New York (31-29) at Atlanta (37-25)

By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN, STATS Senior Writer Saturday, Mar 5, 2011 Tipoff: 6:30 pm EST Sun Mar 6, 2011

The New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks have both played their last two games without key starters. Each club earned a victory in the first game before a disappointing loss in the second.

It’s unclear if the Knicks’ Chauncey Billups(notes) or the Hawks’ Josh Smith(notes) will suit up Sunday night when these teams meet at Philips Arena.

Billups has missed the last two games for New York (31-29) since he bruised his left thigh in Tuesday’s 116-110 loss at Orlando. The Knicks won 107-88 over New Orleans on Wednesday without him before Friday’s 119-115 home loss to lowly Cleveland.

“It’s a tough loss,” star forward Carmelo Anthony(notes) said. “I really don’t want to say it’s embarrassing, but it is a tough loss … knowing how important it is to take care of home court.”

Toney Douglas(notes), a Georgia native, has started the last two games in place of Billups and averaged 17.5 points and 5.0 assists.

Smith, second on the Hawks (37-25) in scoring (16.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.7), has been out with a right knee ligament sprain. Atlanta won 83-80 over Chicago on Wednesday without him, then lost 111-104 to Oklahoma City on Friday.

Hawks coach Larry Drew has used a bigger lineup without Smith, inserting Jason Collins(notes) alongside Al Horford(notes) in his frontcourt.

Smith’s possible absence could be a huge boost to the Knicks. He has averaged 17.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists in three meetings this season.

Atlanta won the first two matchups before a 102-90 loss Feb. 16 in New York. That was the Knicks’ final game before acquiring Billups and Anthony, and the Hawks realize they will be seeing a different opponent.

“Obviously with the changes they have made, it’s going to be a grind,” Drew said. “It’s going to be a game that we’re going to have bring playoff intensity and playoff energy. Anything less, it could be a disappointing night for us.”

New York may also be short-handed in its frontcourt since center Ronny Turiaf(notes) sat out Friday with a sore left knee. Jared Jeffries(notes) received his first start, with All-Star Amare Stoudemire(notes) sliding to center.

Atlanta will present a different look with Kirk Hinrich(notes), acquired from Washington on Feb. 23, starting the last two games at point guard. Hinrich had 21 points Friday for his highest total since Nov. 19.

Drew felt that Smith’s energy was sorely missed against the Thunder, who become the fourth team to score more than 110 points against the Hawks.

“These teams are going to bring energy, they’re going to bring intensity,” the coach said. “We have to bring ours.”

The Knicks have struggled defensively while splitting six games since their roster changes, allowing 115 points or more in each of the losses.

“I think the more we practice, the more we communicate off the court, the more we sit down and really talk about our schemes, and then the quicker we can execute, the better we’ll be defensively,” Stoudemire said.

Stoudemire matched a season high with 41 points and Anthony had 29 on Friday.

Stoudemire’s 29.7 points per game at Philips Arena are his most in any building while Anthony’s 39.6 percent shooting there is his second-lowest mark.

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