would, especially on Brewer, whose early 47% three-point shooting is wildly out of character.
And it works both ways. On the offensive end, Chandler, as a great a defender as he is, can't guard Gasol and Randolph, which gives the Grizzlies a big post advantage with whichever big isn't checked by Chandler. Is Anthony going to try to contain Z-Bo on the block?
Another potential match-up wrinkle might involve Kidd, who, in recent years, struggles mightily against smaller, quicker guards. The Grizzlies could try to use a Conley/Jerryd Bayless backcourt (which they used to close out Wednesday's victory in Oklahoma City) during some stretches when Kidd's in the game to create a quickness advantage on the perimeter.
There are a lot of interesting and complicated lineup and match-up decisions confronting both coaches tonight.
3. Three-Point Defense: While the Knicks are pretty dependent on Carmelo Anthony to generate points, his individual scoring doesn't explain how the Knicks are so far the NBA's best offensive team. Adding a low team turnover rate and the league's most prolific three-point shooting attack to the Anthony foundation is more of what's boosted them to the top. I recommend triage with regard to Knicks three-point shooters:
J.R. Smith (73% on 3.2 attempts)
Steve Novak (39% on 4.3 attempts)
Raymond Felton (41% on 4.5 attempts)
Jason Kidd (55% on 3.3 attempts)
Ronnie Brewer (47% on 2.8 attempts)
Play Off Unless They Get Hot:
Carmelo Anthony (31% on 4.8 attempts)
Rasheed Wallace (26% on 3.2 attempts)
4. The Best Big/Wing Defensive Combos: In addition to the league's top-ranked offense, the Knicks currently hold the NBA's second-ranked defense. How is that possible with Carmelo Anthony starting at power forward and Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd starting in the backcourt? Look at the other two starters. Center Tyson Chandler is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year while new starting small forward Ronnie Brewer is one of the league's best wing defenders.
My entirely unscientific observation is that if you have a strong defensive anchor in the paint and an elite perimeter stopper combined with a good defensive coach, you can be a high-level defense regardless of the rest of your personnel. And both the Knicks and Grizzlies are in very good shape when it comes to this kind of defensive foundation.
My quick list of the NBA's best current big/wing defender combos, with overall team defensive rank in parenthesis:
1. Knicks — Ronnie Brewer/Tyson Chandler (#2 Team Defense)
2. Grizzlies — Tony Allen Marc Gasol (#6 Team Defense)
3. Lakers — Metta World Peace/Dwight Howard (#8 Team Defense)
4. Bulls — Luol Deng/Joakim Noah (#3 Team Defense)
5. Thunder — Thabo Sefolosha/Serge Ibaka (#5 Team Defense)