The Knicks are playing like a mirror image of the Spurs. Depth, versatility, chemistry, no egos and no doubting the system, everyone just wanting to win, balance with veterans and young players, ball-hawking defense, ball movement and across-the-board scoring have led to the two best starts in the NBA (the Knicks at 5-0; the Spurs at 7-1).
Now they meet for the first time, in San Antonio. Here are three things to watch that could make the difference in tonight's game (8:30 p.m. start):
1. Who's going to start and finish stronger? While the Knicks rank first in the NBA in average first-quarter scoring margin (+6.4), the Spurs are actually in the negative (-0.2). The Knicks' two-point-guard backcourt increases their ability to set and control the tempo, and Carmelo Anthony's hot starts -- he's averaging a league-best 10.4 points in the first quarter -- are helping the team dominate at the start of games. Tonight they must keep that up to provide early confidence on the road against the West's best team.
The key is the final period. The Spurs and Knicks are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in average fourth-quarter scoring margin (+5.4 and +4.6). That's when Anthony (6.0 points average) and J.R. Smith (5.2) go to work. Overall, both teams rank at the top of the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, so a mistake here and there in the final stretch could be the breaking point.
2. Tim Duncan vs. Tyson Chandler. The Spurs' center has found the fountain of youth so far this season. He's picked up his scoring, rebounding and defense from last season to 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. His legs look fresh and his aggressiveness hasn't wavered. Duncan can drive or step back for the jumper -- even out to 3-point range -- so Chandler will have his hands full.
Offensively, while the Spurs also have Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair down low, the Knicks don't have much of a presence inside. Anthony accounts for more than 70 percent of the team's post-ups, and they average the third-worst points in the paint per game (33.6). The pick-and-roll between Felton, Kidd and Pablo Prigioni with Chandler is especially key tonight against one of the league's best defenses.
3. Defending the Spurs' pick-and-roll. Duncan and point guard Tony Parker are simply one of the best at it, although this season's numbers so far don't indicate that. Parker is only averaging 13.6 points. But all they need is one breakout game.
One thing the Knicks will have to be especially aware of is getting back on D quickly. Duncan likes to sometimes set unexpected drag screens for Parker while the team is in transition to exploit the defense earlier and without warning. The speedy Parker, who's one of the best paint scorers in the league, is always a major threat.
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