Beating San Antonio 128-115 Tuesday night was the most significant win of the season for New York, especially after so many “moral victories” in losing close encounters with Boston, Miami, Orlando and Denver. In beating the Spurs, who still sport the best record in the NBA, the Knicks finally demonstrated that they can indeed successfully compete with the big boys.
Here’s what New York did, what they have, and what they lack:
No surprise that this edition of Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks is remarkably similar to the halcyon seasons of D’Antoni’s Suns. D’Antoni’s holdover philosophy is that the team that scores the most points always wins.
The biggest deviations between Phoenix then and New York now are the different roles of Amar’e Stoudemire and the dissimilar talents of Steve Nash and Raymond Felton.
In Phoenix, Stoudemire got the majority of his scoring opportunities fed to him by Nash’s clever passwork. With the Knicks, Stoudemire is put into many more iso situations — he was 5-for-7 in man-to-man confrontations against the Spurs, plus four successful free throws. Half of his total of 28 points came about this way.
Stoudemire wants to initiate his attacks on the basket somewhere near the left elbow, where he is well within range of his jumper, can take his right hand to the middle, and can also drive hard to his left. If the offense usually froze while Stoudemire diddled with the ball before making his move, he was also unusually unselfish, hence his six assists. Furthermore, six of Stoudemire’s points resulted when he curled off of weak-side screens.
However, Stoudemire’s defense — or lack thereof — remains just as poor as always.
Add his six assists to his 28 points to get 34 points. Then subtract 2.2 points for his two turnovers, the four points that Tim Duncan tallied in direct confrontations, and the eleven that DeJuan Blair rang up against Stoudemire, and Amar’e’s overall positive output was 16.8. Not bad, but certainly not overwhelming.
In fact, his failure to even attempt boxing out Blair was shameful. More so was his utter confusion when he was off-the-ball in San Antonio’s perpetual motion offense.
On the other hand, Stoudemire did make a pair of effective defensive plays when TD tried to attack him late in the fourth quarter.
Overall, Stoudemire is a more effective player in New York than he was in Phoenix.
Felton is likewise much improved since trading Larry Brown’s iron hand for D’Antoni’s free-wheeling system. Felton makes the correct decisions whenever he’s presented with a high screen — whether looking for his own shots or finding a rolling teammate. His court awareness is superb, and his powerful left-to-right crossover makes the most of the smallest open lane. Included in his 28-point output (on 10-for-17 shooting) were several big-time buckets in the clutch. Moreover, Felton’s seven assists were coupled with his committing nary a turnover.
On the defensive end, Felton had a tougher time. Tony Parker consistently beat him off the dribble — which is certainly no grounds for embarrassment, but still showed a costly absence of minimally acceptable foot speed..
Elsewhere, Wilson Chandler — 13-for-19 for 31 points — is a quality, go-to scorer. He can shoot with his feet set or off of pull-ups, drive-and-spins, and in a crowd his last step to the rim shows a tricky change-of-direction. Chandler is quicker than the injured Danilo Gallinari, and infinitely more versatile.
Ronny Turiaf is too small to adequately defend post-up centers. TD took it to him early for six quick points. But Turiaf hustles and moves well without the ball.
For a rookie, Landry Fields has veteran smarts. He plays earnest defense, always plays hard, and seems to be in the right spots at the right times. A valuable role player who’ll only get better as his career progresses.
Off the bench came Toney Douglas, a shooter desperately trying to learn how to play the point. His shot is iffy — 3-for-10, including two air balls — and his defense is absolutely horrible. Douglas routinely turned his back on the ball and was beaten by sucker cuts.
Billy Walker’s stroke was way off — 2-for-8 — primarily because shooters must shoot to shoot well and his playing time has been meager. Because Walker’s defense is so poor, he must hit at least half of his shots to deserve extended daylight.
Shawne Williams’ performance — 4-for-10 for 9 points — was a mixed bag. A couple of nifty drives, several swished jumpers, but three bricks.
On offense, the Knicks exhibited terrific player- and ball-movement that featured constant screens, cuts, changes of direction, and hand-offs. Except for a meager three forced shots — two by Chandler and one by Douglas — they all played with admirable precision and unselfishness. Contrast their 26 assists with their six turnovers.
What are the flaws in the Knicks game plan?
Too many treys — going 8-for-27. No adequate play-making point to relieve Felton (who played nearly 37 minutes). A lack of viable interior defense due to the absence of a useful center, which Eddy Curry and Tomofey Mozgov are certainly not. Actually, the Knicks perimeter defense is not very functional either.
If Chandler starts, then there’s no reliable point-maker off the bench. If Gallinari starts, then Chandler’s scoring heroics are still insufficient.
So, because of their firepower, New York is a dangerous ball club. One that could very possibly defeat the Magic in the playoffs, but whose defensive shortcomings would make them easy postseason prey for Boston or Miami.
