The Knicks dropped to 3-5 with their 122-117 loss to David Lee’s new team, the Golden State Warriors. While the Warriors have been a laughable team, like the Knicks, for the past few years, this year they’ve started out on a tear. At 6-2, they actually have are tied for the 4th best record in the league. Yes, it’s early in the season, so that’s a bit of a mirage, but the point is that while they’re not quite as good as that record would indicate, neither are they as bad as their recent history would indicate.
If you didn’t watch the game, the five point difference might seem large, but really it was a one-point game in the closing seconds, that only was extended to five due to purposeful fouls (the last of which shouldn’t have even happened with only 1.5 seconds left, so really the score should’ve been 120-117). Likewise, if you just look at the box score, you’d see Golden State shot an insane 52.8% from the field and assume our defense is as awful as it was last year. The truth though is that our half-court defense was actually pretty darn good at times and definitely got us back in the game, despite being down as much as 19. So what was the real story?
The reason the Warriors shot a phenomenal field goal percentage was turnovers. We had 21 turnovers, which lead to 30 points. You take away those 15-for-15 shots and 47-of-89 shooting turns into 32-of-74 for 43.2%. That’s pretty darn good. Of course, sure, part of being a good defensive team is being able to get back on D after a turn, preventing the other guys from getting an easy basket. But right now we have the third-most turnovers per game in the league (only Minnesota and Charlotte are worse — but thankfully our next game is against Minnie!). So our disjointed offense is a big part of why our defense seems so bad.
The other thing that makes it appear our D is awful is the fact we play at the 3rd fastest pace in the league. That means more shot opportunities, creating higher scoring games and the illusion of bad defense. Truth is, even with all those turnovers giving uncontested layups, we are 14th in defensive rating. No, that’s not a defensive juggernaut, but we are actually in the top half of the league in that department. If we clean up those turns, it’s not out of the realm that we could end up being in the top 10.
The key thing is maintaining the effort. In the third quarter we let the Warriors build up a 19 point lead, and it was no coincidence that it happened right after Amar’e Stoudemire picked up his third foul. In the first quarter, Stat got two fouls and was yanked (as is customary). When the second half started, with the Knicks only down four, he literally picked up his third on the Warriors’ very first play. He knew the team couldn’t afford to have him get another foul and have to sit (even the announcers said how he needs to be careful not to get that next one). As a result one could see him really trying to avoid that foul, playing passively on defense. With Timofey Mozgov no longer starting, Ronny Turiaf injured and Anthony Randolph ineffective, we had no defensive anchor. Sure, Wilson Chandler ended up with three blocks, but they were more due to his athleticism rather than him being effective as a big man helper.
Another thing that likely killed the team’s effort was, in fact, the absence of Turiaf. His D always gives a boost off the bench. In general, our bench has been great at giving us boosts of energy, but with Chandler moved into the starting line-up, really our only energizer bunny was Toney Douglas. And with Chandler and Toney going from playing 29 and 27.5 minutes to 41 and 34, suddenly they can’t just constantly be swirling dervishes because it’s harder to sustain over such long periods of time.
By the way, after all the pre-season talk of how Coach Mike D’Antoni was going to play 10-11 players, he essentially just went with a rotation of 6 last night. They all played at least 33 minutes. Bill Walker made a brief guest appearance for 10 minutes, followed by Randolph making a seven and a half minute showing, and lastly a brief two minute cameo from Mozgov (during which he somehow managed to amass three fouls). That said, out of that crew the only one I kinda trust is Bill Walker, but his D isn’t as good as Raymond Felton, Douglas, Landry Fields or Chandler, while his O isn’t as good as Danilo Gallinari, so I dunno whose minutes I’d take away. Personally I’m fine with the tight rotation until Turiaf and Kelenna Azubuike return to health (or Randolph learns how to be useful).
The last key thing is that we need to cut down on our threes. Or rather, on nights like these where we’re not making ‘em, then we need to stop tossing ‘em up. In games like at Chicago where we hit everything, fine, keep chucking. But particularly against a Golden State team that had only one real shot blocker (Andris Biedrins) who only played 26 minutes. Mostly David Lee was used at center, and we should know better than anyone that he’s no blocksmith, nor is he any good at defending the paint. When we made our big run, it was mostly by attacking the rim and thus getting a ton of freebies at the line. Look, I’m fine with Gallo putting up five threes a night regardless of whether he makes ‘em, but Toney Tone went 0-for-7, Chandler took 10 big ones and Felton added five himself. Plus, as everyone knows, long shots create long rebounds, which then helps the other team start a fast break and easy opportunities.
Right now we have the 23rd worst offensive rating, a baffling stat for a D’Antoni team. If we score a little better, it forces the opponent to take the ball out from under the basket and prevents them from fast-breaking. So I truly believe that once we fix our O, it will tremendously help our D so that teams and fans can see that it actually isn’t awful.
The last calming thing to remember is that even though we’re at 2-5, we’re actually just half a game back from the east’s current 8th seed. Only the top four teams in the east having winning records, so oddly enough we’re just one full game back from being tied for the 5th best record in the conference. In other words, we have time to gel without worrying about it hurting our playoff aspirations. For comparison’s sake, all top eight of the western teams are over .500, thus making the poor Clippers already four games out of the picture. If we gained three games, we’d be leading the East. So as Douglas Adams’ wrote: Don’t Panic.
P.S. One truly bizarre upsetting fact: Due to the Warriors’ 5-2 start before last night, David Lee was able to come to Madison Square Garden with a winning record. Despite playing in New York for five years, during that whole time there were only five other instances where he checked in sporting a winning record. It’s been a long decade. Don’t expect it to change overnight.