Amar’e Stoudemire’s been playing like an early MVP candidate. On offense.
The New York Knickerbockers beat the Toronto Raptors last night, winning their sixth straight game and 11 out of their last 12, but it took Amar’e Stoudemire once again performing like an MVP, and Raymond Felton’s clinching three-pointer bouncing off the rim five times (plus once off the backboard) before falling in. With our record at 14-9, it’s the best we’ve been since 2001. And tonight we have one last easy game (against Washington, who also might likely be playing without John Wall, perhaps their best player). Then the true test begins when we finally start playing teams with winning records.
However, our pick and roll is now working smoothly on a regular basis. During our early losing streak, it wasn’t simply that shots weren’t falling, it was that the offense wasn’t smooth. Even when we won against a tough team (like in our early game against Chicago), it felt more like we got it ‘cuz we were just having a great shooting night, not because our offense was so effective.
On the other end, as always, our defense can be rather mediocre at times. In particular, we seem to get torched by mobile big men, last night allowing Andrea Bargnani to notch a career high 41 points. This after giving up big nights to Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, David Lee and Brook Lopez, and on Sunday even Bargnani’s teammate, the foul-prone Amir Johnson, went nutz on us. That said, when we do focus, we have been able to get stops at the end. And while our one-on-one coverage often sucks against these bigs, we sometimes are really effective when we double them since we have athletic players like Landry Fields and Wilson Chandler who can then quickly scramble back to their men when the ball gets passed out. The issue with the double is that often we have the wrong person doubling. In one instance, Toney Douglas doubled when his man was on the same side as Bargs, giving an easy open pass out for the three and leaving Toney no time to recover. At another point our doubler came over from the paint, but his man was standing right underneath the hoop and got the pass for an easy lay-in. We need to double so that they either have to force a cross-court pass or they need to kick it out and then swing it around, giving us time to scramble back to contest the shot.
Offensively, Felton kept us in the game during the first half, and then Amar’e took over in the fourth, hitting shot after shot, prompting chants of “MVP!” from the crowd. Chris Sheridan wrote this tidbit about STAT the other day that only left me more impressed with him:
This you probably didn’t know: [Amar'e] is a young man constantly searching to expand his mind, whether by traveling to Israel last summer to learn about Jewish culture and heritage, taking geography and world history classes at Arizona State after he became a member of the Phoenix Suns straight out of high school, or spending his free time these days paging through the ancient Chinese military strategy book “Sun Tzu: Art of War.”
[...] “He has a very inquisitive mind,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He always wants to better himself, and I think that has helped him get into a position where he’s a great, becoming a great leader or is a great leader, and he just becomes it more every year because he’s not satisfied with what he has off the court, or on the court.”
That said, I keep going back to Felton, because he’s the one who’s been getting Amar’e the ball in better positions. Not only did Ray Ray shoot 50% for 28 points (and a perfect 6-for-6 from the line), he also added in 11 assists, once again double-doublin’.
Landry Fields, master of doing the little things, may not have shot that well, but he hit a key basket in the fourth and pulled down 10 rebounds, ensuring he remains on top of the rebounding board for all guards (not just rookies) in the league.
Ronny Turiaf returned, but only played 8 minutes. Likewise, recent bench sensation Shawne Williams only lasted 11 minutes and didn’t score a point. However, unlike past cameos from say Timofey Mozgov, at least he didn’t make any dumb errors, and unlike say Toney Douglas, he didn’t just shoot every time he sniffed the ball. He only took one shot, so his lack of points is totally excusable. Toney, as usual, was okay, but nothing great and is not showing the promise he displayed in those first few games. Even worse, he’s far more comfortable as shooting guard rather than point guard, which is forcing Felton into tons of minutes.
In fact, with all the bench guys being mediocre lately (with the possible exception of Williams), the starters have been playing crazy minutes. Felty and Stat played 43 minutes, while Wilson Chandler came in at 41, and Danilo Gallinari at 38. Right now, Memphis’ Rudy Gay leads the league in minutes per game at under 41, so if those three guys were to maintain this pace, they’d be the top 3 in the entire league. Gallo’s minutes would place him in the top 7-14 players (Felton currently sits at 12th, averaging 38.3 minutes). And this was against a team, Toronto, with a losing record. If we tire our guys out against teams like the Raps, we’re gonna be too zapped to go up against the big boys. And there are times that Felton looks tired to me out there.
Rumor is that Donnie Walsh is looking to acquire a backup point (possibly for Bill Walker), so maybe that will help fix things in that spot. But even Kelenna Azubuike, who we’ve hoped would return and, if not claim the starting 2-spot, would at least be able to give good minutes, now apparently is still a ways away according to coach Mike D’Antoni.
Still, we should be happy with where we are (although as New Yawkers it is our inalienable rights to complain even when things are good). And as far as the critics saying that we’ve mostly only played poor teams (a true statement), that doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily plummet down in the second half. So far we’ve gone 2-3 against teams over .500. With 8 teams in the West over .500 (and us playing each twice) plus 6 other teams in the East at that level (and we play each 3-4 times, but for this we’ll say 4), that means we’ll have 40 games against winning teams. At our current pace, that’d leave us with 16 wins. On the other hand, against sub-.500 guys we’ve gone 12-6. If we maintain that pace it’d leave us with 28 wins in those 42 games. Totaling 44 wins. Which should easily be enough to assure us of being at least 7th in the playoff race.
Let’s hope we don’t look past tomorrow night’s game, because we need to stack up all the wins we can get now.