As the Knicks roll into a big time match-up with the Oklahoma City Thunder on an 11 game winning streak, there are lots of things going right for New York. Carmelo Anthony is red hot, scoring 40+ points in three consecutive games, making New York fans hoarse from cheering at their TVs as he’s embarrassed opposing defenses; JR Smith has scored 30+ points coming off the bench four times during the streak; Iman Shumpert hit 17 three-pointers in the first nine games of the streak; Kenyon Martin has resurrected his career in glorious fashion and Raymond Felton is playing some of his best basketball of the season; Even Pablo Prigioni has gotten in on the action, breaking into the starting lineup and helping stabilize the back court with his solid play.
Yet, the Knicks have been a solid offensive team all season, averaging over 99 points a game, making over 800 threes and having the third highest offensive rating in the league. The problem the Knicks have experienced during various points in the season where they have struggled is with their defense or the lack of it. The Knicks’ defensive rating ranks 16th in the NBA.
The biggest key to the streak has been a re-invigorated defense. Over the 11 game span, the Knicks have given up 89.7 points a game. To put that into perspective, the Memphis Grizzlies, which lead the league in fewest points allowed this season, give up 89.8 points per game. No team has hit more than 50% from the field against New York during the streak and twice they’ve held opponents to 38% shooting. Five times, New York has held their opponent to 85 points or less and the most they’ve given up is 102 (ironically to the basketball challenged Bobcats).
This defensive renaissance has been somewhat surprising, given that, for most of the streak, the Knicks have been without their defensive backbone, current Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler, who’s been nursing a sore neck. Not only did the Knicks’ defense not collapse in his absence, it prospered.
Perhaps the biggest reason has been the play of Kenyon Martin. A few weeks ago this would have been like saying the biggest reason Star Wars is a good series of movies is the character of Jar Jar Binks. Martin was a man without a team, seemingly too old and too diminished for a team to take a chance on him. Then with Chandler going and joining New York’s long list of injured big men, Martin was asked to be their starting center. Well undersized in the middle at 6’9”, Martin was expected to shake off the rust and hold his own against centers that were younger and bigger.
He’s done more than hold his own. It’s not a coincidence that this winning streak and in particular this streak of good defense has coincided with Martin getting big minutes for New York. In the 14 games where Martin has played 20 minutes or more the Knicks are 11-3. New York has given up more than 105 points in those games only once. His Defensive Rating is 104, the same as Chandler, and Jason Kidd is the only rotation player on the team with a better one: 103. His defensive numbers per 36 minutes are solid: 7.9 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks, but this hardly tells the full story. His physical style of play seems to inspire the whole team to greater effort while at the same time making the other team think twice about coming into the paint. His 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes lead the team and he somehow makes it seem like a virtue. His fouls, though plentiful, are usually well timed and seem to have a positive effect on the team’s defensive intensity.
This streak is very reminiscent defensively of the beginning of the season. New York started the season 8-1, allowing more than 100 points only once. At that point, many were hailing the Knicks as an elite defensive team. Yet after starting the season strong, New York’s defense slid into mediocrity and so did their results, as they followed their 8-1 start with a 30-25 record. The entire season the one constant has been offence. Both of their streaks of sustained excellence have been highlighted by superior defense. Hopefully having both a healthy Chandler and Martin available at the same time will only help and New York will be able to carry their new found defensive vigor and excellence into the postseason. Of course when we’re talking about the Knicks, sometimes having players stay healthy seems like a lot to ask.