Last night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks was over by the end of the first quarter, which left us down by 22 points. In the end, yes, we lost by 27 points, but really they only added to their lead at the very end when we played the bench dregs for almost the entire fourth quarter. One might be tempted to say that since we scored only 80 points that our offense was the problem, and yes, it sure was awful, but really it all came down to that lack of defense in the first quarter.
Truth is it wasn’t just that our D wasn’t as crisp as it could’ve been, but also that the Bucks just were on fire. They scored 41, but then we clamped down, limiting them to 23, 26 and 17 in the final three quarters. And they only got 26 in the third thanks to an at-the-buzzer-shot, so we practically kept them under 25 points a quarter after that disastrous first one. Here are a four things that I’m concerned/thinking about:
1. Slow Start. This is the third straight game that we’ve come out a bit soft in the first quarter. We were able to pull it out against the Wiz, but not against Philly or the Bucks. Are we not respecting our foes, ‘cuz we sure came out strong in our games against the better teams like the Celts, Blazers and Bulls? Or do we need to shake up the starting line-up, perhaps pulling Timofey Mozgov out?
2. Gallo The Ghost. Danilo Gallinari’s shot was off for the first few games, but it seemed like he turned things around in the Chicago outing. Last night, more concerning than his poor shooting (1-of-6) was the fact that he didn’t seem to be looking to score when he got the ball. Last year Wilson Chandler suffered from that same problem, but his move to the bench seems to have given him the freedom to feel like he has the green light to shoot. These days, frequently when Gallo gets the ball he literally doesn’t even look at the basket but rather just swings it. And he’s not swinging it to the corner guy who has a closer, more open look at the three, but rather he often just is swinging it back to the top of the key. Yes, he might not be wide open, but honestly when Gallo’s shot is on, it sometimes looks like his defender can be right in his face contesting and it won’t matter. Meaning the guy doesn’t need a ton of space. And because he’s known as a shooter, if he simply catches the ball and looks at the rim in shooting position, his man’s gonna lunge forward, thus allowing Gallo to then put the ball on the floor and go around him. So even if he doesn’t shoot, he’s caused the other team’s defense to scramble, rather than just swinging it to the middle and giving the other guys a chance for everyone to get back on their men.
The old cliche is that a shooter keeps shooting, and Gallo needs to do that. He took only two threes. The same number of attempts as Landry Fields, Andy Rautins (in just 8 minutes), and the-not-so-great-from-distance Raymond Felton. Wil, equally not great with the long ball, played two less minutes than Gallo, yet took double the attempts from three. Unless everyone else is feeling it, the Italian shouldn’t attempt less than four bombs a game.
3. Defensive plan/effort. The Knicks’ defense has dramatically improved. They’ve been one of the top shot-blocking teams in the league, while relatedly also being one of the best in limiting opponents to fewest attempts near the rim. My concern is that some of that might be fool’s gold as we’ve packed the paint, but haven’t been great at then contesting outside shots. We seemed to be better at that the first few games, so I’m unsure if it’s a question of a mediocre defensive plan or simply poor effort/focus/execution. In the Philly game there were a few key moments where the ball rotated to Jrue Holiday and not only was no one near him, but no one even ran at him. He hit two threes like that. Likewise, last night there were two attempts like that with Brandon Jennings getting nice wide open looks. Jennings may’ve only shot 37.1% from the field last year, but if you look closer, he actually shot better from three-point land, hitting 37.4% from distance. And while the first number is awful for one’s overall field-goal percentage, the second one is pretty darn good. Even if the game plan is to try to make opponents beat us with outside shots, it doesn’t mean you leave them alone out there. You might not contest by lunging out there (which’d allow them to then drive around you to penetrate), but one can certainly close out on shooters without leaving your feet, thus giving them something to think about.
4. Our un-cohesive offense. Truth is, I’m not that concerned about this. Yes, we frequently look disjointed, but Coach Mike D’Antoni’s too good at teaching offense for that to remain so all season long. One part of it is just chemistry. On one of our first possessions, Felton started to drive towards the basket, and Milwaukee’s Drew Gooden (who was covering Amar’e Stoudemire who was standing at about the free-throw line) turned to look at Felton. Felton, figured Amar’e would head towards the basket while his man wasn’t looking, and there was even a nice open path for an easy pass. Amar’e lifted up his arms to receive the ball, so Felton picked up his dribble, only to see Amar’e hadn’t cut. He was just standing there at the free-throw line. Amar’e still had his hands up in the air, calling for the ball since Gooden wasn’t watching him, so Felton figured, sure. But then since he was sorta thinking rather than going on instinct, he didn’t fake a pass towards the lane to get Gooden out of the way, so Drew easily intercepted the pass. Had our guys been on the same page, then either Amar’e would’ve first cut towards the hoop for the pass or instead Felton would’ve realized Amar’e wanted the jumper so he would’ve faked the pass towards the hoop to get Gooden out of the way and then passed to a wide open Amar’e at the free throw line.
The other big way in which our O will likely improve is that Amar’e will start to figure out more ways to score on his own. For the Suns, Stat pretty much never had to think or create his own shot. He’d do the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. If he rolled, he’d get the ball going towards the hoop for an easy lay in. If he popped, he’d catch the ball stepping back, instantly looking for his jumper, or if they closed hard on him then he’d drive past them. Lots of chemistry, but very little thinking or genuine creating on his own. But now he has a chance to learn how to create on his own and is being given more time to make something happen.
For instance, last night there were a couple of times he got the ball slightly past the free-throw line with his man kind of up tight on him, both preventing the jumper and positioned so driving toward the hoop would be tough to do without committing a charge. In Phoenix, at this point Amar’e just would pass it back out to Steve Nash. Here he now has more leeway to still try to make something happen even when the defense is there. The first few games that often resulted in him sometimes putting the ball down on the floor, driving from too far away, and turning the ball over. But last night there were a couple of times when he got the ball in that same position, and that didn’t happen. In a standard Kobe Bryant type move, without lifting his pivot foot Amar’e took a hard step forward while swinging the ball low. The defense, stepped back, thinking he was driving, which then gave him plenty of space to shoot the open jumper. Even better, he hadn’t used his dribble, so if his defender hadn’t fallen for the move too hard, then Stat could still fake the shot, get the defender to charge forward, then drive past him.
In Phoenix, Amar’e may’ve literally never had the ball in his hands for longer than two seconds at a time. Now that he has the freedom here to make a few fakes/moves, he’s learning how defenses will react, how to create in new ways, and eventually, hopefully, how to consistently get a decent shot even when there’s good D on him. He already has taken steps forward, not getting the charges and turnovers that he had in the first games, so expect this gym rat to greatly improve on these skills as the season goes on.