I wouldn’t be the first person to observe that the Knicks’ remaining schedule is brutal. Most people point to the two obvious metrics: opponent’s records and road games. Of the Knicks’ remaining 24 games, only nine are against teams that currently have a losing record. In addition, the Knicks only have nine home games left on the schedule. The full extent of how bad the road ahead is for the Knicks goes beyond records and road games though.
The Knicks defeated the short-handed Golden State Warriors in an absolute barn-burner to spoil Stephen Curry’s eruption for an NBA season-high, 54 points. What looked like it was going to be breezy win for the Knicks in the early going turned into an edge-of-your-seat, big-play-after-big-play trade-off between two teams who desperately wanted to come away with a win. Curry nearly gave the Warriors the game, throwing them on his shoulders as he repeatedly launched from downtown, lighting the Garden ablaze with a multitude of long shots, contested and open. In the game’s final minutes, J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony each scored big baskets for the Knicks, and Raymond Felton, Tyson Chandler, and Iman Shumpert contributed big plays on the defensive end to give the Knicks the edge.
The first quarter was hardly indicative of what was to come later in the game. Both teams struggled out of the gate, the Warriors missing two-thirds of their frontcourt with Andrew Bogut out with a cranky back, and David Lee suspended because of his scuffle with the Indiana Pacers Tuesday night.
The Knicks, meanwhile, defended more ably than we’d seen in opening quarters in quite awhile. Their offense, however, took awhile to get going as Anthony continued his mini-slump from outside, while Jason Kidd and Iman Shumpert both laid bricks. The positive for the Knicks was Tyson Chandler’s youthful energy as he ravished the boards, collecting 10 rebounds in a matter of six minutes. He also skied to finish alley-oops and clean up misses from his out-of-tune teammates.
The Knicks’ defensive energy stemmed largely from Chandler’s dominance on the boards and Shumpert’s sudden aggressiveness in his on-ball defense. Shumpert bounced back and forth guarding Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry, and was able to pester each of them, nabbing three steals in the opening period, showing signs of his exciting rookie year D. Chandler, too, bothered the Warriors into a couple turnovers, after which the Knicks generally looked to push the pace. One particularly splendid Shumpert steal from Curry led to a fastbreak dunk for Smith.
The Warriors struggles forced Mark Jackson to go very small, putting the 6’8″ Carl Landry at center, with Barnes at power forward, Thompson at the three, and Curry and Jarrett Jack in the backcourt. This small lineup prompted Anthony to go down on the right block where he continually abused whomever tried to guard him. Even when he missed, Chandler was able to finish over the much smaller Warriors. Anthony and the Knicks finally got some rhythm on offense and finished the quarter up 27-18.
The Knicks snapped a four-game losing streak by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, and retaining first place in the Atlantic Division. Heading into the game, the Knicks had been mired in a major slump on both ends of the floor, undoubtedly playing their worst basketball of the season. A last-minute loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday seemed to be the tipping point, the time where the panic button ought to be pushed. Granted, it was against a weaker opponent, but tonight’s win over the Sixers displayed better effort and determination for longer stretches than we’d seen in recent weeks.
Anytime a team exceeds expectations, it’s natural to point to two things: a great coaching effort and good personnel changes. While the Knicks are in a bit of a tailspin at the moment, one of the things that make it such a big deal is that up to this point the Knicks have greatly exceeded expectations. As of this writing, the Knicks are 32-20, 12 games over .500, despite their current four-game losing streak. Last year, after 52 games, they were 26-26 and they finished the season just six games over .500, barely making it into the Eastern Conference playoff field. The Knicks entered this season with a roster built around the same three core stars, having lost Jeremy Lin and Amar’e Stoudemire starting the season on the sideline. There were hopes that the Knicks would respond well to a full season under Mike Woodson, but few prognosticators had the Knicks in line to win the Atlantic Division. While the Knicks have benefited from both excellent coaching and some good moves by management, perhaps the most significant change has been to the offensive game of their returning star, Carmelo Anthony.
The Knicks’ slow starts are no longer a trend, but a trait. Since beginning the season in near-dominant fashion, running out to an 18-5 record, the Knicks are just 14-14. Though many of their problems have stemmed from injuries and having to work new players in and out of the rotation, the Knicks have been pretty consistently out of rhythm since 2013 rang in, and Mike Woodson has found few answers to solve their arrhythmic play.
These problems could be traced back to Carmelo Anthony’s various absences, Jason Kidd’s gradual deterioration, Raymond Felton’s month-long absence, the continual injury bugs plaguing Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby, the rotational additions of Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert, and the up-and-down play of J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, and Ronnie Brewer. Piled on over the course of a month and a half, these problems add up, and it’s showed in the Knicks’ play.
For awhile, the team was executing nicely on offense, but struggled mightily to get stops on defense. In the last game before the All-Star break, the Knicks smothered the Toronto Raptors’ offense, but couldn’t figure out a way to score the ball, shooting just 35% from the field and 36% from three-point range. Last night against the Indiana Pacers, arguably the most embarrassing loss of the season, the Knicks took a collective dump on the floor, shooting 33% from the field, 17% from downtown, and giving up 125 points to the seventh least efficient offense in the NBA.
It’s safe to say the Knicks are in a state of total ineptitude.
