In the inaugural "Battle of the Boroughs" game last month, the Brooklyn Nets came away with a decisive overtime victory over the Knicks. With three more meetings this season and both teams battling for the top of the Atlantic Division, the swishing and dishing is bound to get heated between these teams. We've deployed our two basketball beat writers, Jon Fishner (Knicks) and Derek Evers (Nets), to elevate the conversation. Or, ya know, just shout at each other.
Derek Evers: I know they're the oldest team in the league, but is it really true that they keep respirators, Werther's Originals and copies of Matlock in the Knicks locker room?
Jon Fishner: No one likes Werther's. The rest of what you mentioned...is true. Yes, the Knicks are old. The Knicks are old enough that as of this season, Jason Kidd has played against both Doc Rivers AND his son Austin. That's something knuckleball pitchers are supposed to do, not NBA point guards (Doc's been an NBA head coach for fourteen years, by the way).
In Pablo Prigioni, they have a rookie who is so old he missed games in the Olympics with kidney stones (dead serious). All Kurt Thomas' jumps look mistimed. They aren't. That's how dudes his age jump. But as fun as it is to call the Knicks old—and they're the oldest NBA team ever—it isn't like they are counting on these guys the way the Celtics are counting on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, or the Lakers are with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash. They might have started Thomas with Kidd banged up, but he only plays ten minutes a game. Rasheed Wallace plays fifteen. Marcus Camby has barely played at all, and things are going fine. It's really just Kidd and Prigs. And I think we'll see less minutes from all the old fellas when Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert get back. Also, let's not forget which New York hoops team is being borderline carried by Jerry Stackhouse.
Before the season started, it was assumed that the biggest problem for the Nets would be defense. So far, they are right about average, which is good enough to make them one of the top teams in the East. What's the biggest cause of that and can they keep it up?
Derek Evers: In a word: Size.
Much was made in the offseason when the Nets signed an aging Joe Johnson to spark the offense, which had drawn some criticism (mostly because of his salary) due to his numbers being on a consistent decline. But not much was made about the bulk the Nets added. By re-signing Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, and bringing in Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans along with Johnson and Gerald Wallace late last season, they've got a lot of bodies to throw around. This creates havoc with their size match-ups, and in a league without centers anymore, it's a huge defensive and rebounding advantage.
Case in point: the first game against the Knicks. They started Kris Humphries—let's face it, his main goal is to be a giant pile of flesh clogging up the middle—alongside Lopez, forcing the Knicks to start 72-year-old Kurt Thomas. This forced the Knicks to take a ton of outside shots. And it's not just the starting front court; Deron Williams is one of the most physical pure point guards in the league, and Wallace is a beast. His defense on Carmelo Anthony was huge. 'Melo was clearly frustrated all night and free-throws aside, I don't think he had one uncontested look. And no one in the NBA today is more Dennis Rodman-like than Reggie Evans. His flopping is pure genius, and I'll take his two points, 15 rebound nights anyday.
But let's take a minute to talk about Brook Lopez. He's truly turning into one of the league's best centers, and it's becoming clear he is integral to the team's success. The more time he misses with an injury—to the same right foot that caused him to miss all but five games last season—the more I start to worry. As evidenced by their last four games, without his presence it will be tough to compete against the league's elite. After all, who's going make Tyson Chandler an invisible presence if Lopez and Evans aren't in there?
Now the question everyone wants to know: Will Amar'e Stoudemire's return fuck up the team's chemistry? And which injured player is more important to the team, Stoudemire or Iman Shumpert?
Fishner: Depends on what you mean by chemistry. If you mean is he going to mope around and destroy the Knicks from within the locker room, I don't think so. Amar'e's been a team player throughout his time in New York, so I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to chemistry, especially since he already put it out there that he's willing to come off the bench. He also has no leverage. The team is playing so well, who would support him if he complained?
