A ode to a once-promising bench and a preview of tonight’s game from gentleman, scholar, resident genius and my idol, Will Woods…
Coming into the season, with Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov in the starting lineup, I thought the Knicks might be among the deepest teams in the league. Then Anthony Randolph died and Mozgov was sent to the Siberian D-League, and when any of the remaining rotation guys goes down, we get situations like Shawne Williams guarding Dwight Howard in the post.
I watch a lot of Celtics games, and one of the things I think Doc Rivers does very well is trust his reserve players to play, if not play very well, at least within the team concept. He doesn’t want any of the Celtics’ numerous injuries to change the responsibilities of anyone in the first unit. Kendrick Perkins and Jermaine O’Neal went down, and of course Shaq has missed some time, but Rivers continues to insert Semih Erden and tell his starters, “Keep doing what you’re doing. Our interior presence may be worse than usual, and maybe we’ll lose because of it – but you don’t have to change your game to compensate.”
Of course, Rivers has the star-caliber players to provide a support system when the likes of Erden and Von Wafer hit the court; those players are simply made better by the talent around them. But Mike D’Antoni seems to feel that he can run a very complicated offensive system while asking certain players to take different roles in that system on any given night. Toney Douglas plays both an energy two-guard and the understudy of Raymond Felton. Amar’e Stoudemire has nights where he’s asked to lead the team in scoring and be the team’s only interior defensive presence. Fields, of all people, bears the rebounding onus when Turiaf is injured. And poor Wilson Chandler is about to enter restricted free agency without ever having really played his natural position.
Mozgov is no worse than Erden or Omer Asik of Chicago, who has been making steady cameos in the absence of Joakim Noah, but somewhere along the way D’Antoni lost faith in him. Even with Ronny Turiaf down, D’Antoni’s response is to ask players to do things they may not be capable of doing, rather than simply sacrificing some quality to maintain familiar roles. The problem with this philosophy is that when the going gets tough, as it has now, extending the rotation is not a palatable option, yet a tight rotation got the team into this mess in the first place. If D’Antoni can’t find time for players when the team is playing well, there’s hardly incentive for him to turn to them in times like these, when things need to be turned around.
Tonight the Knicks face the Rockets, who without Yao Ming are a team that lacks a 5 with a post game. It would be another great opportunity for Mozgov or Randolph to cut their teeth, but as the losses mount, D’Antoni’s stubbornness may turn to desperation as he clings to the guys he knows can play, even as they dwindle.
PG – Kyle Lowry: A bundle of energy, but his increased workload has led to worse per minute numbers. One caveat: you can’t leave him open on the perimeter anymore.
SG – Kevin Martin: Three-point shooting has slipped lately, not that I’d let him shoot it. Another poor defender that I’d like to see Fields exploit on back cuts and the offensive glass.
SF – Shane Battier: Tough matchup for Danilo Gallinari, who seems to be able to get more athletic defenders than Battier out of position. Gallo’s Italian sorcery may not work on Landry Fields version 1.0, though.
PF – Luis Scola: Isn’t scoring quite as efficiently as last season, but still a crafty post player. Depending on how many minutes Turiaf plays, Scola will be overwhelmed by Stoudemire and will compensate by gambling for turnovers.
C – Chuck Hayes: Having a career year, which for him means six points and six boards in 22 minutes a night. Biggest difference in his game this year is 75% FT; his career average is just 61%. Did yeoman’s work isolated on Stoudemire last time these teams met.
Knicks Lineup: Via Alan Hahn’s Twitter, Ronny Turiaf will be available tonight off the bench. Anyone who saw the Knicks get out-rebounded 48-38 against Phoenix knows how important his presence is.
Houston Trends: Before their 93-84 win Monday against Milwaukee, the Rockets had allowed 100+ points in their last 11 consecutive games, and had lost four in a row at home (just 11-9 overall). The Rockets have not beaten a winning team at home since December 1st, but have won 13 of their last 15 against New York.
Rockets Rotation: Much likes Phoenix and Sacramento were having trouble doling out minutes at small forward, Houston is currently trying to sort out its guard rotation. Aaron Brooks is the league’s reigning Most Improved Player and the incumbent starter at point, but Lowry has played well while Brooks was out with an ankle sprain and remains the starter. The Rockets like to play Brooks off the ball with Lowry, meaning a) minutes have been tough to come by for Chase Budinger and Courtney Lee, and b) Toney Douglas will need both shoulders intact to defend these two waterbugs.
A Few Good Sentences About: Amar’e Stoudemire, who put up a nice line last time against Houston. As mentioned above, however, Chuck Hayes really did a phenomenal job after being switched onto Stoudemire, guarding him mostly without help and holding him to just 4-12 shooting after the first quarter. Since then Amar’e has gone on to gather MVP buzz, but lately he has fallen back into the elbow isolation routine that stops the ball and stagnates the offense. Felton is complicit in this as well – as mentioned in a recent post by Tommy Dee at TheKnicksBlog – as he seems content to just dump it off to Stoudemire rather than running the offense to find a shot. Stoudemire’s 41-point effort against Phoenix is tough to argue with, but there are defenders out there who can neutralize his isolation game, and it would seem Hayes is one of them. Let’s see if the Knicks recognize that tonight or if they keep banging their heads against the wall.
Player Hater’s Ball: Tonight’s Baller Haters Play is Jared Jeffries. Obviously. Let your hatred from a bygone era flow out of you; it’s cathartic, I promise. (Sidenote: yes, JJ would probably help the Knicks out right now. That’s immaterial to making fun of him tonight, though.)
A Quick Note Regarding the Beginning of This Post: I just realized that in reading my plea for D’Antoni to extend the rotation, some readers may be led to believe I am advocating more minutes for Roger Mason. Please know this was not my intention; I apologize for any misunderstanding. I really meant everyone but him. Aside: how far away are we from an Andy Rautins sighting?
One Final Thought About Playing Time: As a rookie last season, Toney Douglas did not receive steady minutes – on a team that was going nowhere, mind you – until March. Today, for all his shortcomings as a point guard, he’d be a rotation player on just about every team in the league. Something to consider for those like me, who wonder if Mozgov will crack the rotation again this season.
I watched the Rockets’ ugly MLK-day win against the Rockets, and the biggest thing I took away is how much they like to run Kevin Martin around off the ball. Obviously the Knicks prefer to switch as much as possible and give their opponents any matchup they like, so tonight the man guarding the screener will have to close out hard on Martin, and the team will have to communicate quickly on those off-ball screens to prevent easy interior buckets. Houston isn’t the most talented team defensively but they’re a heady bunch that won’t often be caught out by a motion offense. The Knicks will have to earn their points.
Tonight begins a three-game southern swing for the Knicks against tough competition, and if they can’t turn it around here they may find themselves at .500 before the month is out. The Knicks should be up for this one after three straight losses and the Spurs and Thunder looming. Let’s hope the Knicks show us they remember how that six-game losing streak felt.