Why the NY Knicks Still Believe in Themselves as NBA Title Contenders
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The New York Knicks didn't spend an entire offseason morphing their roster from inexperienced talent to proven veterans for no reason. In July of 2012, Glen Grunwald and Co. had their sights set on the Larry O'Brien Trophy, and May 2013 is no different. And they're not as crazy as you may think.
Although not many expect the Knicks to advance past the Eastern Conference finals—some have even predicted an early exit against the Indiana Pacers—New York has several factors going for them as we draw closer to the postseason's conclusion.
With the West wide open after Russell Westbrook's injury, and the Miami Heat being challenged for their spot in the East finals, New York has just as good a shot as anyone to compete for the title. Here's why.
The Knicks finished with the third-most points per 100 possessions this season, so there's no doubt that they can put the ball in the basket.
They've hit a snag as of late, thanks to Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith digging themselves into simultaneous shooting slumps. They've relied much too heavily on isolation sets while their pick-and-roll offense has continued to be among the best in the league.
This postseason, this team's pick-and-roll offense has clocked in at 0.98 points per play, ranking third among playoff teams. It's been their second-most frequent offense (23 percent of plays) only to isolation sets (25 percent), primarily for Anthony and Smith.
Those sets, however, have only netted the Knicks 0.73 PPP, which ranks 16th among playoff teams—dead last.
The issue with New York's offense has clearly been the lack of screens. It seems as if they've limited their iso-heavy stretches in two games against the Indiana Pacers, where they've cut down those plays to 11.33 percent of the offense and jacked up the amount of pick-and-rolls to 33 percent.
Raymond Felton has played stellar ball in his first extended playoff run. He's averaged 17 points per game on 50 percent shooting, including 36 percent from downtown. He's been the key to New York's pick-and-roll success.
It seems like Mike Woodson has worked the playoff kinks out of his offense. If his team sticks to the screens and eliminates ball-sticking, there's no reason the Knicks shouldn't score the ball with the best in the playoffs.
4th-Quarter Lockdown Defense
The Knicks definitely have struggled on defense through the season, I've never denied that. But they've applied the clamps when it's mattered the most, and the numbers support that.
In the eight combined fourth quarters the Knicks have played this postseason, opponents have scored 150 points total, equating to an efficient 18.75 points per fourth quarter.
Knicks foes have shot a dismal 46-of-125, or 37 percent, from the field in final periods. That mark from the three-point line is 26 percent, and they've posted a minuscule offensive efficiency of 86.3.
Here's the Boston shot chart from fourth quarters in their series with the Knicks:
And the chart for the Pacers in their two fourth quarters:
It's obviously not favorable that the Knicks are put in positions where they need to lock down so hard in the final minutes of games, and the overall defense will need to step up if the Knicks hope to parade down the Canyon of Heroes next month.
Their ability, though, to raise their performance in key moments, even in their weakest department, is encouraging for Knicks fans.
Knicks Can Hang with the Heat
At some point in the postseason, should they advance far enough, the Knicks are going to battle a better team. An Eastern Conference finals bout with Miami would fall under that category.
There's no disputing that the Heat should outplay New York every night out. LeBron James alone is enough reason to predict Miami to come out on top in any series. But the Knicks do have some reason to believe.
It can't be overstated: The postseason, compared to the regular season, is an entirely different animal. But data from an 82-game sample size is tough to ignore, so let's break some down.
In the regular season, the Heat went 37-4 on their home court. Two of those four losses came against the Knicks.
In an East finals matchup, Miami would hold home court over the Knicks. That likely will be an advantage for the Heat, but it probably won't give them as drastic of an edge as it would against another opponent.
In the four regular-season contests, the Knicks had the 3-1 edge. The Knicks faced Miami at the American Airlines Arena in December without Amar'e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert and Carmelo Anthony and won. The Heat hosted their other home game against New York with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sidelined. The Knicks won that game, too, but it took a 50-point performance from Anthony to get there.
Miami averaged a bloated 17.8 turnovers against the Knicks over those four games. New York, the best in the NBA at protecting the ball, averaged just 13.3 giveaways.
The Knicks knocked down over 43 percent of their threes against the Heat this season, headed by a 51-percent performance to tip off the season and a 52-percent output in the teams' last meeting in April. In the one game the Knicks lost, however, they landed an abysmal 28 percent of their treys.
Here's what New York's three-point output against Miami looked like in 2012-13.
The Knicks have lacked tremendous rebounding all season long—they finished 26th in total rebounds—but Miami may have struggled even more. James led their boarding efforts with eight per game, and center Chris Bosh averaged a weak 6.8 boards.
On the surface—and even after some research—this potential series may not seem very competitive. But not expecting the Knicks to give the Heat a run for the East title would be foolish, and the regular-season numbers support that.
Success in the West
After the Oklahoma City Thunder received word that point guard Russell Westbrook would miss the entire postseason, the Western Conference instantly became a four-dog race. The Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and even the Golden State Warriors could all conceivably find themselves in an NBA Finals matchup.
The Knicks have beaten all of those teams at least once in 2013.
Overall, the Knicks went 17-13 against Western Conference squads, including a season sweep of the Spurs—aided by an inspiring early-season comeback—a road win in OKC and home triumphs against Memphis and the Warriors.
Back to that victory in San Antonio. You have to go back to the first month of the season, but it was perhaps the best Knicks victory of the season. It was the team's first encounter with a Carmelo Anthony off-night—he shot just 3-of-12—and the win should be New York's blueprint for playing with 'Melo in a slump.
Anthony limited his shots to only a dozen, several open looks for three were nailed by the shooters and the Knicks erased a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to knock off their then-toughest opponent of the season.
Another game of note went down in March at the Garden. The Thunder came to New York to take on the Knicks sans Carmelo Anthony, who sat out with a knee issue. Amar'e Stoudemire had 16 and J.R. Smith dropped 36, but the Knicks lost at the final buzzer on a missed Smith stepback.
In the OKC-hosted April 7 rematch, Anthony out-dueled Kevin Durant in a battle that would help decide the league's scoring title to help the Knicks go home victorious, 125-120.
The Knicks were also able to overcome a 52-point explosion by Stephen Curry a week prior and handily beat the Grizzlies at MSG, cracking their stingy defense.
They certainly have their detractors, but when attacking the topic from several angles, the argument can clearly be made that the Knicks are legitimate championship contenders in 2013.
And for a team as old as the Knicks, they can't afford not to believe it, either.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Statistical support provided by Synergy, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.
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