The New York Knicks should be in the playoffs by now.
That isn't to say they are a great club. They are most definitely not. But greatness has not been a prerequisite for winning in this year's Eastern Conference.
The reigning No. 2 overall seed in the East looked set to put a season's worth of underachieving behind it on Wednesday, as the Knicks had finally drawn into a virtual tie with Atlanta Hawks for the No. 8 seed with a convincing 110-81 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Then New York fell victim to its greatest nemesis on Friday night, and it may just cost the team a berth in the postseason.
The Knicks' ultimate tormentor was not the Washington Wizards, who defeated New York, 90-89. They are a good team, but the Knicks have beaten better and lost to much worse. The thing that truly vanquished New York—as it has so many times throughout the season—was the team's complete and utter inability to execute down the stretch.
This team has repeatedly shot itself in the foot in close-and-late situations, and it has cost it dearly in the loss column, per MSG Network's Alan Hahn and WFUV Sports' Kenny Ducey:
That's now 15 games this season the #Knicks have lost by 5 points or less. Late-game execution is everything and this team is poor at it.— Alan Hahn (@alanhahn) April 5, 2014
After tonight, the Knicks now have a NetRtg of -103 when tied/down 3 or less with 30 seconds left.— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) April 5, 2014
One out of every three losses for the Knicks has come by five points or fewer. That is simply unacceptable. If the Knicks had closed out five of those 15 disastrous choke jobs—a conservative number—they would be at 38-39 and safely ensconced in the playoffs.
But the Knicks cannot undo the past. Instead, they must take what they have learned from their plethora of late-game mistakes and finally fix their problems in the clutch. There is now zero margin for error.
The Iso-Melo Horror Show
Before we start, let's keep in mind that, mere hours before Friday night's game, Knicks head coach Mike Woodson was ranked the 28th-best coach in the NBA by ESPN. He only managed to beat out Larry Drew of the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks and interim coach John Loyer of the Detroit Pistons.
The 2013-14 Knicks are at least half of a good basketball team. They can do at least one thing right, and that is score the basketball. New York is ranked 11th in offensive efficiency for the season, but it is ranked fourth in the 35 games since offensive albatross Andrea Bargnani went down with an injury.
No, the Knicks cannot defend—at all. They are ranked 25th in defensive efficiency. As a coach with a defensive reputation, Woodson should be ashamed of that number. But a team with an elite offense should be able to score more points than it gives up down the stretch.
The Knicks, however, consistently fail in crunch time—not just on defense but on offense as well.
The reasons for this are two-fold. First, the Knicks abandon all pretense of ball movement when the game gets tight down the stretch. Any and all offensive sets are abandoned in favor of Carmelo Anthony isolation plays.
The other four Knicks on the court know the ball is going to Melo, and they play accordingly...by standing on the wings and doing nothing.
Every Knicks opponent knows the ball is staying with Melo, and they play accordingly...by double-teaming him with impunity and forcing him to hit impossible shots. And the Knicks know what is coming and plan accordingly...by closing their eyes and curling into the fetal position.
Not even Melo himself is a fan of these incessant iso-Melo sets. After a Dec. 11 win against Chicago, during which they nearly blew a massive lead, thanks to their stagnant offense, he stressed the need for more player and ball movement, per The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
Melo, on the late-game isolations: "Guys are kinda waiting around for me to do something. ... We've gotta get away from that. And we will."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 12, 2013
But the coach disagreed vehemently with his star player's assessment during his own postgame remarks, also per Herring:
Woodson, on the late-game shots: "I'll take a shot from Melo all day long [in that situation]." Says some of those iso plays were designed.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 12, 2013
It seems that the only people excited about the prospect of more fourth-quarter iso-Melo sets are the Knicks coach and their opponents.
The other thing Woodson does is wear down his best player by refusing to give him a rest. Anthony leads the league in total minutes, and at 29 years old (he'll turn 30 in May), he is the oldest player in the top 10 in that category. It should come as no surprise, then, that he looks and plays haggard at the end of games. He is no longer the finisher he was as a younger man, as Herring discussed in February:
Anthony has come up empty nearly every time he's taken a big shot in the past two years. This season, he has made just 8% (1-of-12) of his potential game-winning or game-tying shots in the final 30 seconds—which is even worse than last season, when he made 14% (1-of-7) of those shots.
