8 Keys for the Knicks to Win Stacked Atlantic Division

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterNovember 13, 2012

8 Keys for the Knicks to Win Stacked Atlantic Division

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    Not only are the New York Knicks winning, but they look good doing it.

    After spanking their first three opponents, all by double-digit margins, we have to at least address the possibility New York is now the top dog in the Atlantic.

    But there are a number of different factors that will determine whether they can sustain this type of long-term success. Here are the eight keys for the Knicks to win a stacked Atlantic Division.

1. Key Players Must Stay Healthy

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    I'm not breaking any news here, but the Knicks need their star players healthy.

    Each key rotation piece offers a particular set of skills (Liam Neeson Taken voice) that New York can't afford to lose.

    While they have depth, it's not the type of depth that can replace star production. You wouldn't want J.R. Smith as the go-to scorer rather than as the complementary one.

    The Knicks will ride Carmelo Anthony on offense and Tyson Chandler on defense. Without one of them on the floor, the shooters don't get open, the pick-and-roll gets axed and the defense softens.

    Keeping their key pieces healthy for the year will be the only way they sustain this level of success.

2. Don't Die by the Three

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    Living by the three is fine—it's the dying part that's unsettling.

    The Knicks have put up record numbers early on from behind the arc, currently hitting 12.8 three-pointers a game, four more than any other team in the league.

    But even J.R. Smith knows that can't last.

    The Knicks have to recognize when to pull the plug and abort the three-ball when that inevitable dry spell is lurking.

    Ride it when it's hot, bail when it's cold. Mid-game adjustments are what make great teams competitive on a nightly basis.

3. Ball Movement

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    There's nothing worse for an offense over a 48-minute stretch than when the ball sticks.

    The rule should be three seconds. No player should have the ball in his hands longer than three seconds without making a move or giving it up.

    The Knicks have shot the ball well over their first four games, which can be directly attributed to coach Woodson employing a two-point guard lineup. With pass-first guards on the wing, including Jason Kidd, Pablo Prigioni, and Raymond Felton all alternating, the ball seems to move from point A to point B to point C without hitting the floor.

    Extra passes have given their shooters more time to move without the ball and lose their men. Guys like J.R. Smith and Steve Novak feed off rhythm, which can only be generated by ball movement and fluidity.

    With few big men that can create inside, ball movement will improve the efficiency of the Knicks' perimeter scorers.

4. Defending the Three

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    Over the years, the Knicks have been one of the worst teams in basketball at defending the three.

    They finished in the bottom ten in the league in three-point percentage given up over the last two years, consistently getting burned by role players and complementary scorers.

    So far this year, New York has given up the third-fewest amount of threes in the league, with a new cast of perimeter defenders including the bulldog Raymond Felton and Ronnie Brewer.

    Getting over screens has been one of the Knicks' problems, as their guards in the past have continuously gotten caught underneath, giving open looks off the dribble to opposing point guards.

    J.R. Smith seems to have rededicated himself to showing a little more urgency and intensity. This will have to continue, especially while Iman Shumpert continues to rehab his knee.

    Protecting the arc can be almost as important as protecting the rim. There's nothing more devastating than a three at the end of the shot clock.

5. Carmelo Anthony Continues Logging Minutes at the 4

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    The mismatch Carmelo Anthony presents at the power forward position is so evident that it shouldn't even be questioned anymore.

    While most combo-forwards (and yes, I think that's a fair label now) struggle to hold their own down low, few can handle Melo's aggressive, physical frame. He's strong enough to play inside, rarely denied on the block in isolation situations. He's simply a more efficient scorer within 10 feet of the rim than he is from 18 feet and beyond.

    He also has the quickest second jump in basketball, consistently getting his own rebounds and finishing in traffic.

    Facing up, no power forward can handle Melo's foot-speed, while a hand in the face doesn't do much to bother him.

    Melo playing on the block helps space the floor, where you can insert Steve Novak and J.R. Smith on the wings and in the corners. Better spacing equals better offensive looks.

6. Amar'e Stoudemire Plays Limited Role Upon Return

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    The Knicks coaching staff needs to accept the fact that Amare Stoudemire isn't getting any better.

    He's just simply not effective playing 30-plus minutes a game.

    Right now the Knicks' second unit big men include Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. That's not exactly the most comforting trio with regard to long-term reliability.

    Stoudemire in a limited role would decrease the risk of further injury while giving New York an interior scoring punch off the bench.

    If he were a defensive asset, that would be one thing. But he's never been, and that's unlikely to change after 11 years in the league.

7. Leave Ego at the Door

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    The Knicks have ten or so guys used to getting regular minutes. On any given night, some will have to sacrifice.

    The problem with normal rotation players seeing reduced minutes is that they know their time is limited when they get on the floor. Players who know they only have a few minutes to make something happen tend to force shots, figuring they may not get another opportunity.

    As cheesy as it sounds, embracing that "whatever it takes to win" attitude is their only shot at maintaining offensive chemistry. And with so many new personalities, that could be the difference over an 82 game season.

8. Buy into Mike Woodson's System

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    Though a tiresome cliche, if the Knicks don't prioritize defense, they can forget about the Atlantic Division title.

    New York has plenty of offensive weapons, and as I mentioned earlier, with fluid ball movement the points will come.

    So far this season the Knicks have held Miami to 84, Philly under 90 twice and Dallas to 94. Mike Woodson has this team believing they can play defense. You can see it in their eyes, and it's translated to early wins.

    But it's a commitment to defending for 48 minutes a night consistently that will keep them atop the standings.  It should be the topic of discussion during every timeout and huddle, and will ultimately propel them from good to great.