NY Knicks Must Regain Defensive Identity Before NBA Playoffs

John DornCorrespondent IIIFebruary 14, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 09:  Elton Brand #42 of the Dallas Mavericks passes the ball as Tyson Chandler #6 of the New York Knicks defends on November 9, 2012 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.The New York Knicks defeated the Dallas Mavericks 104-94. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Heading into the 2012-13 season, the mantra of the newest edition of the New York Knicks—led by Mike Woodson—was defense. And for good reason.

Last season, after taking over the reigns from Mike D'Antoni, Woodson led the team to an 18-6 record to close out the season. The team rallied around stellar team defense and finished fifth in D-rating (points allowed per 100 possessions).

Through the first three weeks of 2012, the mantra held true. After the first nine games, the team's D-rating stood at 97.36, which would place them first league-wide today. Unfortunately for Woodson's Knicks, that stellar defense has been missing ever since.

In the 41 games since their hot defensive start, the team's collective D-rating has ballooned to 106.1, or 17th league-wide. Thanks to a combination of fatigue, interesting switching strategies and overall poor execution, the Knicks have plummeted from one of the league's top defensive teams to one of the worst.

If New York doesn't sure up its stopping ability by season's end, it could be their fatal flaw come the postseason—no matter how high a seed they finish with.

During training camp, Mike Woodson told his team that they need to be the best defensive team in the NBA. His team embraced a defense-first mentality, and the results were immediate. 

After almost a month of carrying out that plan, though, their defending crumbled. They've allowed O-ratings of over 105 in nine of their last 17 games. 

One of their most painful losses of the season to date came at home to the division rival Boston Celtics. New York let up a pedestrian 102 points, but you can only fully understand their defensive deficiencies by taking a look at the tape.

Over the last few months, Mike Woodson's strategy for defending opposing pick-and-roll plays has been to switch, as opposed to fighting through the screen. The team hasn't had a whole lot of defensive success in recent months, but this performance really brought its issues to light.

Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting detailed the Knicks' struggles brilliantly here.

Rosenthal notes that Boston never really ran anything too fancy. Oftentimes, it was very elementary screen plays that gave the Knicks D fits. This game wasn't an aberration, as the Knicks' switching and help defending has been putrid since mid-November.

Here's a screenshot from the Knicks' Feb. 6 loss against the Washington Wizards that's pretty telling of their woes on that end of the floor:

Iman Shumpert was expected to lift the team's perimeter defense upon his return, but the results haven't been evident 13 games into the sophomore's season.

Shump has appeared a step slow on the perimeter thus far and is often getting beat reaching instead of moving his feet. All of this comes 10 months after a complete blowout of his knee, so the struggles are understandable—Derrick Rose suffered the same injury on the same day, and Rose's return is still up in the air.

Shumpert's D-rating is at 107 right now, much more bloated than his 101 number posted last season as a rookie. It's not outrageous to expect Shumpert's defense to improve as the season moves forward, thus helping out New York as a whole. 

It's also worth noting that the Knicks have played the majority of the season without two of their best defenders—Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace.

Camby and 'Sheed sport the two lowest D-ratings on the Knicks. Despite their age, New York's success down the stretch is directly dependent on one or both of the veteran big men contributing on defense.

Why is all of this so utterly important?

In the playoffs, a dominant defense always locks down a good offense. Last year's eventual champion Miami Heat dominated on both sides of the ball.

They allowed over 100 points in just four of 23 games during last year's NBA Playoffs and didn't allow more than 94 points until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Knicks have what it takes to play that dominant defense. We saw it from them early in the season. But it's an identity that they must have heading into the playoffs. 

Right now, it's missing, and without it, New York doesn't stand a chance against the league's top teams—including Miami.

To this point, they've had several built-in excuses for the poor execution defensively. But in time, Shumpert will regain form, Camby and Wallace should return to action, the All-Star break should rejuvenate the team's older contributors, and more time together will only help the squad's chemistry.

With no excuses left, the Knicks will need to buckle down and lock up. If not, it could mean a lost season for New York—whose championship window isn't big enough for failure.

Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.