Now consider that Anthony made an NBA-best 44.6% (29-of-65) of game-winning or tying shots in the nine seasons from 2003-04 to 2011-12, according to Stats LLC.
What's gone wrong in New York? Asked about Wednesday night's disastrous finish against Sacramento, Anthony hinted that fatigue had set in, which might explain why he went cold after a 17-point first quarter. He did, after all, run a total of three miles in the game, according to SportVU player-tracking technology.
Now, the counter to this argument is that Anthony is too valuable to the Knicks offense to remove, even for a few minutes. And while that might have been true earlier in the season, it certainly hasn't been true of late.
Here are Anthony's on/off numbers since March 1, a span of 16 games:
|Melo on court||684||110.6||106.5||4.0|
|Melo on the bench||180||109.4||105.6||3.8|
As you can see, the Knicks have played well recently with their star on the bench. But that hasn't stopped Woodson from first overplaying Anthony and then putting the team's fourth-quarter fate squarely on his exhausted shoulders.
Friday night's loss was probably the most extreme example of these two factors snowballing into a Knicks defeat. Anthony sustained a shoulder injury in the second quarter that was so bad, he couldn't work his arm, per Herring:
Carmelo says his arm "just gave out" at one point in the 2nd quarter. Had to call timeout, bc he couldn't use it.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 5, 2014
The result was one of the worst games of his career. Anthony scored 10 points, on 5-of-14 shooting, and committed nine turnovers. Whether due to injury, exhaustion or both, he was a complete liability down the stretch.
And what did the Knicks call, down one point, with their star forward injured and ineffective? Point guard Ray Felton outlined the strategy to Knicks' digital media coordinator Charlie Widdoes:
Felton: "The play was to give the ball to Melo."— charlie widdoes (@charliewiddoes) April 5, 2014
So they ran a game-ending offensive set which consisted of Anthony ripping the ball away from Felton, bobbling it, and J.R. Smith rushing a fadeaway 30-footer at the buzzer. Ballgame.
After the game, Woodson claimed that he needed to keep playing Anthony because the game was getting away from them—a statement clearly refuted by Herring:
Woodson's most puzzling comment: We brought back Carmelo into the game in 4Q bc "we weren't gaining any ground." That's simply not true.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 5, 2014
From when Melo exited -- w/ 10:45 left in 4Q to when he came back w/ 6:20 left -- Knicks went on 13-8 run and took a 3-point lead.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) April 5, 2014
Facts and historical precedent mean nothing to this coach anymore. He might as well begin and end every press conference with, "I'm Mike Woodson, and this is what I do."
What Can They Do?
Anthony has already indicated he will play in the Knicks' next game, on Sunday, in Miami, per Herring:
But should he? True, New York stands little chance against the mighty Miami Heat without its best player, but the Knicks also don't stand much of a chance if their best player doesn't have use of his right arm.
Regardless, Anthony will likely play on Sunday, and Woodson will ride that bum shoulder into dust. And if the game is close in the fourth quarter, he will order the other four guys to clear out and order Melo to shoot a 30-foot jumper with only his left hand, if necessary. He knows no other way.
Believe it or not, the Knicks aren't simply a one-man offense. Since that fateful Bargnani injury, New York is eighth in the league in team field-goal percentage and fourth in team three-point percentage. There are other players on this team who can hit open shots.
The real hope for this club lies with new president of basketball operations Phil Jackson. The former coach is known to be a passionate advocate of the triangle offense, per NJ.com's Dave D'Alessandro:
Jackson said he won’t insist on his next coach using it, but if there’s anything that brings out his dogmatic side, it’s the triangle.
“I like a method,” he said, flatly.
Obviously, Phil perfected it, and others have tried and failed. I’ve had extensive conversations with Brian Shaw, and even though teams don’t (use) a triangle, there are triangle concepts in every offense -- the spacing, cutting, it’s a part of our package. We just don’t call it the triangle.
Regardless of what you call it, Jackson and Vogel are referring to a structured offensive system. And that is what the Knicks have sorely lacked in crunch time this season. Their coach has become obsessed with late-game isolation plays, and it will probably cost them a chance at the postseason.
If Phil Jackson can convince Carmelo Anthony to stay in New York, and Woodson's successor installs a system not totally reliant on iso-Melo, the Knicks should see a dramatic turnaround in their late-game fortunes.
All statistics courtesy of stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted.