The Knicks lost both games this weekend, including the home opener against Portland where we led by 9 points with under six minutes remaining, but make no mistake: these are not last year’s Knicks. We had tight games against both the Boston Celtics and the Portland Trail Blazers, two teams who, as I wrote in my pre-season Power Rankings, I believe are amongst the top five teams in the entire league. Throw in the fact that in the last two minutes of the Blazers game we played some great lockdown defense, and clearly you should ignore the opening to the snarky recap by the Associated Press:
The elaborate pregame festivities were designed to emphasize that these are the “new” New York Knicks.
Crunch time was the same ol’ story.
Neither weekend game was anything like ones from previous years, so let’s look at what can be gleaned from them in order to better understand our new-look Knicks. Last year we frequently had to examine things Clint Eastwood-style, checking out the Good, the Bad & the Ugly. Life is looking up this season, so now and then we’ll check out a game’s ART (the Awful, the Remarkable & the Terrific):
-Free Throws. Against Boston we shot 66.7% from the line, and versus the Blazers we got even worse with 56%. Both games came down to just a few points at the end. Had we done even slightly better from the strike, it could’ve literally made the difference between winning and losing.
-Danilo Gallinari. Played only 12 and 15 minutes in those games and seems to be out of it. That said, while he might not end up making that next step that many of us hoped he would, I imagine he’ll at least get back to the consistency he delivered last year once his wrist heals a bit. As long as coach Mike D’Antoni can keep Gallo’s confidence up.
-Outrebounded by the Celts by 16 boards. Centers Timofey Mozgov and Ronny Turiaf combined to play nearly 40 minutes, yet only totaled 2 rebounds. That is not a misprint. Or the same amount that Roger Mason got in 6 minutes.
-Roger Mason. Looks awful, and while he looked good two years ago, he also looked horrible last season. Sure, he makes Gallo seem like he’s getting tons of playing time, having only been in for 5 and 6 minutes, but I’d rather give that time to Gallo to help him regain his game.
-Some of D’Antoni’s defensive ideas. Against the Blazers he started off assigning Landry Fields to cover Andre Miller, Gallo on Brandon Roy, and Raymond Felton on Nick Batum. This enabled Batum to use his height and strength to abuse Felton and moved one of our best perimeter defenders (Fields) off of our opponent’s top scorer (Roy). Portland took fully advantage of the odd mismatches we kindly gave them, instantly putting us into a big hole.
I kinda, sorta understand why D’Antoni tried it, but it was flawed logic. See in the previous game Landry Fields did a good job at covering Rajon Rondo, giving Rondo space to shoot jumpers, thus limiting Rondo’s ability to drive and his height making it slightly harder for Rajon to make/see passes (yes, yes, Rondo ended up with a ton of dimes, but just ‘cuz Kobe Bryant goes insane against Shane Battier some night doesn’t mean that Battier did a poor job). Oh, and this also allowed Fields to help double on Kevin Garnett and Shaq down low. However, with Portland, Miller isn’t their engine like Rondo is with the Celts. Roy’s the engine. And their big man scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, usually prefers to shoot jumpers rather than go to work on the box, so you don’t really need a roamer to help out on him.
Other defensive lapses though it was hard to tell whether these were poor decisions on D’Antoni’s part, or rather poor/incorrect executions by the players. Like several times a big provided a pick for Rondo, and Amar’e Stoudemire moved off of the big to show on Rondo. Since Rondo has an awful outside shot, you don’t need to worry about him out there. And this would leave whatever small guard was covering Rondo now stuck on a big who started posting up since they now had a huge mismatch. It’s one thing to step out if say Ray Allen goes around a pick, but with Rondo the defender can safely go under the pick without worrying about the outside shot, so there’s no need for Amar’e to come out like that. Was that a poor decision by Amar’e or was that what D’Antoni wanted him to do?
Or during the Portland game, there was a time when Landry left nearby Roy to provide help D on Aldridge who was posting up. Thus there was a wide open easy pass to Roy for a three-pointer with no one in the area to contest the shot. Shouldn’t say, whoever was covering Camby or Miller have come over instead since neither of them are perimeter threats? But again, at this point in the season it’s hard to know if Fields was simply following the game plan or if he made a poor decision on his own.