Amar'e's potential to disrupt the team's on-court chemistry relates to your follow-up question. Stoudemire is an offensive player first, foremost and pretty much only. He's a terrible defender and a below average rebounder. With the Knicks sporting the league's most effective offense, they don't have a ton of need for him. On the other hand, when Carmelo is on the bench, the Knicks are sometimes left to rely on Rasheed Wallace or JR Smith to go and get them a basket in the half court. That's not optimal. Amar'e could certainly work the pick and roll with Pablo Prigioni when Melo and Felton go to the bench to get some rest. He also adds needed depth to the frontcourt where Uncle Kurt Thomas isn't much more than a placeholder and Marcus Camby has yet to make an impact. I love the way the Knicks blew the Heat out with their three-point shooting last week, but if they hadn't shot the lights out I'm not entirely sure where their offense was going to come from. If Amar'e was healthy, he would have been able to contribute quite a bit.
As far as Shump, I think the Knicks are in need of someone to defend what now passes for "undersized" shooting guards. Kidd's competent, but as the season goes on he's going to lose a step and his minutes will need to be limited. Ronnie Brewer is more suited to guarding "up" on big wings like LeBron and Paul Pierce. The Knicks haven't faced a ton of players who fit the "undersized" description, but OJ Mayo definitely hurt them in their loss to Dallas, as did Ben Gordon when they narrowly beat Charlotte. And Dwyane Wade won't sleepwalk through every game like he did last week. Those guys are Shumpert's bread and butter.
So I guess I'm punting: both guys address a marginal need. More than anything, they give the team even more depth. That's huge: the season is long and someone is going to get hurt eventually.
So what do you think is the Nets biggest weakness?
Evers: That's a tough one. Obviously everyone expected the Nets' defense to be their Achilles heel—but when healthy, they're one of the league's top defending teams. And with the aforementioned size and a great 1-2 point guard combo with CJ Watson coming off the bench, scoring won't be an issue.
But based on their recent losses, health might be the biggest concern. With a "big" team comes the obvious leg and lower body issues. They're like a stable of race horses staggering around—elite athletes who can be sidelined for weeks with a foot issue (ahem, Lopez). Then again, they should stay healthier than the Knicks.
In fact, I'm going to say the Nets' biggest weakness is the Knicks. Because if they keep winning, the Nets will have to wait another year before becoming New York's premiere team. At least they'll sell more jerseys this year. [Editor's Note: true, but probably not more than the Knicks will]
What do you think is the Knicks biggest weakness?
Fishner: Aside from age, which is an obvious one, it has to be rebounding. The Knicks are 10th in defensive rebounding percentage (the amount of available defensive rebounds they come up with) and 26th in offensive rebounding percentage. Marcus Camby was supposed to help in that category but he hasn't been healthy enough to contribute as of yet. Chandler is a good rebounder but they're playing small with Melo at the four, so it isn't surprising that they aren't controlling the glass. I also think the Knicks need another to find a more dependable ways than three point shooting to score when Melo is on the bench. Hopefully that weakness will be addressed by the return of Amar'e Stoudemire.
Predictions For Tonight's Game:
Evers: Jason Kidd goes down at 0:54 of the first quarter after tweeking his back shooting a free throw. Brook Lopez pulls a Willis Reed and surprises everyone by suiting up for the second half. He then re-injures his right foot at 3:20 of the third quarter after stepping on Tyson Chandler. Chandler responds by high-fiving Spike Lee and gets a technical foul. He also leads all Knick scorers with 24 as the Knicks, without Kidd, spread the ball around. Five people hit for double digits and Carmelo gets his first triple-double of the season. The Nets are forced to rely heavily on Deron Williams and outside shooting, but they respond. D-Will answers Melo with a triple-double of his own, dropping 38 points on 75% 3-point shooting. Watson gets a double-double and Reggie Evans grabs 21 rebounds.
Nets win 97-85, with an over/under of Carmelo Anthony pointing at Jay-Z three times.
Fishner: Even though the Knicks were without their spiritual leader Jason Kidd last time these two teams met, after that overtime battle I think it's safe to say they are evenly matched...when healthy. Of course, the Nets have been without Brook Lopez for the last five games and have lost four straight. So I think it's the Knicks turn in this one, especially since you have to figure the Barclay's Center will be half orange and blue again. I expect to see a little more from Joe Johnson, but the tone set by Kidd's presence in the lineup will be enough to keep the Knick offense flowing freely.
Tyson Chandler's rolls to the hoop will lead a rusty Brook Lopez into foul trouble (assuming he plays). I see the Knicks winning this one handily: 107-96 feels right to me.