The New York Knicks just weathered their first rough patch of the season, but was it also a sign of something more to come? Are the 2012-13 Knicks the same-old, mediocre team we’ve seen the last two years or was that early-season flash destined to last?
Once again, Knicks fans do not know exactly what they have. After bursting out of the gate with six straight wins, the Knicks have settled to .500 ball, going 4-4. They beat the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs but then lost badly to the subpar Houston Rockets, and their latest rival, the Brooklyn Nets.
It’s very early, but the Knicks' position in the standings alone indicates they are better than their typical mediocre (or worse) selves. They still are playing their best basketball in nearly 20 years, and it will continue.
They cling to a first-place Atlantic Division tie with those Nets and a half-game lead for the second seed in the East.
And they are putting up good numbers on solid play, though both have slipped some of late.
The Knicks have the fourth-best offense in the NBA, and now the eighth-best defense, in terms of points. These are good, playoff-contending numbers but a decline from their league-dominating stats in those first six games, when they flexed the best defense around and a 17-point differential.
So, what happened and is it fixable? If the Knicks are to land a top seed and get beyond the same old first-round exit, they will need to address what went wrong during this stretch and make the proper adjustments. That is the sign of a team that is playing on the next level.
The first and foremost culprit is the defense. The Achilles’ heel that crippled the Knicks back in the Mike D’Antoni days has momentarily reared its head.
The Knicks gave up at least 100 points in only six of Mike Woodson’s first 29 games at the helm (17 percent). But they’ve done it another five times in just the last nine (56 percent).
It’s the return of the matador defense, defined by urbandictionary.com as “a lackluster, low-effort form of defense in which the defender simply reaches for the ball and then quickly pulls his hand away.
There’s a bunch of standing around, too, as exemplified in the team’s worst performance of the year against Jeremy Lin and the Rockets. The Knicks dropped that one 131-103.
If you’re counting, there are five defensive lapses in the following brief highlight reel from that game:
Nj.com goes further, pinpointing the “common denominators” in the Knicks first three losses: “inability to either get stops or snare rebounds in key moments.”
“We’re getting beat a lot off the dribble, and the penetration is hurting us [because] teams are getting to the heart of our defense," [Tyson] Chandler said. "We’re allowing offensive rebounds, easy shots on the perimeter, dump-offs for layups. ... Just a lot of easy baskets. Early in the year, we were making things tough, and now we’re letting guys off way too easy.”
The Knicks defense has grown, and shown, much since Woodson took the reins, and it will return. The Memphis loss and the subsequent Dallas loss were both on the back end of back-to-back nights on the road. That will take a little steam out of most teams' defensive engines. And the Knicks did hold the Nets to 40 percent shooting in a very tight game.
Until we have more data points, Woodson’s defensive track record up until now says the Rockets game was an anomaly.
The loss against the Memphis Grizzlies was mostly due to a couple of other reasons. The Knicks defense was good, but simply overpowered. The Grizzlies physically pounded them on both sides of the ball.
As a result, the Knicks lost their cool and piled up a season-high 26 personal fouls that resulted in 26 points from the line. They had four technicals and a flagrant foul. All together, the Grizzlies edged the Knicks 10 points from the line, which happened to be the margin of victory.
Both factors in this loss are evident in the highlight reel.
As good as Carmelo Anthony is at the number 4, the Grizzlies were just too big all night long. He needed more help.
Marcus Camby was unavailable, Kurt Thomas played just nine minutes and Rasheed Wallace’s defense was lackluster. It was the first time this season the Knicks looked like they really could have used a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire.
His and Iman Shumpert’s return, coupled with more minutes for Camby is the Knicks’ antidote for big, bruising teams.
The Knicks have faltered lately, but their recent deficiencies are fixable. These Knicks are for real and may be the favorites to win the Atlantic, and with the Chicago Bulls flopping, probably even the second seed. So, they are definitely not your same-old, mediocre Knicks.
Anticipate a bounce back on the road to a 50+ win season.
There are a few games coming up that will test the team’s true mettle, and we’ll have a better idea where the Knicks stand.
Before December ends, they will have to face a much more in-tune Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers twice apiece, and those Rockets and Nets again.
By the New Year, Knicks fans will know exactly what their team is made of.
Stats as of the end of Nov. 29 play.