-That the Knicks are playing defense. The mere fact that one can now point out specific moments where we either had lapses or poor planning on defense shows how far we’ve come from last year. During the ’09-’10 season, no one was committed to defense, so it was impossible to even know where to begin to criticize them in that area. Yes, there’s basic poor one-on-one defense where a player just blows past you or posts you up, but any team with decent defense is really more about solid team defensive principles. Against the Celts, we actually started out the first quarter getting steals and causing them to turn it over, which gave us an 11-2 lead in the first three and a half minutes.
-Felton has been the solid point guard we’d hoped for during the Duhon years. His field goal percentage ain’t always great, but he actually creates looks for both himself and others. Plus he, like Amar’e and Toney Douglas, seems unafraid of taking big shots.
-Fields is Battier-esque. Not just in the small things he does, or the fact that his threes help keep opposing teams honest, but even specifically in how he plays defense sometimes. Rather than go for the block/try to contest the shot on a jump shot, he puts his hand in front of the shooter’s eyes to make the guy’s view tougher. He plays smart, controlled offense too, allowing the O to come to him rather than force up shots as rookies tend to do. And unlike present-day Battier, Fields has a never-ending motor so he disrupts things all over the court, aggressively going for say rebounds and some put-backs. And he ain’t bad at driving and dishin’ neither.
-Never giving up. We started out strong against the Celts, but they came back and took the lead before the first quarter was even over. Many young or weak teams would think, “crap, the Celts are a great team and now that they’ve turned it up we’re already in trouble.” But we stayed right in it, refusing to back down. Similarly, against Portland, our home crowd came out jazzed, ready for the Knicks to be brilliant. Instead we were down by 10 before the first quarter ended, and during the first half of the second quarter we consistently remained behind by 10-12 points. You could hear the crowd get quiet, nervous. In our first 18 minutes at Madison Square Garden we looked as awful as we had during the last two years — maybe nothing had changed. But our players didn’t feel that way. They tied the game during the second quarter and we went toe-to-toe with this experienced team for the rest of the way. Last year we would’ve kept falling, been behind by 20 before half, and the boos would’ve rightly rained.
-Bill Walker’s three point shooting. He was great from distance last year, but since it was a small sample size, it was hard to know if he could do it consistently over a full season. We had a slim edge in the fourth quarter when Walker hit two threes (sandwiching 2 points by Felton) to give us that impressive nine point lead. He forced up another three moments later as a heat check, but had he not done that he would’ve been three of four from deep. With two of them coming at a crucial tense point. If he can regularly provide that serious outside threat, then opposing teams won’t be able to pack the paint. This would allow Felton, Amar’e and Chandler to wreck major havoc around the hoop.
-Amar’e shot the same exact percentage in both games. Sure, it wasn’t a great percentage, but it’s kinda odd/remarkable that he went exactly 8-of-17 in both of ‘em, no?
-Outdoing the Celtics in blocks 9-1. Again, no misprint there. Now in his fourth season, Chandler seems to have realized that he is indeed allowed to block the other team’s shots. Turiaf, as he has throughout his career, also has come off the bench ready to reject the ball. With Amar’e and Mozgov occasionally making a block here or there, we may not have any bigs who rebound like David Lee, but happily we also don’t have any bigs who block shots like he does(n’t). When Anthony Randolph returns, he may not be meshing in on O, but he’ll definitely join the New York Block Party we’ve been having this season.
-Chandler’s aggressiveness. After the first game I wrote that I doubted Wil would keep looking for his shot since he frequently would vanish offensively last season. I dunno if it’s the fact that he’s trying to prove himself since he’s now coming off the bench or if he’s just been regularly getting jacked up on caffeine before games, but he’s now unrelenting. And while it initially started just on offense, it has now also appeared in the form of rebounding and like I said, blocks. Yes, his shot selection hasn’t been great, but it’s easier to change that than it is to turn on a player’s motor.
Tags: Amare Stoudemire Bill Walker Boston Celtics Brandon Roy Danilo Gallinari LaMarcus Aldridge Landry Fields Mike D'Antoni Portland Trail Blazers Raymond Felton Roger Mason Jr Ronny Turiaf Shane Battier Timofey Mozgov Wilson Chandler