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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. New York Knicks

Continuing to tour the New York area, the Spurs look to take down a mutually surprising playoff hopeful.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New York Knicks Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off of a tough overtime loss to the superstar-studded Brooklyn Nets, the San Antonio Spurs will be looking to jump-start a new win streak and get one over on at least one of the Tri-State area teams.

Unfortunately, they’ll be facing what looks to be one of the best Knicks teams in recent (and perhaps even not-so-recent) memory.

Tasked with molding the once-proud Knickerbockers in his image, Tom Thibodeau appears to have succeeded where just about every coach since Jeff Van Gundy has failed. Having fallen to what might have been the lowest point in franchise history, both ownership and the young roster appear to have taken in everything Thibodeau has offered, and the result has been impressive.

The Knicks are sporting the NBA’s 2nd best defensive rating and 11th best net rating and are currently sitting on the 4th seed in the (admittedly weaker) Eastern Conference after having failed to win more than thirty-one games every year since since the 2013-2014 season.

The Spurs on the other hand will be showing up at less than full-strength again, as at least four of their players (and three of their best contributors) will almost certainly be unavailable in this one due to Covid-19-related protocols.

An incredibly balanced team offensively, San Antonio has had difficulty with offensive consistency, especially where the bench is concerned. Reliable though Patty Mills has been, he’s not exactly a player built to carry all of his lineup’s scoring load, and the while the bench hasn’t exactly been run off the court, it’s clear they desperately miss Rudy Gay’s and Derrick White’s contributions.

Between recent G-League call-ups and the re-acclimating of starters to the bench, the Spurs will need this group to find its scoring chops outside of the starting lineup if they hope to create any space between themselves and this suffocatingly grinding Knicks team.

Thankfully, the San Antonio defense has also again become a dependable asset, as they sit at 11th in defensive rating themselves, and while the Knicks offense has been respectable, it has proven to be the slowest in league pace-wise, and it lacks the balance of San Antonio’s scoring.

Certainly, there are other contributors, but the Knicks have had to rely heavily on Julius Randle’s scoring, and an off game from him (or savvy defensive performance from the Spurs) may be all that separates a win from a loss for New York, excellent defensive play notwithstanding.

This is an interesting match-up featuring a pair of playoff hopefuls that had been written off by most of the national media before the season had even started, and who have succeeded on the merits of defensive improvement. I’d expect it to be like the one of the Spurs-Knicks games of 1990’s yore, which is to say very handsy, and highly competitive. It likely won’t be a Finals preview this time, but it should be fun!

March 2, 2021 | 8:00 PM CT

Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: Derrick White - Out (Covid-19 Protocols), Rudy Gay - Out (Covid-19 Protocols), Devin Vassell - Out (Covid-19 Protocols), Quinndary Weatherspoon - Out (Covid-19 Protocols), Keldon Johnson - Questionable

Knicks Injuries: Mitchell Robinson - Out (Hand), Elfrid Payton - Out (Hamstring), Taj Gibson - Day-to-Day (Ankle)

What to watch for:

  • Figuring out the Back-to-Back: At 17-13, I think it’s now safe to say that the young Spurs have made enormous strides, especially compared to last season’s squad. Close games and blown leads are no longer the norm that they were last year, but the second game of the back-to-back continues to befuddle this roster, as they are 0-4 in those contests so far. Granted, there’s still plenty of season left for San Antonio to turn that around, but they will almost certainly have to if they want to continue to hold on to the 5th seed in a Western Conference that has recently rediscovered its tight margins. There are now five teams below the Spurs that are .500 or better, and all of them within two games of the Spurs current position. The Silver and Black can no longer count on the cushion that early season injuries and chemistry issues provided them early on. The Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks seem to have found their rhythm at last, and the Portland Trailblazers and Golden State Warriors remain fierce competitors led by lethally long-distance point guards. With the 4th hardest remaining schedule, and San Antonio forced to play 40 games across 68 days, finding a way to win this one would be huge for a team that will play 11 back-to-backs in the second half of the season.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge - Bench Contributor: In the absence of Rudy Gay and Derrick White, the bench squad that has once again been one of the Spurs strengths has had some trouble replacing their scoring. Though Keita Bates-Diop, Tre Jones, and Luka Samanic have acquitted themselves well enough to stay on the floor without becoming defensive liabilities, their offense can’t be counted on on a nightly basis quite yet. This leaves Aldridge as the x-factor coming off of the bench, and so far he’s had some trouble finding his rhythm while returning from injury and adjusting to a reserve role. And while he did score a very efficient twenty-one points in twenty-three minutes against the New Orleans Pelicans, his other two outings have resulted in just eleven and two points each, in a combined forty-one minutes. If LaMarcus can score with something resembling the efficiency of his New Orleans game, San Antonio should have a pretty good shot at taking out the surging Knicks.
  • Trey Lyles vs. Julius Randle: If there’s a single match-up in this game that has a chance of deciding whether San Antonio walks out of this contest with a win, it might be this one. Randle has always appeared to possess a high ceiling talent-wise, and now Tom Thibodeau seems to have coaxed out the best in his all-star power-forward, utilizing him as a more offensively gifted version of Joakim Noah. Randle’s improvement cannot be understated, even by an impressive 23/11/6 slash line. Serving as the central hub for all of Thibodeau’s front-court designs, his ability to distribute at a high level in addition to scoring and rebounding is what makes this Knicks offense hum to life. Fortunately, he’s not quite a facsimile of Noah on the defensive end, so there a weakness to exploit. If Lyles can exploit Randle’s varying degree of rim protection on the offensive end, use his speed to crowd him beyond the arc, and use his length to trouble Randle’s passing lanes, he’ll likely force Randle into testing Jakob Poeltl’s interior defense (a much safer bet for San Antonio in this writer’s opinion) and clog up New York’s offensive flow in the process. And while there’s no guarantee that the would lead to a win against a relentless and gritty Knicks squad, it seems likely that it would not-insignificantly tilt the odds in San Antonio’s favor.

For the Knicks’ fans’ perspective, visit Posting and Toasting.

PtR’s Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.