What has gotten into the New York Knicks?
The reigning Atlantic Division champions hit rock bottom on Dec. 1, with a home loss to the New Orleans Pelicans that dropped the Knicks to 3-13 and left them tied for dead last in the conference. The Knicks had three days off to think about that loss, three days to regroup.
And boy did they ever regroup. Not only did New York take both games of a Thursday-Friday back-to-back, but they won both games by more than 30 points, capped off by Friday night's 121-83 annihilation of the Orlando Magic.
New York's turnaround has been historic, according to stats.com (h/t to Chris Herring).
The Knicks blew out the Magic with the exact same formula they used to blow out the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday: crisp ball movement and open threes. J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. hit five threes apiece, and five Knicks made at least two from beyond the arc.
But the player responsible for most of that three-point goodness didn't take a single three in the game. The Knicks won tonight because of the example set by star forward Carmelo Anthony, who has put aside his high-volume scoring game these last two games in favor of the pass. And his teammates have rewarded him for his unselfish ways with a pair of explosive offensive performances.
Melo Passes, Knicks Win
It wouldn't be fair to blame the Knicks' struggles solely on Carmelo Anthony. Melo has played his tail off in the absence of star center Tyson Chandler, playing nearly 40 minutes per game and averaging a career-high 9.9 rebounds.
But Melo has often taken too much of the scoring burden onto himself, making him easier to defend and hurting the Knicks' chances to win. Opponents were doubling Melo, particularly in the post, and Melo stubbornly refused to kick the ball out to his teammates.
Melo reach the nadir of his ball-hogging ways on Friday, Nov. 29 against the Denver Nuggets, when he registered 22 field-goal attempts and zero assists, culminating in an embarrassing game-ending blocked shot by the much smaller Randy Foye in yet another isolation possession.
Some time during the last few days, however, Melo had an epiphany. He shocked Knick observers everywhere by taking only 12 shots in Thursday's win at Brooklyn, and backed that up by taking a season-low-tying 10 shots on Friday.
That's 22 shots in his last two games. To put that into perspective, Melo averaged 22.2 shots per game before Thursday.
In his postgame comments, Melo admitted that he is shooting less by design.
Per The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
Instead of shooting, Melo has focused on baiting opposing defenses, drawing double-teams and kicking the ball out to open shooters. He expertly exploited the Magic's poor help defense of Friday, working the ball into the post, waiting for the help defender, and finding the open shooter on the perimeter, to devastating effect.
Melo still put up decent point totals—19 points Thursday and 20 points on Friday—but he has helped the Knicks more as a passer. His assist totals—six on Thursday, four on Friday—aren't eye-popping, but he often initiates the ball movement that leads to an open shot on the other side of the court.
New York is 3-2 when Melo records at least four assists, and those two losses (at Chicago and at home against Houston) were last-second heartbreakers. Those assists can only affect a few plays per game, but it's this approach that seems to correlate with Knicks wins.
When Melo records fewer than four assists, the Knicks are 2-11.
Ball Movement and Threes: Are the 2012-13 Knicks Back?
You might not expect a team which set an NBA record for three-pointers and won their first division title in nearly two decades to abandon what made them good, but that is exactly what the Knicks did in the first month of the season.
Forget any talk of the Knicks' awful defense for a moment—yes, they are bad, but they were also bad last year. The Knicks win when they move the ball and shoot the three. It was true last year, and it's still true this year.
|Knicks' Assists and Made Threes Per Game, 2013-14|
|12 or more||4-1|
|11 or less||1-12|
|24 or more||4-2|
|23 or less||1-11|
The Knicks finally posted solid three-point numbers in back-to-back games...and, wouldn't you know, they won both of them.
The real question is why the Knicks abandoned the three to start the season. Too often New York would set up a good possession, pass the ball to an open shooter, watch him miss one shot and go back to brutal isolations and mid-range jumpers for the next dozen or so possessions.
As a result, the volume three-point shooters (Melo and J.R. Smith) shot contested threes and missed, and the best returning three-point shooters (Pablo and Iman Shumpert) were even more hesitant to shoot than usual. To top it off, the only three-point shooter who was shooting well and not afraid to launch (Hardaway) didn't see much action.
For the moment, anyway, Knicks coach Mike Woodson has seen the error of his ways. Hardaway has played more minutes in the past three games. More importantly, he scrapped some of the more brutal "big" lineups, kept Melo at the power forward for longer stretches and surrounded him with shooters.
These small lineups have worked for the Knicks for three seasons now, so there's nothing shocking going on here. The only surprise is that they've waited so long to utilize them.
Knick fans had better hope that Woodson and the Knicks have learned their lesson. If they have, then perhaps New York has enough offensive firepower to make a run in the East.
* All stats are courtesy of NBA.com.