Ladies and gentleman, welcome back to The Blame Game: NBA Playoffs Edition!
(Tepid applause from the audience.)
Tonight's contestants: the New York Knicks!
(A collective "not these guys again!" sigh from the audience.)
Welcome back, fellas! It's come to our attention here at The Blame Game that the Indiana Pacers are whooping you every which way at the moment.
They certainly did in Game 4 to push you to the brink of elimination. They held you to 35.6 percent shooting from the field and just 8-of-28 from three. They bludgeoned you on the boards, 54-36, and came away with a 16-11 edge on the offensive glass. In short, they outhustled and outmuscled you at nearly every turn.
Certainly the Pacers deserve kudos for the job they've done on you Knickerbockers. It's not exactly surprising to see Indy's defense, which happens to be one of the best the NBA has ever seen, making it so difficult for New York to score.
But let's be real here, folks. Those New York City tabloids aren't about to sing the praises of the opposition in their back pages. No, they'll be picking fights and pointing fingers (as they tend to do) as the series returns to Madison Square Garden for an all-important Game 5.
So, before the Big Apple's sports commentariat spills wholeheartedly into overblown criticism, let's have a more measured look at who among you "deserves" the most vitriol with...THE BLAME GAME!
Blame Tally: 3 Finger Points
Who better to serve as our starting point than Carmelo Anthony?
(Carmelo shifts uncomfortably in his seat.)
You're the team's designated superstar. You pushed for a trade from the Denver Nuggets more than two years ago. You cost the Knicks a slew of quality, fan-favorite components—including Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Raymond Felton—in that blockbuster trade. You (allegedly) forced out Mike D'Antoni and Jeremy Lin while urging the Knicks to reshape their roster around you. You're the best player the team has, and you make more money than any of your teammates.
So naturally, the ax is going to fall hardest on you—even more so now that you're shooting under 40 percent from the field in these playoffs, topping that off with a 9-of-23 performance and fouling out in the fourth quarter of Game 4. You have a (well-deserved) reputation for playing "iso ball" and jacking up bad shots, which leads casual observers to assume that your poor shooting is the result of rote ball-hoggery.
Except it's not that simple, is it? Shooting and scoring is what you do best, and it's what the Knicks need you to do if your team is going to win.
And if your teammates aren't doing their jobs on the offensive end (i.e. moving the ball and hitting outside shots), then your job becomes that much more difficult to do well...
Blame Tally: 5 Finger Points
...which brings us to JR Smith!
(Smith is nowhere to be found. He's probably out searching for his jump shot somewhere.)
Something switched when you smacked Jason Terry with your elbow in Game 3 of the Knicks' first-round series against the Boston Celtics. In the six games since, you've averaged just 13.3 points on an astoundingly awful 28.6 percent shooting from the field (27 percent from three).
That streak of basket-attacking aggression that helped you earn Sixth Man of the Year honors appears to have all but dissipated. You've attempted more than six free throws in a game just once in nine postseason appearances. Less than 30 percent of your playoff shots have come within close range of the rim, per NBA.com.
You're one of the NBA's better makers of bad shots, but you're not making them right now and you're taking far too many of them to begin with. Of your 22 attempts in Game 4, 15 came from outside of the paint.
To your credit, you haven't shied away from the blame (via Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com):
Ian Begley @IanBegley
JR Smith says he's extremely frustrated with himself. "I'll take the blame for this whole series." #Knicks2013-5-15 02:03:08
The Knicks can't succeed unless you score, but your confidence seems to be down, even more so amidst an ongoing illness (more on that later). Do yourself a favor and target the rim whenever you can. A layup here, a floater there and who knows? Maybe (just maybe) you'll get your mojo back.
Blame Tally: 1 Finger Point
In the meantime, it's a good thing you've found yours, Tyson Chandler.
After getting schooled by Roy Hibbert in Game 3 and looking like little more than a shell of your former self for most of these playoffs, you were noticeably more productive in Game 4. You turned in your first double-double of the postseason (12 points and 10 rebounds in 40 minutes), blocked three shots and held Hibbert to just six points on 2-of-8 shooting.
To be sure, the fact that you've been operating with a neck injury since the regular season hasn't helped matters overall. Nor did your latest diatribe about the Knicks' stagnant offense (via Frank Isola of The New York Daily News) do much to change the reality in Game 4.
But you've shown plenty of grit and guts thus far while fighting through pain and have spoken your mind like any good leader would (and should).
The Injury/Illness Bug
Blame Tally: 10 Finger Points
If not for some untimely visits from the injury bug, Tyson Chandler's inconsistent productivity probably wouldn't be such a concern. Furthermore, JR Smith's lack of confidence would not likely be so tough to shake if he weren't also battling a bug that's also gotten a hold of Kenyon Martin.
As Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com noted, Iman Shumpert might've played (and produced) more if not for discomfort in his surgically repaired knee:
Ian Begley @IanBegley
Shumpert has played just 6 minutes in the second half, 14 for the game. He played 37 in Game 4. Knee apparently limited him. #Knicks2013-5-15 01:18:35
On the flip side, Amar'e Stoudemire's return to health might not have been such a good thing after all (via Chris Tomasson of FOX Sports):
Chris Tomasson @christomasson
Knicks were 16-13 in reg season when Amare Stoudemire played & 38-15 when didn't Now about to be 0-2 in playoffs when plays and 5-3 when not2013-5-15 01:15:01
All of this reminds us of the ubiquitous part that Lady Luck plays in any team's postseason success. The Knicks seem to have wound up on her bad side somehow and are suffering the consequences as a result.
Blame Tally: 10 Finger Points
Not that you've necessarily helped matters any, Mike Woodson. Pablo Prigioni goes scoreless for one game, so you cut his playing time from nearly 24 minutes in Game 3 to three minutes in Game 4.
Yet Jason Kidd hasn't scored in almost three weeks and he's still playing significant minutes for you (via Jared Zwerling of ESPNNewYork.com):
Jared Zwerling @JaredZwerling
197 minutes, 0 points = Jason Kidd. #Knicks2013-5-15 01:23:51
You respond to the Pacers' pressure defense by allowing (if not encouraging) your Knicks to get away from the three-point-shooting, small-ball formula that got them to this point. You go big with Kenyon Martin in the starting lineup for Game 4. You play Steve Novak for less than 10 minutes total through the first four games against Indy, and you seemingly forget that you have yet another versatile big on your bench (Chris Copeland) who's capable of knocking down long-range jumpers.
We've all heard the old tropes about playoff basketball being far different from the regular season, but nobody said you had to take on a new identity to succeed thereabouts. You appear to be grasping for something that works—in essence, panicking, and rightfully so.
Your team is one game away from elimination after turning in the franchise's finest season in over a decade. Your contract also happens to be far more expendable than any of those into which your most prized players are currently locked.
And with a certain Zen Master lurking in the shadows, it certainly wouldn't shock anyone if yours was the first head to land on the chopping block.
Be sure to tune in to The Blame Game next time, when we bury Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks!