PREVIEW: Knicks at Rockets- Dec. 31

Dec 29, 2022; San Antonio, Texas, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) looks to the pass the ball during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Knicks at Rockets- Dec. 31

The Rockets will close out 2022 when they welcome the New York Knicks to Toyota Center on Saturday night. The Knicks have won five in a row against a Rockets team that has lost 7-of-8 and is coming off an ugly loss in Dallas on Thursday night.

Eye on the Knicks

Record: 18-18 (8th in Eastern Conference)

Offensive rating (rank): 114.1 (9th)

Defensive rating (rank): 112.4 (11th)

After winning eight in a row, the Knicks will arrive at Toyota Center on a five-game losing streak. All five losses have come by seven points or less, one was in overtime and another was by a single point. The last two losses have come without Jalen Brunson, who is dealing with groin soreness, and with R.J. Barrett playing just two minutes due to a finger laceration. Barrett has already been ruled out for Saturday’s game, while Brunson is listed as questionable to play, so with the Knicks short-handed, more pressure falls on the shoulders of Julius Randle. The Knicks are fifth in the league in free throw attempts, one spot back of the Rockets, and third in offensive rebound rate, a category the Rockets lead.

Matchup to watch: Julius Randle vs Rockets frontcourt

After a disappointing 2021-22 campaign, Randle has reverted to his All-NBA form from two years and enters Saturday’s game averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds per game on 47% shooting, up from last season’s 41%, and he’s attempting a career-high 6.7 free throws per game. Since the Knicks almost always play a center next to Randle, Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason are likely to be matched up with Randle more often than not, though the three-headed center monster of Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba, and Bruno Fernando will likely see some action against him as well. With Barrett out and Brunson a question mark, Randle won’t have a great deal of help, so slowing him down will put pressure on others to step up.

What I’m watching for

The Rockets’ transition defense has been the worst in the NBA all season, but it was embarrassingly bad on Thursday night in Dallas. Against a Mavs team that entered the game averaging a league-low 9.9 fast break points per game, the Rockets surrendered 25 points in transition in just the game’s first three quarters. Youth can be the blame for many of the ills that plague the Rockets, but 25 fast break points in 36 minutes is all about effort. The team did not practice on Friday, but Stephen Silas did hold a film session, so we’ll see if the message got through.

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