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Next Man Up
Posted January 10th, 2013

BY CHAYIM TAUBER

The New York Knicks are no fluke.

We’re nearly at the half-way point of the season and the New York Knicks are sitting pretty near the top of the Atlantic Conference. No talk of Phil Jackson on this side of the bridge. No more questions about sustainability or if the “old guys still got game.” The questions and doubts that have dogged the Knicks throughout the first half of the season have been all but silenced by the steady stream of “Ws” this squad continues to accrue.

As expected, the threes stopped falling the way they had been in the season’s infancy. The defense, though still good, isn’t the D that had been showcased in the season’s opening weeks and the older players have battled injuries all season.

Their offensive gameplan is an overly simplistic one as well. Step one – Carmelo Anthony. Step Two – Run the Pick and Roll with Tyson Chandler. Lastly, hope JR Smith scores in the 20s as well. That’s it, that’s all the Knicks have right now. Ronnie Brewer’s been slumping terribly (on the defensive side of the ball too), Steve Novak has been horrid, and the Knicks haven’t gotten much of anything out of Marcus Camby or Kurt Thomas.

What the Knicks have been doing a superb job has to be credited to Coach Woodson who’s said time and time again that his players need to step up and contribute in any manner and role possible. A demand made clear early in the season when Carmelo Anthony became the team’s starting (and full-time) power forward and Jason Kidd started at shooting guard for the first time in his illustrious career. It’s a mantra that the players have bought into.

“I’m just willing to do whatever. If we need rebounds that game, I’m athletic enough to go do that. At times I know I’m gonna have to just lock in and sacrifice myself to do something I don’t normally do and I’m okay with that,” said injured Knick Iman Shumpert.

There’s no better example of a player buying into the new team mantra than JR Smith.

JR’s gained the reputation as a low-IQ basketball player. “Very athletic, instant offense, but prone to taking awful shots” was the book on JR who was also seen as a one-way player. Not this year. JR’s morphed into a John Starks clone, hitting the floor several times a night, getting after loose balls, rebounding, defending, and even running the point on the pick and roll from time to time.

JR’s toned down the egregious shots and his hustle and scoring ability have made him not only a fan favorite but a legitimate All Star candidate. It’s not just the scoring output (which has made him one of the front-runners for sixth man of the year and the number two scoring threat on the team behind Anthony) but the rebounding. JR’s been hitting the boards with an abandon he never has before, corralling a career-high 5.2 rebounds a game.

“I plan on maintaining this pace over the course of the season. I just have to play at a high level and go hard no matter what,” JR told the Rockland County Times. “If injuries come, there’s nothing you can do about it but I can’t worry about that kinda thing.”

Perhaps no one has had to sacrifice more to fit the new-look Knicks than Amare Stoudemire. Once an MVP candidate for the Knicks, Amare has suffered countless injuries and a demotion in the wake of Anthony’s arrival. The 30-year-old Stoudemire has been demoted to the bench in light of the team’s success with Anthony at the four and has accepted his new role with grace. Monday night’s game against the Celtics was very encouraging in terms of Amare and his productivity. As Anthony struggled mightily, Amare looked fresh off the bench en route to scoring 13 points.

The return of Iman Shumpert (who was just cleared for contact) is another huge boon as it gives Coach Woodson some more flexibility in terms of the rotation (far less 35 minute nights for Jason Kidd), it means another legitimate scoring option, and most importantly, it means some fresh young legs that can defend and get over screens – a detriment that had been killing the Knicks thus far.

Most of all, the fresh legs and fresh bodies being added to the Knicks active roster means that they can continue their domination of the fourth quarter. They are currently sixth best in the NBA in fourth quarter point differential and tend to pull away late in games. Their slow start in Orlando Saturday night for example, was completely eradicated by a fourth in which the Knicks outscored the Magic 33-17. It’s what they’ve been doing all season and once these Knicks finally are fully loaded, it’s a trend that should continue throughout the season.

Until injured vets Rasheed Wallace and Raymond Felton heal up and Iman rejoins the team though, it’s going to have to be “next man up.”