Still, these guys are light years ahead of the sorry teams that wore the Knicks uniforms in recent seasons. They’re not yet a legitimate contender, but the Knicks’ future finally matches New York state’s official motto — “Excelsior,” meaning “ever upward.” And that’s exactly where the Knicks are headed.
One would have imagined that because of “The Decision’s” disastrous feedback, LeBron would have learned to keep a low profile. But now comes his 26th birthday extravaganza, replete with an admission charge, and more of the same look-at-me antics. When, if ever, will this guy truly grow up?
Hey, Ron-Ron, check your calendar. 2010 is history, and so is your first championship season in the NBA. Perhaps if you concentrated on playing hard-and-smart in the here-and-now instead of living in the past, the Lakers wouldn’t be in such bad straits.
Here’s hoping we’ve seen the last of Larry Brown on an NBA bench. There’s no question that he’s a master of Xs and Os, but his perpetually shrill hysterics and unyielding perfectionism — to say nothing of his gargantuan ego — have alienated virtually every player he has ever coached. The only players who truly liked working under Brown were guys who served their undergraduate time at North Carolina.
The best job for Brown would be coaching a Division III college, where his reputation and his expertise would totally intimidate his players.
Interesting how certain players suffer when moving from one system to another. For example, despite his shortcomings, Leandro Barbosa was much more effective in Phoenix’s speedball game than he is in Toronto’s slower pace. Or, despite his inflated numbers, Trevor Ariza had significantly more impact in the Lakers’ triangle than he did in Houston’s game plan. Others in the same situation include Carl Landry (Houston to Sacramento), Ben Gordon (Chicago to Detroit), Kirk Hinrich (Chicago to Washington), Anthony Parker (Toronto to Cleveland), James Posey (Boston to New Orleans), and so on.
Of course, the reverse is also true: many players benefit from moving from one team to another. But that’s another list for another day.
Gregg Popovich is unquestionably one of the best coaches in the league — right up there with Phil Jackson. Through the years, however, the one knock against Pop has been his stubbornness. But this season, Pop has demonstrated an impressive flexibility in redesigning San Antonio’s offense. Instead of being totally Duncan-centric, the Spurs now feature Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Richard Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, George Hill. Indeed, TD only dives into the low-post a handful of times each game, spending most of his on-court time being a passer, jump-shooter, screener and general facilitator at the high-post.
There are two advantages to Pop’s strategy. Putting more quickness into the offense, and saving TD for the playoffs when his pivotal presence will be more important.
Replacing Larry Brown with Paul Silas was one of Michael Jordan’s best moves as Charlotte’s GM. Although he’s never distinguished himself as a tactician, Silas is dignified, honest, flexible and commanding of respect. He plays no mind games with his players, doesn’t vent his criticisms to the media, thoroughly understands the pro game and what winning requires, and is altogether a positive, nurturing presence. Unfortunately, these are qualities that are too frequently overlooked in the hiring process.
Welcome back to where you belong, big guy!
Marv Albert is still the best play-by-play guy in the business. He refuses to be a shill for the league, for whichever team is paying his salary, or for any given player. He knows the game, so his critical commentaries are incisive and intelligent, and can satisfy everybody from the most casual to the most serious fans. Plus, he never talks down to his audience.
Too bad he doesn’t work more games than he does.
Hi Charley. During the Christmas day game, I heard Mark Jackson say that Dwyane Wade is the third best shooting guard of all time. Where do you place Dwyane Wade among the all-time great shooting guards? – Habib, Kwara State, Nigeria
1. MICHAEL JORDAN
This pick is a layup.
Most go-to scorers tend to coast on defense to conserve energy for their ball-time responsibilities. Jordan was the rare exception whose unyielding defense allowed him to win ball games with clutch plays at either end of the court.
Besides his transcendent talents, the X-factor in Jordan’s success was his incredible competitive edge. MJ would practice with more intensity than most of his peers demonstrated during games. And if a team’s superstar practiced with all his might, then the last scrub on the bench was motivated to do the same.
2. KOBE BRYANT
For sheer talent, only MJ can outshine Kobe Bryant. He excels at nearly every aspect of the game — creativity, shooting (especially with a game on the line), rebounding, passing, defense, rebounding, and competing. His only deficiency is his rampant narcissism, a character flaw that has had serious on- and off-court consequences.
Should Kobe ever mature to the point where he can play (and live) with an abiding sense of discipline, he might conceivably challenge Jordan for the top of the heap.
3. JERRY WEST
West is generally categorized as a point guard, but in truth he was a score-first, pass-second kind of player — which makes him a shooting guard. West’s defense was phenomenal, his clutch shooting is legendary and he was the ultimate perfectionist.
4. DWYANE WADE
The only glitches in his game are his limited shooting range and his turnovers (3.7 per game over his career).
Next in line, I would pick Bill Sharman, who rates just behind Jordan as the best scorer-defender at his position. Then Sam Jones, Hal Greer, Clyde Drexler and Earl Monroe.