Two weeks ago, the New York Knicks looked like the much better team beating the Cleveland Cavaliers twice — an epic come-from-behind win and a 36-point ass whooping — with rookie Immanuel Quickley starring at the backcourt.
But so much has changed since the preseason.
The Knicks lost Quickley and a lot more to the injury bug, while the Cavaliers are enjoying their finest start at 3-0 since LeBron James left them for the second time.
Despite riding high on a morale-boosting 20-point rout of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks will have to make do with a thin backcourt against the Cavaliers, which boasts of the dynamic pair of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland.
Sexton is averaging 27 points (tied for eighth in the league) and 3.7 assists, while Garland is norming 19 points and 8.3 dimes (seventh in the league).
The Knicks are still without Quickley (hip pointer), Obi Toppin (right calf strain), Omari Spellman (sore right knee), Austin Rivers (sore groin), and Dennis Smith Jr. (left quad contusion), who stayed behind in New York for rehab.
Kevin Knox is also dealing with a sore left knee, and his status for this game is probable, while Alec Burks is questionable after spraining his left ankle in their win against the Bucks.
On the other hand, the Cavaliers are also missing several key players, including Kevin Love (right calf strain) and rookie Isaac Okoro (left foot sprain). Kevin Porter Jr. is also out for personal reasons, while Matthew Dellavedova (concussion) and Dylan Windler (left-hand fracture) join Love and Okoro in the injury list.
Time to step up
Frenchman guard Frank Ntilikina, who drained all his four triples last Sunday night, will have the chance to prove himself after the Knicks declined to extend him.
Ntilikina is having a roller-coaster season after getting buried on the bench in favor of Quickley and Burks. But without Quickley and possibly Burks, Ntilikina is expected to play backup to Elfrid Payton.
Payton also hopes to pick up from where he left off. The 26-year old guard rebounded from a scoreless outing against the Philadelphia 76ers. He set the tone of the Bucks’ rout with a 27-point and 7-assist effort in what easily became his best game as a Knick.
Randle too much to handle
Without Kevin Love, Julius Randle will be too much to handle for the Cavaliers.
Randle is expected to impose his will against his former Lakers teammate Larry Nance Jr. who will replace Love in the starting unit.
Randle has benefited from Thibodeau’s ball movement philosophy. The 6-foot-8 power forward is off to the best start of his seven-year career.
He’s leading the Knicks in all three major categories — 23.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.3 assists — as he continues to thrive in a playmaking forward role.
RJ Barrett will also have a clearer path to attack the rim without Okoro, the Cavaliersâ€™ best lockdown defender.
Barrett has also embraced being a playmaker, dishing out 4.3 assists per game on top of his 17.7-point and 7.3-rebound average.
Stats and matchups to watch
The Cavaliers average 122.3 points in their 3-0 start (118 vs. Philadelphia, 128 vs. Detroit, 121 vs. Charlotte) on the strength of their league-leading 31.3 assists per game.
Five Cavaliers are averaging in double figures, led by Sexton and double-double machine Andre Drummond (20.3 points, 11.0 rebounds).
Payton and Ntilkina will have their hands full against Sexton and Garland. But so are Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel, who have to be smart with their fouls against Drummond.
Javale McGee is also proving to be a solid acquisition for the Cavaliers. The former Lakers’ center has been putting up 10.3 points and five rebounds in 16.7 minutes as Drummond’s backup.
Cleveland is currently no. 2 in the league in defensive rating at 100.3, next to Brooklyn’s 98.3.
With all the injuries they’re dealing with, the Knicks must click on all cylinders to have a chance. They are only averaging 108.7 points per game and can go into a scoring drought as they did in the Sixers loss where they only scored 89.
The Knicks’ 112.6 defensive rating ranks 21st in the league. If they can duplicate the defensive wall they put up against Giannis Antetokoumpo and the Bucks, the Knicks could give the Cavaliers their first loss of the season.
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