Despite a short slate on the NBA calendar, Sunday night provided a nice glimpse into the fortunes of four struggling franchises.
If anybody thought the New York Knicks would be appreciably better simply by expunging Isaiah Thomas and Stephon Marbury from the Garden, they haven’t been paying too much attention to the Knicks’ roster and the coaching style of Mike D’Antoni.
The Knicks’ roster is overloaded with defenseless players and jump shooters. Their coach is one who doesn’t emphasize defense and preaches quick shots from players as soon as they think they have an open look.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder the Knicks have given up an average of 108 points per game, and lost 94-86 to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Almost half of the Knicks’ field goal attempts (36 out of 81) in their loss were three-balls, and they only connected on 12 of those attempts. Instead of putting pressure on Milwaukee by attacking the hoop, they only attempted 18 free throws, opposed to Milwaukee’s 30.
David Lee couldn’t defend without fouling and took himself out of the game, Jamal Crawford was miserable on both ends of the court (0-6 FG, 1 PT), Nate Robinson forced too many shots (5-11 FG), and almost made as many mistakes (5 TO) as good plays (4 AST, 3 STL), and the only consistent scorer was Quentin Richardson with 28 points.
The Knicks managed to beat a Heat squad on opening night that only has three NBA-caliber veterans, but New York has been outclassed by the two more established opponents they’ve faced.
With such an aversion to playing defense and attacking the rim, the Knicks still look like the same hapless bunch that have paraded at the bottom of the league for the better part of a decade.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee played their most crisp game under new coach Scott Skiles. Richard Jefferson didn’t shoot well (6-15 FG, 5-9 FT), but he made all the requisite plays they needed to win, defending, passing, scoring, and being the versatile playmaker Milwaukee’s lacked for years.
His presence made life easier for the rest of the roster. Michael Redd knocked down three trifectas, got to the line five times, and finished with 16 points as the second option—a role that suits him and the Bucks much better than if he was their go-to guy.
Charlie Villanueva was too quick for the Knicks to handle, Andrew Bogut and Luc Mbah a Moute corralled all the tough rebounds, and youngster Ramon Sessions picked up where he left off last year by notching 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists. Despite his three steals, he has trouble defending his man straight up and in screen/rolls, and he tries to force too many plays, but he’s a legitimate playmaker.
In fact, with the Bucks quick into the passing lanes, tough on the glass, hungry for loose balls, unselfish on offense, and led by Richard Jefferson’s all-around talents, the Bucks looked like a complete team that can do some damage in the East. There are still problems—not enough defenders, screen-setters, or good bench players—but the Bucks can definitely challenge, and probably make the playoffs this year in the Eastern Conference.
The T-Wolves and Thunder won’t be fighting for any playoff spots anytime soon, and even a trip to mediocrity will be tough to reach. Minnesota’s lineup is too slow to compete as the Thunder were able to slash to the rim and were quicker to loose balls all game long.
Sure Al Jefferson scored 24 points and grabbed 13 boards, but his inability to box out was the prime reason Oklahoma City grabbed 19 offensive rebounds.
Besides Jefferson, the Wolves had trouble finishing at the rim, with Randy Foye, Rashard McCants, and Kevin Ollie being the main culprits. Mike Miller was able to create open looks by dribbling around screens, but he’s not athletic enough to get to the rim when an offense breaks down, and Randy Foye (0-10 FG, 6 AST, 5 TO) is simply a zone busting shooter that forces too may passes to be a reliable starting point guard.
When the Wolves’ perimeter defense broke down, Jefferson, Craig Smith, and Kevin Love were too slow to provide adequate help defense, and Ryan Gomes botched two defensive assignments by leaving his man wide open at the rim to defend someone else.
The worst parts about the T-Wolves, are their last two draft picks. Corey Brewer spent most of his time on defense gambling for steals and not getting his hands up, while offensively he’s not a great shooter, not strong enough to be a good finisher, and not clever enough with his handle to be a good playmaker. He projects to pan out as a tempo-changing sixth man, yet the Wolves spent a lottery pick on him.
And despite being too slow to provide effective help defense, too short to keep players he boxed out from leaping over him and grabbing rebounds, and lacking explosion to go into the post and come away with an open look, Kevin Love is also a Wolves’ lottery pick.
Those are two lottery picks spent on players who don’t project to being difference making playmakers who can immediately help the Wolves.
Contrast that with Russell Westbrook who flashed an incredible right handed teardrop on the run while moving to his left, slithery handles, clever finishes, and the athleticism and wingspan to play effective defense.
Westbrook’s playmaking in the fourth quarter—along with Oklahoma City’s relentless assaults on the offensive glass—were the difference in Oklahoma City turning defeat into victory.
Regardless of what happens this season—and the Thunder don’t appear to have the goods to avoid being a basement team—the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That’s two-fifths of a potentially elite future, while the Wolves only have Al Jefferson.
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