Debate: Knicks-C's, Lakers-Nuggets
5-on-5 Roundtable: Questions about the contenders in tonight's ESPN doubleheader
Knicks-Celtics. Lakers-Nuggets. These familiar foes face off tonight for a national TV audience (ESPN/ESPN3, 8 ET). Here's what we'll be watching:
1. Celtics or Knicks: Who's facing a bigger disaster going forward?
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Knicks. The Celtics are fighting the natural aging process. That's distressing. The Knicks are fighting a perennial unwillingness to follow sound personnel strategy. That's permanent.
Mike Kurylo, Knickerblogger: The Knicks. Boston currently holds a playoff seed, and its past history would lead you to believe it can be dangerous in the playoffs. The Knicks are still trying to figure out whether their big three can work. New York could scapegoat D'Antoni, but what options does the team have if the next coach can't right the ship?
Brian Robb, Celtics Hub: Knicks. They are a sub-.500 team with no legitimate point guard, (pending the arrival of an over-the-hill Baron Davis). They're also still struggling to defend the perimeter (opponents are shooting 39 percent from beyond the arc). With minimal cap space to address these problems in the near future, you have the makings of a potentially big disaster here.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue & Gold: The Celtics. While the Knicks struggle with finding the right PG, eventually they will find someone that can run their system and maximize their core's talent. Boston, though, is an aging team that hasn't traditionally drawn marquee free agents and has shown it will alienate its stars via incessant trade rumors. That's not a good mix.
Jeremy Wagner, Roundball Mining Company: The Knicks. Boston can at least claim they have a championship core to play out the season and next year they have complete flexibility to retool. The Knicks may be a playoff team for years to come, but fans in the Big Apple are not content with just making the playoffs. Plus I will take the management team in Boston over that in NY any day.
2. Who wins tonight's playoff rematch in Boston?
Abbott: Boston. Both teams are fully capable of stinking it up. But the Celtics rolled in their last game, against Toronto, and have two little things going for them: The Knicks played last night, and the Celtics are at home.
Kurylo: The Celtics. New York has improved its play recently, but the only opponent it's beaten is the woeful Pistons. Meanwhile the Celtics have won six of their past seven games by an average of 15 points. I'm a Knicks fan, and I can't even invent a plausible reason to think the Knicks will win based on how this season has gone.
Robb: Boston. The C's are back on track having won six of their last seven games, and may even have the services of Rajon Rondo for the first time in weeks. With New York likely to come in with tired legs after last night's tough loss, I see Boston getting revenge for the Christmas Day loss.
Soriano: The Celtics. Not only is the game in Boston, but the Celtics -- even with their struggles this season -- are still a better team than the Knicks right now. Plus, with Rondo likely to return tonight, they also get their floor general back and the player who can best take advantage of the Knicks' biggest weakness, point guard play.
Wagner: The Celtics. The Knicks played a tough game at home last night while Boston rested. Plus the Celtics have gotten their defense in order. Look for them to lock down the Knicks' iso-heavy attack.
3. Lakers or Nuggets: Who are the more legitimate contenders this year?
Abbott: Nuggets. I'm not saying the stats are everything, but they're a powerful frame of reference, and at the moment, it's not even close. In Hollinger's Power Rankings the Nuggets are No. 1. The Lakers are No. 13. That said, this is a question about the playoffs, and there the Lakers are the vastly more proven team.
Kurylo: The Nuggets. The Lakers' problems are a combination of them taking a step back and the rest of the Western Conference taking a step forward. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City keeps improving with age, the Clippers have Chris Paul and the Nuggets have the league's No. 1 offense.
Robb: Lakers. I don't like either squad's chances, but it'd be foolish to dismiss the Lakers outright given the way Kobe Bryant has been playing so far this year. The Lakers don't have much depth but they still have two of the best big men in the league to go with Bryant, which keeps them in the championship conversation for now.
Soriano: Right now, the Nuggets. They're deeper and they have been the better team to this point in the season. However, as the season advances, the Lakers are likely to improve, and when the playoffs hit, the pace slows and depth is less important, the Lakers' big three should make them the better team.
Wagner: The Lakers. I have argued that Denver's roster is built for regular-season success, not a deep playoff run. Meanwhile, the Lakers have a championship front line, with the potential to add a star in the next few weeks, and Kobe Bryant has the will to win.
4. Who takes tonight's battle in Denver?
Abbott: Lakers, on a hunch. Denver put a lot of effort into beating the Clippers last night, then had to fly home to complete three games in as many nights. Since crushing Charlotte on Tuesday, the Lakers have had much-needed practice, and are feeling good. Realize, however, that this is a bold pick. The Nuggets are fantastic at home, won the last meeting here easily and are four-point favorites at the moment.
Kurylo: The Nuggets. Denver thrived after the departure of its big-name All-Star by playing unselfishly. No Nuggets starter has a usage rate over 22.0 (compare to Kobe Bryant's 38.6), and nearly the entire team has a true shooting percentage higher than the league average. They lost the first match in Los Angeles by only three and took the Lakers by nine in Denver, so it appears there are no issues in terms of how they match up.
Robb: Nuggets. George Karl's crew is deeper and the balanced lineup has been playing terrific, consistent, all-around basketball. They will ride the momentum after last night's blowout win over the Clippers and complete the L.A. sweep.
Soriano: The Lakers. Even though the Nuggets will be at home, they played last night and fly from L.A. to Denver to play a rested opponent. Teams that face that scenario have typically performed poorly and lose the majority of the time. Tonight, Denver will be the team on the wrong end of that equation.
Wagner: The Nuggets. Denver is playing the dreaded game at altitude after a late-night contest in the Pacific time zone. Teams in that situation rarely win in Denver, but it is usually not the Nuggets that are that team. But thanks to their blowout win against the Clippers last night, they are relatively rested with only two players logging over 30 minutes. I suspect they will have enough energy to handle the Lakers.
5. What are you most interested in seeing in tonight's doubleheader?
Abbott: Last time the Lakers were in Denver, Kobe Bryant made six of his 28 field goal attempts. He'll be rested and no doubt determined to make amends. When he's hell-bent on proving something, things can get interesting.
Kurylo: Analysis of the Knicks. Just about every non-statistical analysis of the Knicks still stereotypes the team as lacking defense. Last night's TNT crew gave higher letter grades to the offense (C-minus) than the defense (D-minus). But New York's 10th-ranked defense is carrying the team, while its 24th-ranked offense is the millstone around their neck.
Robb: The potential return of Rajon Rondo. The C's have strung together the best basketball of their young season without their All-Star floor general in the lineup. Could a return of Rondo help push Boston back into the top four of the Eastern Conference? And just how much will Rondo's sore wrist affect his play and shooting? I hope we begin to find out tonight.
Soriano: Will Kobe continue to be awful against the Nuggets? In two games versus Denver, he's scored 33 total points on 26 percent shooting (including 1-for-13 from behind the arc), while committing 10 turnovers. Seeing whether he can overcome Denver's strong perimeter defense and play up to his standards is what I'm looking forward to most.
Wagner: How will the Nuggets deal with a close game against a very good opponent? Denver is 3-6 against likely playoff teams when it has been a two-possession game in the last four minutes, and its playoff success hinges on doing better in that situation. For the record, one of those three wins was at home against the Lakers.