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Keys to Tonight's Knicks/Nets Game

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

The Nets have already clinched a Playoff berth, but the Knicks destiny is still very cloudy.

Keys to Tonight's Knicks/Nets Game

If you had asked most New York basketball fans whether or not the two April games between the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets would have serious playoff implications, most would have said that the most it would affect would be seeding. However, with the Knicks fighting for their playoff lives, these two meetings have taken on much more importance.

The Nets clinched their playoff berth already, but the Knicks sit a game behind the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. With just seven games left (all against playoff teams), every game has serious implications one way or the other. The last time the Knicks played the Nets, on January 20, Brooklyn blew out New York 103-80. Brooklyn is playing even better than they were back in January, and they can play major spoilers for their in-city rivals while improving their own playoff standing. 

Here are a few things to look at in tonight's all important matchup between New York's teams.

Brooklyn's Improved Guard Play

The Nets seem to be peaking at the right time, especially their guards. Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston and newly-acquired Marcus Thornton are giving Brooklyn insane production from outside. In the month of March (when the Nets went 12-4), these four players combined to average 55.7 points, 13.6 rebounds and 13 assists over those 16 games. They also shot incredibly well over that span percentage-wise over that span. Livingston shot 53.1% from the field, Williams shot 46.4% and 40% from three, Johnson shot 49.8% and 44% from three and Thornton shot 40% from three as well.

What does that mean for the Knicks? It means their guards have their work cut out for them. Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. all need to really focus on forcing the Nets' guards into tough shots. Threes need to be contested with how well they are shooting it, and Livingston has to be kept out of the lane where he has become deadly effective. And this isn't even mentioning Paul Pierce, who is once again finding his game as the playoffs approach.

The Emergence of Mason Plumlee

Because of injuries to Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez, the rookie has been called into action and has performed quite admirably over the past month. Plumlee logged the most minutes in any month (21.2 a game) and put up a solid 7.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and .8 blocks with a 63.2 FG%. In his lone April game (a win last night over the Houston Rockets), he dropped in 11 points and 6 boards on 5-of-6 shooting. Plumlee is quickly becoming more than just a serviceable big with each passing game. The Knicks have the size to disrupt Plumlee in Tyson Chandler and, to a lesser extent, Cole Aldrich, but neither can take Plumlee lightly.

Melo Time

If the Knicks are going to make the playoffs, Carmelo Anthony needs to carry them there. He's cooled off since that unstoppable stretch in February (by those absurd February standards, anyway), and that has also coincided with the reinvigoration of Amar'e Stoudemire as a scoring partner and Tim Hardaway Jr.'s continued development as a spark on the bench. But if he has anything left in the tank (after constant overplaying and poor minutes management by Coach Mike Woodson), Carmelo needs to put the team on his back and become the ruthlessly efficient and cold-hearted scorer again.

Which J.R. Shows Up?

J.R. Smith has been an absolute enigma for the Knicks this year, but his play has an eerily direct corollary on how the Knicks do. As our good friend Scott Davis wrote over at Posting and Toasting, when J.R. Smith performs well, the Knicks usually perform well. Different parts of Smith's game have been like a roller coaster all season (getting to the line a lot but missing, stretches with high assist rates, stretches with high numbers of threes shot, etc.), but over this final week (and especially against a tough backcourt like Brooklyn's), Smith's ability to help out Anthony with the scoring, playmaking and defense will be paramount. Smith can be that guy, and he needs to be if the Knicks want to make the playoffs.

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