No Kevin Love (19.6 points and 13.9 rebounds per game), but the Knicks still had problems keeping up with the more physical Timberwolves. Minnesota's interior defense and close-outs on shooters, along with their rebounding (28 to the Knicks' 15), enabled them to command the pace at the start of the first quarter. It was the second straight game the Knicks allowed that. After falling to the Bulls 30-23 in the opening period, they trailed 29-22 after one.
Here are several observations at the half:
1. Knicks having some trouble with active, aggressive and talented centers. After Bulls big man Joakim Noah basically single-handedly disrupted the Knicks' pick-and-roll defense on Friday, Nikola Pekovic (15 points and 12 rebounds) did similar work tonight. At 6-foot-11, he's a big, big dude, and nimble. In the first quarter, Tyson Chandler did not convert a single basket as the roll man. He did, however, have buckets inside from Ronnie Brewer and then J.R. Smith (more on him below). Pekovic represented the headache the Timberwolves presented the Knicks in the paint. They barely had any second-chance scoring opportunities. The Knicks desperately need frontcourt help to support Chandler, because they're playing smaller and relying a great deal on 3-point shooting, which was not happening for them tonight. They finished the first half 3-for-16 (18.8 percent) from downtown.
2. Smith picks up a lot of the slack on offense. Carmelo Anthony was, of course, Carmelo Anthony to start the game. He came in averaging an NBA-best 10.0 points in first quarters, and after one he had nine points. But after him, there wasn't much in the starting five. In fact, Melo didn't even score in the second quarter. When was the last time that happened?
So when Smith (13 points in 18 minutes) checked into the game halfway through the opening period, he quickly went to work. He started off with a dribble-drive move that ended with a Chandler flush. He also had a great turn-around pass in the lane to Kurt Thomas for the jumpshot. In the first quarter, he had three assists, and then two more in the second. He also had two steals. Smith made his biggest mark from 5:18 to 4:22 remaining in the second period, when the Knicks climbed back to only trail 43-42. His hat trick, so to speak, consisted of a vicious one-handed dunk off a crossover, a fastbreak layup from Chandler and then a ridiculous off-balanced pass to Chandler on the very next fastbreak.
3. Where in the world is Ronnie Brewer? In 10 minutes in the first quarter, he didn't score. His downward spiral this month has allowed opponents, like the Timberwolves, to improve their perimeter rotations. Because they're not worrying as much about Brewer, they have less room to run around. Just look at the Knicks' poor 3-point shooting.
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