Last season, the Knicks had a Defensive Rating of 101.0 or 101 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth in the league. This was despite having notorious pace addict Mike D’Antoni as their head coach for most of the season. This season, the Knicks, now coached by reputed defensive guru Mike Woodson, have a Defensive Rating of 106.1, good for 15th in the league. So how did our beloved Knickerbockers go from one of the league’s elite defensive teams to right smack in the middle?
Jason Kidd’s beginning to the 2012-13 season was basically a giant middle finger to all of his prior doubters coming into the season, myself included. Like many others, I had prematurely concluded that the Knicks had wasted their money on a 39-year old who wouldn’t be able to offer enough on the court to make up for the tied-up money and roster spot he occupied. I saw severely declining statistics over the previous three years and had low expectations about what kind of on-court tangibles Kidd could bring. The many doubters and I were wrong.
Kidd kicked off the season in fantastic form. Not only did Kidd bring the intangibles that people have raved about for the last decade – leadership, veteran poise, etc. – his on-court worth was huge to the Knicks. His accurate marksmanship from downtown, surprisingly stout defense with lightning quick hands, and a keen, unwavering sense of where to pass the ball at all times made him an essential member of the team.
The Knicks had somewhat quietly won three games in a row before bursting out with a 39-points squashing of the Sacramento Kings this past Saturday. The Knicks continued to make noise tonight, winning their fifth straight game – and their fourth by double-figures – by knocking out the Detroit Pistons tonight, 99-85. A fiery hot start for New York blasted them off to a 20+ point lead for most of the first half and, thankfully, buoyed them through a sluggish second half. When the Pistons cut it close in the fourth quarter, some timely three-pointers – a trend on the night – kept them at bay and gave the Knicks the win.
Tonight could qualify as one of those “ugly, grind-it-out” wins that are so often referred to when a basketball team squeezes out a victory by the skins of their collective teeth. Said games, however, are usually given such a description when both teams struggle to score the ball, and actually have to play ugly, hustling, desperate basketball in order to get the win. The Knicks and Hawks had to battle each other quite a bit tonight, but instead it consisted of two decent offenses going back and forth while the respective defenses played half-heartedly, with lackluster execution on both ends polluting the quality of play.
Mike Woodson and Larry Drew, the Hawks’ head coach, would probably both like their chances of getting a win if they knew their teams would shoot over 50% from the field and over 40% from three-point range. Instead, the outcome of the game hung in balance until the final buzzer. The Knicks used a heroic offensive performance from Carmelo Anthony, with some great bench production from J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire to make up for the fact that their defense begged the Hawks to take the game. A last-minute three-point play and a final stop (even with some poor defense) ended up tilting the game in the Knicks’ favor as they escaped with a win to move to 27-15.
Cheers, mates! The Knicks’ one-game stint in London proved to be a fun, albeit sloppy one as they took care of the Detroit Pistons, 102-87. The team took another step in the direction of full health by welcoming Iman Shumpert back into the rotation in a game that featured some entertaining moments. The lowly, perhaps jet-lagged, Detroit Pistons team never really made much of a ballgame out of it as the Knicks used a number of offensive bursts and just enough defensive clamping to ensure they’d receive their 25th win of the season.
The Knicks were undoubtedly more spritely to open up the game, boosted by the debut of Iman Shumpert, O Flat-Topped One. Granted, the Pistons are a bit of a sorry bunch – 16th in offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency doesn’t quite summarize their on-court transactions – but the Knicks looked far more energized than we’d seen in recent weeks.
New York got things going in a grand fashion. Some dishing and swishing around the perimeter led to a Jason Kidd three, some stopping and popping from Carmelo Anthony twice from downtown, some paint points from Tyson Chandler and Chris Copeland, a nice welcome-back corner three from Shumpert. The Knicks quickly ran out to a 16-2 lead. The offense stalled a bit thereafter, but they were diligent in preventing Detroit from catching up too much by allowing just 15 points the rest of the way.
After the hot start, the Knicks’ tempo slowed and they were plagued by especially sloppy basketball for a stretch. The Knicks committed six turnovers in the first quarter and prevented themselves from ringing up 30 or more points. They finished the first quarter up 29-17.
Breathe, breathe, breathe…. Okay. Excuse my blood pressure, still soaring to Everest-like peaks after that one. On a night when the Boston Celtics would be without their best player, Rajon Rondo – serving a one-game suspension for bumping a referee – all of the Knicks-Celtics rivalry talk seemed a little forced. After all, despite numerous close games in the past, the Knicks have never been on the Celtics’ level in previous years, and when the Knicks are finally an elite team this season, the Celtics have been struggling. However, the difference in the standings had no effect on the intensity of this one. An up-and-down, back-and-forth affair led to a battle of offense and defense, while both teams got heated, scratching at each other’s throats. Ultimately, it was the poise of the Celtics, the cold shooting of Carmelo Anthony, and a few daggers delivered by Paul Pierce that gave the Celtics the win.
The Knicks reclaimed J.R. Smith this past summer for practically nothing. Smith came over to the Knicks as a free agent in 2012, departing a short stint in China during the lockout, had a relatively down season for his standards, and then became a free agent. It was assumed Smith would flee the Knicks during free agency as the Knicks had little money to re-sign him. However, something about the Knicks – New York’s proximity to his home state of New Jersey, the teammates he’d grown close with, the nightlife… – brought Smith back for the 2012-13 season at only $2.8 million, with few other suitors around the league.