It is only November, but so far the two best teams in basketball have been the 6-1 Memphis Grizzlies and the 6-0 New York Knicks. The Grizzlies host the Knicks Friday night in an early season showdown (8:30 pm Central, ESPN).
It might be a little early to start talking about potential Finals previews as some members of the media have done for this game, it is still a big game. Both teams are battle tested already as they have played some of the best teams in the league. Both teams already have victories over the defending champion Miami Heat. In fact, my colleague Chuck Livingston snarkily proclaimed the Grizzlies the 2012 champions because they beat last season’s finalists Miami and the Oklahoma City Thunder in back to back games this week as part of their 6 game winning streak.
The Grizzlies beat Oklahoma City 107-97 on the road Wednesday night. The Grizzlies-Thunder game was chippy and had the feel of a playoff game. In fact Memphis forward Zach Randolph and OKC center Kendrick Perkins were both ejected with just over 2 minutes to go in the game after Perkins threw an elbow and they exchanged words. Reports said security had to break up a potential altercation between the two by the locker room after they were ejected. Perkins reportedly told Randolph he “would meet him by the bus” for a fist fight. As of this writing the league was still investigating, but neither has been disciplined yet. Both could face possible fines and/or suspensions.
The Knicks meanwhile playing San Antonio last night. New York was down by 12 points in the fourth quarter, but closed the game on a 27-11 run to win 104-100. The undefeated Knicks are off to their best start since the 1993-94 season when they started 7-0. The Knicks also have a chance to start off 4-0 on the road since 1996-97.
However, it won’t be easy as Memphis has won 14 straight regular season games at home dating back to last year. Memphis beat the Knicks 94-83 last year in Memphis. It was the only meeting between the teams in the lockout shortened season last year. The Grizzlies won’t play at Madison Square Garden until late March.
Let’s take a look at the teams and how they match-up.
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins and New York coach Mike Woodson are the early favorites for coach of the year. Woodson ahs been particularly impressive as the Knicks are winning without two key pieces . Guard Iman Shumpert and forward Amare Stoudemir’e are both out indefinitely with knee injuries. As strange as it seems though the Stoudemire injury might be a blessing in disguise. While Stoudemire is certainly an All-Star level talent, he and Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony had some chemistry issues. New York struggled last year when both were in the line-up, so we will have to see what happens once Stoudemire returns. Right now though Woodson is making all the right moves. I give a slight edge to Hollins though in the coaching match-up.
Think about this, in the last 3 Memphis games, Grizzlies’ forward Rudy Gay has been matched up against LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and now Anthony. That would be a tough assignment for anyone, even someone as talented at Gay.
Gay is averaging 20.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. Anthony is averaging 23.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists a game. It’s close but I give a slight edge to Anthony.
Without Stoudemire, the Knicks have been starting a small line-up with Anthony, SF Ronnie Brewer, point guards Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton, and Center Tyson Chandler. With that line-up, either Brewer or Anthony will play the power forward. Brewer is averaging 9 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1 steal a game. He is day to day with a knee injury, but did play last night against the Spurs.
If Randolph isn’t suspended he will start for the Grizzlies. Randolph is averaging 16.7 points, 14 rebounds to lead the NBA, 1 assist and 1 steal a game. If Randolph is unavailable, Marreese Speights will start. He is averaging 6.7 points and 5.3 rebounds a game off the bench. If Randolph starts, that is a heavy advantage for the Grizzlies.
Knicks’ center Tyson Chandler is averaging 10.3 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. He is a better defender than a scorer though.
Grizzlies’ center Marc Gasol is averaging 14.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game.
This match-up is pretty even. Gasol is a better scorer, but Chandler is one of the best defensive players in the league.
Kidd and Felton are almost like co-point guards Kidd is averaging 8.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.2 steals a game. Felton is averaging 15.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 1.3 steals a game.
Memphis PG Mike Conley, Jr. averages 13.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game.
I give the edge to Felton and Kidd, but it is close.
Felton is starting at shooting guard, but he and J.R. Smith are splitting time at the position. Smith is averaging 18 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals per game. He is making an early run at sixth man of the year.
Tony Allen starts at shooting guard for the Grizzlies. He averages 6.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals. He is one of the best defensive guards in the league. I give the edge to Felton and Smith on offense, but to Allen on defense.
Other than Smith, the Knick’s rotation includes forwards Rasheed Wallace, Steve Novak, and Kurt Thomas, along with guard Pablo Prigioni.
Besides Speights, guards Wayne Ellington and Jerryd Bayless and forward Quincy Pondexter all see significant minutes for Memphis.
Memphis has more depth right now, as the Knicks are without Stoudemire and Shumpert.
For the season Memphis is outscoring teams 102-94 this season. The Grizzlies are shooting 43.8% from the field and 39.3% from 3 point range. The Grizzlies are making 81.4% from the free throw line. Memphis is averaging 43.7 rebounds per game and giving up 40.3 per game. Grizzlies’ opponents are shooting 43.6% from the field and 37.5% from 3 point range.
The Knicks are outscoring teams 104-90 this season. New York is shooting 46% from the field and 42.8% from 3 point range. The Knicks are making 74.2% of their free throws. New York is averaging 39.7 rebounds a game and giving up 46. Knick opponents are shooting 42.6% from the field and 33.8 % from 3 point range.
These are two of the best defensive teams in the league. Memphis has a heavy edge in rebounding though. The Knicks score more, so the Grizzlies can’t get into a shootout with them. I think Memphis extends their winning streak and gives the Knicks their first loss of the season, but it will be close.