The isolation-heavy Knicks have become the isolation-only Knicks when it's mattered the most, particularly in the Game 4 loss in Boston. Still, New York almost closed out a sweep against the inferior Celts.
Their lack of variation likely won't cost them the Boston series—a series loss would take a swing that has never happened in NBA history—but the disturbing trend needs to be nixed before it leads to an early playoff exit.
Through Game 4, the Knicks have relied on isolation plays 25.8 percent of the time, according to Synergy—the most of any play type. It's translated to wins against Boston—thanks primarily to hot spurts of Carmelo Anthony shooting—but this one-dimensional attack isn't what got New York this far, or what will carry it to an Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Miami Heat.
Over the 82-game regular season, the Knicks ran iso plays on 15.6 percent of their offensive possessions, which ranked third behind pick-and-rolls and open spot-ups. There was obviously a frequency of and propensity toward Anthony one-on-one battles in the right matchups, but it wasn't the be-all and end-all of the offense.
The current playoff series has been just the opposite, however.
In the first two quarters of the series, New York's offense was essentially 'Melo playing one-on-one every trip.
Carmelo Anthony: 26 first-half touches of the basketball. He passed the ball on only 3 of those.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 20, 2013
In the second half, Anthony adjusted accordingly and passed on 15 of 33 touches, but the argument could be made that the offense wasn't nearly diverse enough.
The first half of Game 2 posed the same issues for the Knicks. Neglecting to run any sort of offense had them facing a six-point deficit at the half, although that margin should've been even larger. Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal summed up the first-half scheme accurately in his game recap:
Even once the starters returned, the Knicks kept their eyes and feet planted on the floor. They just loafed around refusing to set screens for one another or cut or make extra passes, then remained aloaf while the Celtics leaked out for easy buckets. Carmelo Anthony, ever the bellwether, got his touches with neither movement nor traction. He just caught, faced up, then barreled into the set help defense while his teammates stood waiting.
Miraculously, again, the last two quarters told an entirely different tale. Mike Woodson had his team running the offense that played to the third-highest efficiency in the regular season, and the Knicks won handily, 87-71.
Fast-forward to Sunday's Game 4. With J.R. Smith home—or wherever J.R. Smith spends his days—on a one-game suspension, Woodson decided to funnel the offense entirely into Anthony. Coupled with an untimely poor shooting outing from Carmelo, it translated to a 10-of-35 clip for 'Melo and a Knicks loss.
It was an especially frustrating effort for Knicks fans, considering the success Raymond Felton was having in the pick-and-roll. Felton finished 10-of-21 with 27 points and three assists as the team's secondary scoring option. Here are some key plays that triggered a Knicks comeback—all of which using screens.
Despite favorable results, the screen-and-roll action was ditched for 'Melo hero ball in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter and most of overtime. The Knicks lost by seven.
Felton said all the right things postgame, though, which is honorable when you take into account that it was him who resurrected the Knicks' hopes of winning (via Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal).
Felton says screen and roll was working, but that team trusts Melo in late-game situations. "You live and die with your go-to guy," he says.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 28, 2013
Even after a Game 4 loss, the Knicks will more than likely be advancing to the conference semis (barring a storyline we'd hear about until the end of time). Either the Indiana Pacers or Atlanta Hawks await on the other side, and New York will need to make adjustments on offense regardless of the opponent.
Atlanta would have to rally from a 2-1 deficit to advance. The Hawks would probably be New York's desired opponent, but it would still behoove Woodson to adjust his offense.
During the regular season, the Knicks averaged 0.87 points per possession on iso plays, which was superb—good for fifth in the league. The Hawks defense against isolation plays wasn't particularly great. On average, their opponents scored 0.83 points per isolation possession.
It's a favorable spot for the Knicks to be in. Their isolation offense is generally very good, and they've enjoyed success against Atlanta in 2012-13. But there's still a better option for Woody to turn to.
In pick-and-roll plays, the Knicks this season averaged 0.95 points per possession, which was the best leaguewide. The Hawks defended this play fairly well—their opponents scored 0.82 PPP, which was seventh-best. But stacked up against New York's mark, that's a 0.13 differential.
It'd be an interesting battle to watch unfold, but the numbers say that the Knicks' screen-and-roll game would be too much for Atlanta's defensive response.
The Pacers handed the Knicks their worst loss of the season and pack the middle with size New York just doesn't have. They'd likely be a tougher matchup than Atlanta, just based off regular-season play and logic.
The Pacers were the best defensive team in the NBA this season, so easy Knicks buckets would be at a premium in this series. In defending isolation plays, Indy ranked fourth by holding foes to a 0.75 PPP. The fifth-ranked New York isolation attack would likely face issues.
The Knicks' league-best pick-and-roll offense (0.95 PPP), on the other hand, would be a rare test for the Pacers—who restrict their opponents to a PPP of 0.83 in the pick-and-roll. That was the eighth-best mark leaguewide, or one spot worse than Atlanta.
So no matter who comes out on top of the Atlanta-Indiana matchup, the Knicks need to keep screens at the top of their list of priorities throughout the next series.
Beating Indiana in a seven-game series would take more than a sound offensive attack, but that sound offensive attack would be mandatory. Mixing in a hearty sample of screens will be a must if New York hopes to play its way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
When it comes to a potential battle with the Miami Heat in the East's final stage, the numbers tell a different story. The Heat statistically sport the 27th-ranked isolation defense and second-best pick-and-roll defense.
The Knicks could easily get suckered in to playing Carmelo Anthony vs. LeBron James basketball, but Anthony isn't good enough for that to work. No player in the NBA is.
In the Knicks' Nov. 2 win against Miami at MSG and the Dec. 6 triumph over the Heat in South Beach (sans 'Melo), it was ball movement and strategic off-ball shifting that won the game for New York. Here's video proof that the Knicks can wear down Miami's stingy P&R defending.
The weapon is in Mike Woodson's arsenal, and it's more lethal than most pick-and-roll attacks in the league. With Felton and Pablo Prigioni both adept at coordinating the scheme—both acted as pick-and-roll ball-handlers on at least 43 percent of their plays this season—and Jason Kidd's near 20 years of experience at their disposal, it should be a staple in the team's postseason playbook.
Because anymore 10-of-35s would likely translate to an early exit this postseason, for a team whose championship window might not stay cracked beyond next month.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Charts and stats obtained from Synergy.