The New York Knicks have pulled back from the cliff, posting a four-game winning streak after a disastrous trip out West. In the process, they’ve clinched their predestined 2013 playoff spot.
This is probably a good time for a reality check. The Knicks are also posting a myriad of issues that are destined to derail New York’s postseason train and may even meddle with its seeding.
The Knicks don’t deserve a dressing down. They’ve played their best basketball since the 1996-97 season and are still within striking distance (a half-game) of fulfilling the most optimistic (and realistic) preseason prophecies—a No. 2 seed.
But if the team’s recurring problems are not fixed, it’s going to be one-and-done one more time for New York, home-court advantage or not.
Luckily for the Knicks (or maybe unluckily), they get a tune-up—an opportunity to work out the kinks—with 10 tough games against playoff teams (out of 14) down the stretch.
There is at least some way for Mike Woodson to address the age and injury bug—a veritable plague on New York this year.
It might work out for the Knicks splendidly. Possibly, it will force a trade-down in seeding. What is it?
Risk losing some of these last games by subtracting minutes from everyone who is ailing or slowing down. These happen to be the Knicks’ most important players: Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler.
Pablo Prigioni (14.8 MPG), Chris Copeland (13.2 MPG), Iman Shumpert (20.3 MPG), Steve Novak (20.2 MPG) and even James White (7.0 MPG) can and should all clock more minutes. Kenyon Martin’s health needs to be protected; he shouldn’t go much further past his current 23-minute average.
The Knicks can go 8-6 or better while still giving these players more minutes at the right time, likely landing the Knicks in the No. 3-5 seed range. That still gives a rested-New York team similarly beatable opponents in Round 1.
Perhaps, though doubtful, Amar’e Stoudemire will be able to pitch in something. That might require a Round 2.
Are the Knicks playing worse defense for Woodson than under his no-defense predecessor?
The D has perked up recently in the last four wins against middle-of-the-road offenses (Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors). For the season, New York is eighth best in the league, yielding only 95.8 points a game.
That sounds pretty good until you dive a little deeper. The Knicks defense is in the bottom half of the league (19th) in points allowed per possession. That, according to CBS’ John Schmeelk, is:
A lot worse than they were under Mike D’Antoni last season. We’ve seen the Knicks play good defense in brief stretches, but never consistently. Some of it is scheme with Mike Woodson’s insistence on switching, but much of it comes down to effort.
New York is terrible on the glass as well. Shave just two boards off Chandler’s average, and the Knicks are the worst rebounding team in the league. They are already the worst blocking team.
Kenyon Martin has been picking up the slack in both departments (and averaging a nice 8.6 points per game). Martin is the new X-factor on defense, having replaced the old one, Rasheed Wallace.
But what about the perimeter? What about all those opposing point guards running (and shooting) wild?
Per Sports Illustrated’s bucketsoverbroadway.com, when the Knicks...
...Faced the likes of [Jose] Calderon, Kyrie Irving, Mario Chalmers, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, Kyle Lowry (twice), Chris Paul and George Hill, the Knicks allowed 26.6 points per game (next to last) from the point guard position, while allowing them to shoot a combined 52.7 percent (last) from the floor and 52.3 percent (last) from behind the arc.
It’s up to you Shumpert, Kidd, Felton, Prigioni and J.R. Smith.
Now, about that effort…
The Knicks’ point guards need to step up and stop the backcourt bleeding. The defensive anemia New York exhibits, though, is just a symptom of a wider problem.
Have the Knicks lost their heart?
We got to check out our heart right now… We either got to compete or pack and go home. I’m very disappointed because we didn’t give the effort we should have. The other team scores, our heads are down. We got to keep playing.
It’s worse than that even, and a little embarrassing. When the other team scores, too often instead of playing defense, Knicks players are busy arguing with referees.
This is unacceptable. A mature, professional game dictates that you play through until a whistle is called. Period. Unchallenged baskets or losing players to technicals are abrupt and foolish ways to lose any game and will kill a playoff series (as this franchise should well know by now).
The Knicks showed their emotional cards early on and seem to have put a lid on it in the second half. Wallace is out and Anthony has stopped stalking outside opponents’ locker rooms.
But together, Smith, Anthony and Chandler have 32 technicals that came in bunches, a sure recipe for a postseason-series disaster.
The Knicks need to find a balance between passion and composure. This responsibility lies with Coach Woodson.
In the Knicks' 26 losses, they were outscored in the first quarter 20 times and tied once. So, 80 percent of their losses occur within the first few minutes.
Many times they were not outscored by little, even in games that wound up close in the end.
When they lost 95-94 to the Oklahoma City Thunder at home, for example, they were outscored 35-26 in the opening period. In the 125-91 blowout to the Indiana Pacers, the Knicks were choked 30-18 in the first.
Basically, the Knicks are an old and injured team that is unable to play catch-up. In order to win, they can not forfeit the first quarter.
And that’s not all. Losing the first quarter and then the game is the composite result of the Knicks’ three issues discussed thus far: Age (as above), heart and defense. Kevin Kernan of the New York Post challenges Woodson:
His Knicks need to wake up. They simply haven’t been ready to play at the start of games, and that’s inexcusable. They should not have to be reminded that setting a tone early works wonders. They should not walk onto their home floor and not be ready to play. That’s evidence of a team that has not made the commitment to winning, the commitment to playing defense. Commit to winning from the start.
The Knicks offense has become sheepish about the paint, and this has added to the team's increasingly poor shooting percentage overall. New York is the 10th least-accurate team in the NBA now.
Through November and December, Chandler and Felton owned the offensive key. Once Felton broke his finger, his penetration fell off. Even Chandler, who was once leading the league in field-goal percentage, is currently at his lowest "accuracy" in three seasons.
With the inside game broken down, defenders can pile up on the perimeter. And so, that lethal three-point attack from those same early months has become a bit scrambled. The Knicks still make the same number of treys, just on more attempts.
These are fixable—and related—problems.
Martin has brought some presence down low, a strong post-up game and has been a nice surprise from outside too.
Felton needs to pick some spots to responsibly take it to the hoop or at least do a better job of faking it for a kickout. Lately, he's looked more like the erratic Smith, almost tripping over the ball at times.
Which brings us to Smith and the "final shot."
Craig Lowell over at fanhub.com addressed both:
The problem with Smith isn't that he misses some of his tough shots, it's that he never even considers anything else. With the game on the line, Smith gets the ball, dribbles in a circle without even looking for an open man while his defender gets a breather, and then hoists up a shot with a hand in face.
Woodson needs to rein this in with designed play, preferably with an inside twist that at least gives the Knicks an organized chance to win.
They might even pick up a foul.