More sage Knicks wisdom from the soothsayer himself, the Michaels to my Jannetty, Will Woods…
Well, it appears Amar’e Stoudemire has chosen to keep banging his head against the wall. Chuck Hayes once again did a phenomenal job on Amar’e Wednesday night, yet Raymond Felton and Mike D’Antoni continued to dump it off to the big man for elbow isolations. After a big first quarter, Amar’e was consistently stripped and stuffed in the second half, and response was not to kick it out against double and triple teams, but to keep barreling forward, keep bringing the ball down, keep his teammates as stagnant as possible.
When Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are shooting poorly, as both did Wednesday, it’s very difficult to justify moving the ball around when you can rely on your star player. But D’Antoni’s willingness to let Amar’e do all the work backfires when the opponent has a defender who can play him one on one. The problem here is actually mirrored in D’Antoni’s philosophy about the rotation: when the going is good, he plays a short rotation, but when the going gets bad, he can’t shorten it further and he doesn’t want to introduce new players in a tough spot, so he’s left stuck. Similarly, with Amar’e dominating the offense, things can be great for a while, but when Chuck Hayes starts to lock him down, and D’Antoni’s instinct ought to be to rely on his star player…well, that’s what he’s been doing the entire game! And he isn’t about to take the ball out of Stoudemire’s hands, not when the team supposedly needs him most.
The problem is compounded when you look at the players with whom the Knicks surround Stoudemire. Landry Fields, Ronny Turiaf and Gallinari don’t often shoot when the natural flow of the offense hasn’t found a shot for them. Chandler is of course more of a chucker, and to my eye his shot selection seems to get worse when he figures he may not see the ball again for a while. That leaves Felton as the lone shot creator besides Stoudemire – more on our point guard below. Point being, when Amar’e takes over and leaves his teammates out, it’s very difficult to ask this crew of complementary players to heat up quickly when adjustments need to be made.
Tonight the Knicks face the Spurs and Tim Duncan, who reminds me of everything I love and hate about Stoudemire. I love that he relishes the responsibility of leading this team; I love that he holds a grudge against the other elite four’s in the league and goes out of his way to teabag the Duncan’s and Garnett’s of the world; but when Tim Duncan was an MVP-caliber player, he didn’t respond to extra defenders by putting his head down – he kicked out for an open shot, and if it didn’t go in, at least he made the right play. Amar’e would be wise to make a similar adjustment: that way, when the team needed him most, he could afford to be the battering ram once in a while, and it wouldn’t be the same thing he’d been doing all game.
PG – Tony Parker: Spurs’ most effective offensive weapon last time – Felton could not keep him out of the paint. Priority number one defensively this evening.
SG – Manu Ginobili: Fields did a good job on him last time, limiting most of his shots to the perimeter. Interestingly, has been a much better shooter from the left side than from the right side – not sure if that’s just a recent trend or something more. Also, has made his last 38 consecutive free throws.
SF – Richard Jefferson: Points (from 15 to 12 to 9), blocks and steals have gone down month by month. Fouls and turnovers have gone up month by month. It’s been a rough January.
PF – Duncan: Whom I fellashed above. Averaging five fewer minutes per game this year compared to his career average.
C – DeJuan Blair: Coming off a 22-point effort against Toronto. If he’s going to go off, he usually lets you know with a big first quarter.
Last Time against San Antonio: Going into the first Spurs game I was very worried that Stoudemire, going up against Duncan, might assume the responsibility of winning the game by himself. He responded with six assists (interestingly, not a season-high – he had seven against Detroit) and the Knicks played their best game of the season offensively. Chandler led the team with 31, and Amar’e and Felton followed with 28 apiece. Unselfish Amar’e does exist, and he’ll need to show up tonight after a week-long hiatus.
Throwing This Out There: The Mavericks released Alexis Ajinca last night, as TNT showed with some rather sobering footage of Rick Carlisle taking Ajinca aside during early warm-ups. Although I will never forget Ajinca’s draft-night “highlight,” which was surveillance footage of him basically hurling a hook shot at the backboard at 90 mph, followed by an offensive rebound and dunk, I would strongly urge the Knicks to consider Ajinca. Yes, he is French, but he’s an incredible shot-blocker, he’s agile at 7’2”, and most importantly, it would give the Knicks a reason to buy out Roger Mason. We could even put him in a little boat with some supplies and cast him out to sea while the whole city celebrates.
Update: Turns out Ajinca was not released, but is instead being deactivated in anticipation of a trade. I think I blame TNT – I’m 90% sure they said he had been released and I just went with that. Oops.
Spurs Rotation Issues: Matt Bonner, shooting 50% 3PT, will not play tonight as recovers from a sore knee. San Antonio shoots 40% 3PT as a team to lead the league, so Bonner’s absence will put a serious dent in the long-range arsenal of a suddenly three-point-reliant club. In Bonner’s stead, Blair and Duncan have picked up the minutes instead of Tiago Splitter, who can’t seem to crack the rotation. 28 year-old rookie forward Larry Owens has also been called up from Tulsa of the D-League; he’s been making cameo appearances.
A Note on the Big Three: Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are each averaging their lowest usage rates since at least the 2005-06 season. The lesson: they like getting teammates open threes, because they trust Bonner, Jefferson, George Hill and Gary Neal to make them. And they do. Knicks, take note.
A Few Good Sentences on: Felton, who as a friend opined to me yesterday, must be more hurt than we realize. It isn’t so much the unwillingness to break out in transition that bothers me; I just want to see him get the team into the offense, move without the ball, and pound the rock looking for seams. I can’t shake the feeling that part of his recent tendency to let Stoudemire isolate himself is born of his own fatigue or an injury. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Chris Duhon nearly made an All-Star bid before falling off the face of the earth in January. Felton is a different class of player, but I hope D’Antoni’s grueling offense and the lack of a reliable backup doesn’t take a similar toll.
Then again, if his floaters were falling, we might not be having this conversation. And while we’re here, if I see him grab an offensive board with his teammates already headed back in transition defense, and he decides to take on five guys at the basket by himself, I’m going to scream. Actually, I already screamed when he did that the last two games. So, just don’t do it again.
The Spurs are middle of the pack in pace, but they’re the most efficient offensive team in the league, averaging 1.09 points per possession. Last time around the Knicks ran them off the court, but the Spurs are probably too smart to get caught up in that game again. New York also won’t have the element of surprise on the Spurs, who have won seven straight, 13 in a row at home, and will probably be pretty pissed about last time. Still, the Knicks have shown they have a puncher’s chance against every team in the league. Let’s show the Spurs that lightning can strike twice.