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A Battle for Identity: The Cleveland Cavaliers @ The New York Knicks

A Battle for Identity: The Cleveland Cavaliers @ The New York Knicks (Thursday, December 4, 8pm EST)

By James Ng

You would hope by the age of 30 that you’d know who you are and what you do. This is especially true in professional sports, where 30 heralds the downward swing of a player’s prime years. No spring chickens are they then, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, to be searching for an identity in their twelfth season in the NBA at the age of 29 and 30, respectively.

We have the undisputed best player alive in James, going home to Ohio this summer to build a new team after winning two titles in four years with the Miami Heat. Anthony, on the other hand, is in year one of the Phil Jackson revamp of the New York Knicks, complete with a rookie head coach in Derek Fisher and the attempted resurrection of the legendary Triangle Offense.

Who are the New York Knicks and what is a Triangle Offense?

Phil Jackson and the Triangle Offense have claimed 11 NBA Championships (six titles with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls; five titles in the 00’s with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant). The Triangle is Jackson’s personal weapon of choice in his storied career. It has been proven time and again, but the system is notoriously difficult to master for lesser basketball minds. It is based entirely on structured yet improvised movement resulting in equal opportunities for all on offense.

In short, you couldn’t have picked a worse offense for Carmelo Anthony’s New York Knicks. He is one of the 10 most talented players today but regrettably (for the Triangle’s purposes), he is also a relentless volume shooter, ball hog and NBA black hole. The ball simply does not move enough in a Carmelo-led offense, and his current teammates (Jose Calderon aside) might struggle to spell “Triangle Offense”, never mind trying to run it.

It’s resulted in a 4-14 start to the season with little relief in sight. Things seem to get worse by the year for Carmelo Anthony, and he doesn’t have time for yet another throwaway season. 

Cleveland’s Identity:

Even for the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers, their early issues seem cute in comparison. Sitting on an 8-7 record through the first month of the season, it hasn’t been easy to blend LeBron’s historic talents with a pair of supremely talented All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It’s been tough, but not New York Knicks TOUGH.

Some wise fools (raises hand) before the season proclaimed this Cavs team could challenge 70 wins, but a quick look into LeBron’s first year with the Miami Heat in 2011 should have put that idiotic notion to bed early. It is easy to forget that Heat team went 6-8 to start the season after James arrived to join fellow superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. We laughed heartily as Miami flamed out in the Finals when they were soundly beaten by the underdog Dallas Mavericks. 

But let us not forget: after a mediocre start, greatness still responded. The Heat still nearly cracked 60 wins that season and finished as the Eastern Conference #2 seed with a 58-24 record. 

Piece by piece, the Cavs will find their niche and become a dominant team. Yes, they’ve lost to terrible/unheralded teams such as the Knicks and the Utah Jazz. Yes, LeBron James recently called his team “fragile” after a string of four straight defeats. Yes, they have a rookie NBA head coach. But this Cavs team has too much talent, too much depth and too much LeBron to stay bad for long. They’ve averaged 109 points and only given up 86 in their last three games (all wins). They’ve begun to figure it out. Their identity is in the mail.

The Knicks look like a team that will never figure out its identity, and that’s probably because it’s been saddled with the wrong one. It’s not all Carmelo’s fault either. He may shoot the ball like it’s about to expire, but he is also an immensely gifted and versatile basketball player. The main problem is the Knicks have entrusted one of the NBA’s most complex motion offenses to a team that is distinctly underwhelming in its basketball IQ with an unapologetic volume shooter as the centerpiece.

How will it play out when they face each other again this week?

This sets up Thursday’s matchup between the two teams at Madison Square Garden quite nicely. They’ve already played each other on opening night, and Carmelo ruined James’s homecoming by draining an 18-foot jump shot to snatch victory late on. 

This rematch has a dominant Cleveland win written all over it and sometimes, life really is that easy. Cleveland are on an upswing. The New York Knicks though are still stuck in neutral with a pair of burst tires. A monumental scoring performance from Anthony might be enough to steal a win, but that way of thinking has hardly been a model for success since he arrived in New York (win/loss records the last four Knicks seasons: 42-40, 36-30, 54-28, 37-49).

What’s bad news for the Knicks is that the Cavs can flat out score. The Knicks are an average-to-terrible defensive team, currently 16th in the NBA in opponents PPG. But their defense, underwhelming as it is, is not their main problem. Their woeful offense – fourth from last in NBA points per game this season – is the bigger issue and it basically means they can’t score and can barely defend. Such is the price of learning the Triangle with pieces that don’t fit. Such is what we consider when we look at the spread.

To heap on further misery: Carmelo Anthony is struggling with back spasms, having just missed two games before returning to lose at home against the Heat on December 1. Looking for help in this roster is an exercise in futility while Anthony is struggling for fitness, so we can expect a low scoring game from them especially if Anthony struggles early on.

The truth is the Knicks stink. They have lost four straight games after falling to Miami, and have lost six of the seven games, 13 of their last 15. They are terrible and they know it. The Cavs know it too, but complacency will not be an issue as they are hardly the finished article at this point. In a game where neither team is where it should be, we look to talent to win the game. And there is no comparison in talent between these two teams. 

Let us also not forget that Madison Square Garden is a historical soapbox for NBA superstars, and the great ones just LOVE to lay down a gigantic game at MSG in the Big Apple. It’s practically tradition by now, so we’re looking out for a huge game from one of the Cavs’ “Big Three”. That is probably more than enough to defeat the sorry New York Knickerbockers at home and cover the spread twice over.

-7.5 Cavs 10/11 Coral

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