NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: New York Knicks aim to bridge the gap to Brooklyn Nets

By Sports Desk March 15, 2021

The NBA's top-ranked defense will be aiming to slow down the leading offense when the New York Knicks make the short trip to play the Brooklyn Nets. 

The in-form Nets have won 12 of their previous 13 games to rise up the Eastern Conference, the impressive run of form leaving them just a game back of the Philadelphia 76ers, who lead the way in the standings. 

But while they were always expected to be near the summit, particularly following the arrival of James Harden from the Houston Rockets, the Knicks have been one of the surprise packages so far. 

A first playoff appearance since 2013 is a distinct possibility, with coach Tom Thibodeau building solid foundations for a franchise that has chopped and changed in the hope of finding success.

TOP PERFORMERS

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

Randle has excelled since moving to the Big Apple, leading to a first All-Star appearance this year. The seventh overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014 averages 22.9 points and 11 rebounds through 39 games, as well as 5.7 assists.  

His 375 defensive rebounds puts him inside the top three in the league, while he has also contributed 31 steals as the Knicks have tightened up under Thibodeau.  

Having registered a season-low seven points as the Knicks returned from the All-Star break with a lopsided loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Randle bounced back with 26 in a resounding triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Since joining the Nets, Harden has recorded nine triple-doubles, the latest of them coming in a 100-95 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday that saw him score his team's final 10 points of the contest.  

While he was the focal point for Houston, the two-time MVP no longer has to carry the offensive burden in the same way for star-studded Brooklyn. He is shooting at a career-high 48.9 per cent from the field though, while his improved success from deep (39.7 per cent) has been noticeable.  

Harden has also demonstrated his ability as a passer too, his tally of 363 assists comfortably the most by any player, averaging out at a whopping 11 a game.

KEY BATTLE - A CASE FOR THE DEFENSE

The continued absence of Kevin Durant has not prevented the Nets from putting up points. They average 120.6 a game, while their combined field goal percentage of 49.9 is also the best by any team in the NBA.  

However, the Knicks have given up a league-low 105 points per outing. Randle and his fellow big men will look to dominate when it comes to rebounding, while the visitors will hope to get better at capitalising on turnovers – their average of 14 points when gaining possession in such circumstances ranks them 29th out of 30 teams.  

"It starts with our effort, our defense, those are the most important things," Immanuel Quickley, who has impressed in his rookie season, averaging 12.5 points, said ahead of the game. 

"We try to have that defensive mindset coming into games, then let everything take care of itself. The little things – defense, rebounding, energy, effort – give you a chance to win every night." 

HEAD TO HEAD 

These neighbours have met in 200 regular-season games, the Knicks narrowly leading 101-99 overall. 

Last season's four-game series was split 2-2, while the Nets prevailed 116-10 in January of this year, Durant – who has missed Brooklyn's last 11 games due to a heal issue – leading the way with 26 points in the absence of Kyrie Irving and with the Harden trade yet to be completed.  

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    Vaughn was dismissed on Monday after the Nets lost 136-86 to the Boston Celtics last week, leaving Brooklyn at 21-33 and 11th in the Eastern Conference heading into the All-Star break.

    The Nets had made the postseason in the last five seasons, but a 6-18 run has left the team with it all to do if they are to keep their playoff streak going.

    Nets general manager Sean Marks pointed to a perceived lack of effort as one area that must be fixed by the new head coach.

    "It's about the level of compete," Marks told reporters. "We're not going to be the most talented team in the league. I'm not an idiot. I totally understand that.

    "But at the same time, this is a talented group of young men out there. And my expectations, and I think their expectations, should be to hold each other accountable to do the little things. The effort plays, the loose balls, the contested shots and so forth, diving on the floor.

    "These are things that should be expected when you're in a place that we're at right now, where we're clawing and grappling for every single thing we can. That's what I would hope to see over these next 28 games, and that's probably, to be quite frank, some things I haven't seen. The level of effort and the level of compete has not always been there."

    Many pointed to the Nets' 144-122 defeat against the Milwaukee Bucks as the reason for Vaughn's firing. The Nets were fined $100,000 for violating the NBA's player participation policy after choosing to both rest and sit a number of key players.

    However, Marks said the Bucks drubbing was not the reason for Vaughn's exit, commenting: "I don't think we lost the team that day.

    "I appreciate the fact that players want to play. They want to play night in and night out.

    "Again, I don't think there was one decision that ultimately affected the record or [making] this decision this day. I think a lot of things went into that."

  • Timberwolves looking to 'maintain edge' at top of West after All-Star break Timberwolves looking to 'maintain edge' at top of West after All-Star break

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    Minnesota have not been beyond the first round of the playoffs in 20 years, yet they are in position to earn the number one seed through 55 games, boasting a 39-16 record and a 1.5-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    The All-Star break has been a busy one for the T-Wolves, with Chris Finch coaching the West outfit, which included Anthony Edwards and team-mate Karl Anthony Towns, who scored 50 points.

    The team have also agreed a two-year contract extension with guard Mike Conley Jr., according to reports. He had been set for free agency at the end of the season.

    Finch is now hoping he will find a focused team in Minnesota as they seek to build on a superb start to the year.

    "We've just got to try to pick up where we left off," he said. "We know the intensity in these games are going to ramp up more and more.

    "We've got to make sure that we maintain that edge. We've done a good job of developing a good offensive rhythm in the past few weeks, so we've got to maintain that.

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    There was an unfamiliar feeling for Finch in the All-Star Game, seeing his team handily beaten by the East in an encounter that drew criticism for its lack of competitive play.

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    "Looking around the locker room, there's probably 12 first-ballot Hall of Famers in there," he said. "It's something I'll remember forever."

    The Timberwolves return against the Milwaukee Bucks at Target Center on Friday.

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    The Brooklyn Nets fired head coach Jacque Vaugn on Monday, five days after the team suffered a 50-point loss to the Boston Celtics in its final game before the All-Star break.

    Brooklyn is 21-33 and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, but the club is only 2.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for a spot in the Play-In Tournament.

    The Nets said “an interim head coach will be named in the near future.”

    “This was an incredibly difficult decision, but one we feel is in the best interest of the team going forward,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said in a statement.

    Vaughn was promoted to head coach early last season following the dismissal of Steve Nash after Brooklyn opened with five losses in seven games.

    The Nets immediately started playing better, which led to a contract extension for Vaughn last February.

    The Nets posted a 43-32 record under Vaughn last season as they claimed the No. 6 seed in the East before getting swept by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs.

    Brooklyn got off to a 13-10 start this season but went on to drop 23 of 31 games heading into break, punctuated by the second-worst loss in franchise history on Wednesday.

    Vaughn owns a 129-226 coaching record with the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn.

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