Forget about getting closer to the franchise-best start that the 5-0 Knicks are attempting to match, tonight in San Antonio the Knicks are simply trying to do something they haven't done in nearly a decade: beat the Spurs on the road.
It is a game that needs no hyperbole for the Knicks, no added incentives or historical references. This game is strictly about 2012-13 and a very early, but very intriguing, Litmus test for a team that, despite a terrific start, still lacks a trademark win. They take on a Spurs team that has been the standard in the NBA for 13 years and counting. Gregg Popovich's team is off to a 7-1 start.
"I'm kind of anxious to see where we are, playing one of the top teams in the league on their floor," Mike Woodson said of the game, which airs tonight on MSG Network (Knicks Game Night begins at 8 p.m.). "It will be interesting to see how we come out of it."
The Spurs have their familiar championship core -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- along with some talented young role players in Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Long Island's Danny Green. They have played the same style for over a decade and it's something the Knicks are attempting to emulate with their older, experienced group.
Jason Kidd, who, with the Nets, lost to the Spurs in the NBA Finals in 2003, called them "the blueprint."
"They play the right way," Kidd said. "They share the ball. They don't care who scores or who makes the winning basket. It's all about winning."
That was never more evident than in the Spurs' previous game, Tuesday in Los Angeles, with the team trailing 82-81 in the final seconds. Out of a timeout, the Spurs ran a play to perfection which got the ball to Green, who buried the game-winning three-pointer. In an era when most teams give the ball to their best player and clear out for a one-on-one -- derisively labeled as "Hero Ball" -- the Spurs ran a play for one of their role players, who got open because of a screen by one of its star players, Duncan.
Popovich dismissed the AAU-inspired "Hero Ball" mentality. "I hate that," he said. "It's so boring."
Let's not completely overlook the fact that as Pop champions the cause for team basketball, he also knows how to exploit a defensive weakness. And Kobe Bryant was -- and is this season -- absolutely the weak link in the Lakers defense. So it was logical to target Bryant's man.
Still, the team has to buy into it and stars have to accept the fact that they won't get the chance to take that last shot. The success of Popovich's coaching lies within the unyielding support he gets from the team's leaders, starting with Duncan. None of this works if Duncan does not set the standard in the locker room: you trust your teammates, through wins and losses.
Naturally this takes us to Carmelo Anthony, who admittedly has had trust issues in the past. It is not a matter of intentionally disrespecting his teammates, but more that Melo trusts his talent more than he does those around him. But this season, as Woodson tries to instill this Spurs mentality into the Knicks, Melo has to see Duncan as a blueprint as well.
There's been a lot of talk about this "new Melo" approach this season, but, what makes it genuine so far is that talk isn't coming from Melo.
"I don't know about a new Melo," he said. "My focus is just very high right now."
He also seems to have 14 players and a head coach within his circle of trust, perhaps for the first time in his career.
And while tonight's game is a big test for these Knicks as a whole, it may be an even greater test of Melo's trust. The Spurs, who know him well from many Western Conference battles, are going to throw everything at him defensively. They also have the 21-year-old Leonard, who has the size and quickness to contend with Melo on the perimeter and the low block. While Melo was able to destroy the likes of Thaddeus Young, rookie Jae Crowder and the no-names in Orlando, this may be a game in which Melo exploits the defensive attention he is going to get by passing the ball and passing up shots. This may be the game in which a perceived lack of whistles, which has frustrated Melo recently, can't affect his defense or his focus.
This may be the game in which he proves he doesn't have to play Hero Ball, either, to win.
REMEMBER THE ALAMO?
The Knicks won their first game at the AT&T Center (then known as the SBC Center) in San Antonio. They haven't won a game there since.
It was March 18, 2003, the first season of the new arena after the Spurs spent 10 seasons at the Alamodome, when Allan Houston led the Knicks to a 105-97 win. Tonight's game will feature several players who appeared in that game, most of them on the Spurs: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Stephen Jackson (on his first go-around in San Antonio). For the Knicks, Kurt Thomas (in his first go-around in New York) started at center in that game and had 13 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in 20 minutes of action.
On that same night, the NCAA Tournament opened. Carmelo Anthony and top-seeded Syracuse began their national championship run three nights later with a hard-fought win over Manhattan.
And I was covering hockey. Remember hockey?
GOING SMALL VS. BIG SPURS
Woodson indicated he wanted to stay with his starting lineup, with Melo at the power forward spot. With Tyson Chandler on Duncan and Leonard a given to defend Melo, that leaves the 6-11 Tiago Splitter to guard Ronnie Brewer. At the other end, it puts Melo on Splitter and Brewer on the active Leonard. Popovich can come in with Stephen Jackson if Splitter is ineffective. What will be interesting to see is how Rasheed Wallace does against Duncan (historically, he has defended him well), and as a help defender against the speedy Spurs guards. Also, is Marcus Camby getting closer to being able to play more minutes?
Speed will be a major factor for the Knicks defensively, as Parker will attack Raymond Felton and Patty Mills is a speedster, as well (which could be a matchup nightmare for Pablo Prigioni). The Mavericks (Darren Collison and Roddy Beaubois) were able to exploit this in the first half last week before the Knicks made adjustments.
Brewer sat out Wednesday's practice with swelling in his surgically-repaired knee, but is considered probable for the game.
BY THE NUMBERS
Some of the Knicks most impressive defensive statistics will be put to the test, starting with their lock-down mentality in the fourth quarter. The Knicks lead the NBA by holding opponents to just 17.6 points per game in the fourth quarter. The Spurs, however, are the NBA's highest-scoring fourth quarter team at 27.5. If it's a close game, something's got to give.
Both teams are very strong defensively, as the Knicks rank No. 1 in Opponent PPG (87.8) while the Spurs are No. 9 (92.6). Both teams are top 10 in steals (Knicks No. 1 at 10.4, Spurs No. 9 at 9.2) and top 10 in Opponent FG% (Knicks No. 1 at 38.6%, Spurs No. 10 at 43.1%).
The Knicks defensively are the league's best in the second half, holding teams to 38.6 points per game. No one has scored more than 40 points on them in the second half yet this season. But the Spurs are a very good second half scoring team, with 50.9 points per game, which ranks fourth in the league.
But while the Spurs score a lot in the second half, they also give up a lot at 48.5 points per game, which is the sixth-highest in the NBA.
So where are other areas to exploit?
The Spurs, despite their size, aren't a very good rebounding team. In fact, they are 28th in the NBA in rebounding (47.0 per game), and the league's second-worst offensive rebounding team (8.0 per game).
However, the Knicks aren't very good at rebounding either. They rank 26th in the NBA (47.2) and like the Spurs aren't great on the offensive glass (ranked 23rd at 9.4 per game).
The Spurs also will turn the ball over. They are 19th in the league with 15.5 turnovers per game, though they were very good against the Lakers with only eight. The Knicks are third in the NBA in forcing turnovers (18.4 per game) and lead the league in Opponent Turnovers per Possession (19.6%).
The Spurs are 12th in forcing turnovers (15.9 per game), but the Knicks have been excellent in taking care of the ball so far. Their 10.8 turnovers per game is the lowest in the NBA. Over the last three games, the Knicks have averaged just 8.3 turnovers per game. That's one key element to winning on the road.
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