Over the past four seasons, neither the Clippers nor the Knicks have won more than 32 games in any of them. During the losing, they have shared such players as Zach Randolph, Tim Thomas, Mardy Collins and Cuttino Mobley (kind of). Yet while both struggled to win, even to put together consistent lineups at many points, they have managed to produce some of the most entertaining basketball moments of that time when they got together. Two years ago, they played not one, , but two overtime thrillers, including a 35-point, eight rebound(!) outburst by Mike Taylor that had the fans at the Garden going crazy. Both games, somehow, were heavily influenced by Al Harrington getting called for hanging on the rim down the stretch.
Their first meeting this season was an instant classic and a turning point for the young Clips. The Knicks won, 124-115, behind 39 points from Amar’e Staudemire, but it marked the end of a 1-13 start for the Clippers and gave promise for good things to come. Blake Griffin had the best game of his career (to that point), with 44 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists and a whole collection of highlight dunks in his breakout performance. It propelled the team to win three of its next five games, including New Orleans and San Antonio while they owned the league’s best records. Since that game, the Clippers are 18-19, with wins over the Lakers, Heat, Nuggets, and Bulls. They are coming off of four consecutive losses (including the first three games of the current 11-game roadtrip), though, and as you would expect, are struggling to replace Eric Gordon.
The Knicks come in at 26-24, good enough for the sixth best record in the Eastern Conference. Their play has been streaky; at one point they rattled off 13 wins in 14 games, but only two of those came against teams with records above .500. They have had success at times behind Raymond Felton and Amar’e, but have struggled to sustain a consistent level of play without a legitimate starting center or any depth in the backcourt.
When these two teams meet again, it will be a battle of tempo and the ability to play to each one’s strengths. The Knicks play at the 2nd fastest pace in the league and will look to push the ball up the floor to Amar’e and open shooters. The Clippers will attempt to defend the perimeter better than they have recently, limit turnovers (they commit the 2nd most turnovers per game, 16.1) and control the glass if they hope to get their first win of the road trip.
Keys to the Game
-The 2008 Draft. The Knicks had the sixth pick in Donnie Walsh’s first draft as G.M., and with it, they took 6’10” forward Danilo Gallinari. With the next pick, Mike Dunleavy took a player he never expected would be available, Eric Gordon. The two are different as players, and the Clippers may have wound up with the better player, but the Knicks are still high on the hilarious Italian. At the time, Walsh said he envisioned Gallo becoming a superstar a la Dirk Nowitzki, with his mix of size, shooting touch, feel for the game, and of, course, European-ness. These two will always be connected in the eyes on many Knicks and Clippers fans, and though they have taken different paths, they remain integral parts of their respective teams. Gallo may not ever become Dirk, but he is still 22 and shows flashes of being very difficult to stop. He ranks eighth among forwards who qualify in True Shooting Percentage (60.8%), and many Knicks fans would like to see him featured more prominently in the team’s offense. As a secondary option behind the Felton-Amar’e pick-and-roll, he tends to get lost standing around on the perimeter at times, but he is deadly from three and has improved his game going to the basket – according to Hoopdata, he is converting 70% of his shots at the rim this season, up from 59.4% last year.
For Gordon, his significance is felt as much in his absence as when he’s playing. Not many teams have a player like him, and even fewer would be prepared to account for losing him. The Clippers have won two of eight games since Gordon went out, with both wins coming against mediocre Eastern Conference teams. Randy Foye has assumed his starting spot, but the team has been unable to provide enough balance on the perimeter to prevent teams from clogging up the lane and swarming Griffin. As Blake said to Kevin Arnovitz a couple games ago, “it changes the game with Eric Gordon out.” Foye had another poor shooting night on Tuesday against Orlando (3-13), his third stinker in the last four games, a problem for the team that suddenly lacks depth at guard.
-Battle of the Bigs. The Knicks have had some success doing what they do, but they have also shown a glaring weakness on defense and on the glass. Amar’e is the main event for New York, but they have yet to find him a viable post partner, someone who can make up for his shortcomings in those areas. Rookie Timofey Mozgov (the pinnacle of Blake posterization) has seen a bump in playing time over the last four games, and he has shown promise, including a 23-point, 14-rebound performance in almost 40 minutes against Detroit. He has intriguing athleticism for someone his size (7’1”), and may prove to be a nice piece of their rotation, but this is a matchup against the Knicks bigs that should be a big advantage for the Clippers. The Knicks have been awful on the boards (26th in the league with a -3.7 number against their opponents), while the Clippers have found their strength there (4th in the league, +3.7).
Griffin managed to get the best of Amar’e last time they met, and by many measures, has been better all season, believe it or not. While Amar’e has generated impressive scoring numbers (26ppg), he has done so with the most touches of any power forward in the league (31.42 % of possessions used). Blake, on the other hand, scores slightly less (22.9 ppg, third among power forwards), but with a smaller Usage Rate (27.81). At this point, Amar’e is better equipped to operate on offense thanks to the shooters that surround him, whereas Blake will need to get used to constant double- and triple-teams until Gordon returns – as evidenced by his 4-12 shooting performance against the Magic. What separates these two elite power forwards, though, is their rebounding ability. Blake ranks sixth (19.8) among power forwards in Total Rebound Rate, while Amar’e comes in 31st, with 13.1. It’s a staggering difference, one that should give the Clippers a real edge. If Blake and DeAndre Jordan cannot establish a strong advantage on the glass, they could be in real trouble.
-Baron against Felton. When the Knicks have won, they have generally done so on the strength of strong point guard play from Felton. He is averaging 17 points and nearly nine assists a game, mostly from thriving in D’Antoni’s system. He has arguably the best scoring big man in Stoudemire, and the two have become a dangerous pick-and-roll pair. While he has proven to be a savvy pickup by Walsh, Felton’s early numbers may be slightly misleading and his play has cooled off after a hot start way above his career levels. His field goal percentage (42%) and three point percentage (33%) are actually down from last season in Charlotte, and despite calls for an All-Star spot, his Adjusted PER (18.9), puts him in the middle of the pack among point guards. Despite his ups-and-downs, he remains a dangerous threat to shoot from three and is capable of finding open shooters off the pick-and-roll.
Baron, meanwhile, has seen his Adjusted PER (17.9) rise as he has worked himself into shape and into sync with his high-flying teammates. Once trailing way behind Felton among point guards this season, Baron enters this game as a key for the Clippers, coming off an impressive performance against Orlando (25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists). He may have a great opportunity to get in the lane against the defensively-challenged Knicks, and if he does so, he should find open looks for himself and dump-offs to Griffin and Jordan. It should be an uptempo night, in which case it will be Baron’s responsibility to control the ball and limit turnovers. If he can do that, the Clippers have a good chance to beat the Knicks at their own game.
Chris Kaman: left ankle, out
Craig Smith: herniated disc, out
Eric Gordon: wrist/back, day to day (out) (note on Gordon: Lisa Dillman tweeted that Eric Gordon saw the doctor and the original timetable is unchanged)
Kelenna Azubuike: left knee, out
Eddy Curry: left hamstring, out
Ronny Turiaf: sprained right ankle, doubtful
Note: Breene will be at ESPN’s Daily Dime Live if you want to stop by and chat with him