Tonight’s best game: New York at Atlanta

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Mike Woodson returns to Atlanta – the team he coached for six seasons and guided to three playoff appearances – for the first time as the head coach of the New York Knicks, who face the Hawks in Friday’s best NBA game.

knicks small logoWoodson will have to face his former team shorthanded as Jeremy Lin (sore knee), Amar’e Stoudemire (bulging disk) and Jared Jeffries (right knee inflammation) have all been ruled out.

Though the absence of the big men was expected, Lin’s sudden lack of availability is a surprise and concern. Still, Jeffries spoke on behalf of Lin and expected the star point guard to play next week, meaning he is also likely out for Saturday’s contest.

Without Lin, New York (26-25) will miss three key elements.

Still, the team has played well in his absence and has won eight of the last nine games – during which the team has allowed just 86 points on 40.8% shooting – under the  direction of Woodson. They are 17-1 when holding opponents under 90 points.

Carmelo Anthony – despite dealing with groin issues – has stepped up as the power forward of the team over the past two games, averaging 26.5 points 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, one steal and one block.

Steve Novak is second in the league in 3-point percentage at .482, converting 94-of-195. He is also third on the team in plus-minus at plus-124, trailing Landry Fields (plus-127) and Lin (plus-142).

The Atlanta Hawks (30-22) are coming off two straight losses after winning four consecutive games.

Fatigue was a likely factor during the losing streak, as the team played five games in six nights that included a four-overtime game against the Jazz.

Atlanta has struggled against New York in recent meetings, losing three consecutive games by an average of 14 points, including a lopsided 99-82 thumping on Feb. 22.

Missing that game was Joe Johnson, who has recovered from a sore knee to average 22.5 points on 48 percent shooting – including 48 percent from 3-point range – in March.

Hawks small logoAlso playing at a high level is Josh Smith who is filling up the stat sheet, averaging a robust 23.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.9 turnovers, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks in 17 March games.

Initially failing to fill the void left by Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia has stepped up as of late, averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds in his last 16 games.

Since inserting Kirk Hinrich into the starting lineup in favor of Marvin Williams, the team has gone 11-6.

James Park is a regular contributor to Sheridanhoops. Follow him on twitter.