There’s good news and bad news if you’re a Knicks fan. The bad news is, it appears that the defensive-minded team you saw in the first 20 games of the season was indeed an illusion. The good news: Carmelo Anthony can still get hot.
The Knicks gave up 50 points in the paint against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday. They allowed them to shoot 60 percent from the field and allowed point guard Jeff Teague to set a career high with 27 points. The night before, Philadelphia utterly decimated a lackadaisical Knicks team in a game that Coach Woodson called “an embarrassment to watch.”
Despite the presence of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Tyson Chandler, the interior is terribly soft, a shortcoming that’s exacerbated by the aged guards’ inability to keep their men in front of them. Though he’s still coming back from a prolonged injury and his conditioning is not yet where it was, Raymond Felton has been burned on consecutive nights by Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague to the tune of 35 and 27 points respectively. Though Iman Shumpert’s return has helped, the Knicks need to recommit to defense if they hope to advance farther in the playoffs than they did the last two years.
Nowhere is the difference in defensive focus more evident than in Carmelo Anthony who has confirmed that the defensive intensity he proudly showcased early in the season couldn’t last for a full 82 games. His defense has fallen off significantly from the first 20 games of the season as was predicted by most.
The sad reality is, that’s the compromise one makes with Anthony. As long as he defends in crunch time (and playoffs) and continues to drop it in the cup, Carmelo Anthony is an MVP candidate. As long as his shot is dropping, Carmelo Anthony is the greatest thing in blue and orange since Ewing. That formula may even work as long as Carmelo can flip the switch comes playoff time. As for right now though, this formula lends itself to lots of sloppy basketball and lots of triple digit scores against the Knicks.
Outside of Carmelo, the team really does try defensively. It’s not as if Kurt Thomas, Jason Kidd, and Pablo Priggioni aren’t trying, it’s just that anyone they could cover retired in 2005. Steve Novak is still the league’s worst defender and Raymond just isn’t healthy enough to stay with the quick point guards being showcased around the league right now. Truth be told, the only plus defenders on the Knicks are Chandler, Shumpert, and Ronnie Brewer whose offense is so putrid that it’s gotten him nailed to the bench.
The Knicks need a defensive presence; Tyson Chandler can only do so much. A defender/rebounder like Brooklyn’s Reggie Evans/Kris Humphries or former Knick Ronny Turiaf would go a long way in helping this team. Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace could potentially fill the void on the interior but their statuses are unknown and the Knicks are becoming notorious for their secrecy regarding injuries. Even with the interior veterans in the lineup, the Knicks rebounding was subpar and their defense of the guard positions was nothing short of woeful.
What makes matters worse is the combination of Coach Woodson’s defensive style and the small lineup he regularly trots out there, the Knicks are regularly stuck in defensive mismatches. The switch-happy defense that the Knicks employ regularly forces Chandler out by the perimeter and guards like Kidd and JR Smith to defend big-men.
Can the Knicks recapture the defensive intensity that they displayed early in the season? Unlikely. Even Coach Woodson seems to have resigned himself to softer defense as long as the offense is flowing.
When asked about the 60 percent shooting the Knicks afforded the Hawks, the notoriously defensive-minded Woodson replied “yeah, well we shot 54 percent.”
The top of the Eastern Conference is dominated by defensive minded teams. Indiana, Chicago, and Miami are the top three teams in the Eastern conference in terms of field goal percentage allowed. It’s no coincidence that they also hold three of the top five positions in the East. The Knicks ranking in field goal percentage allowed? Eleventh out of 15.
For now, the Knicks are still sitting pretty. Second in the East, just a game and a half behind Miami and with a home-stand coming up. No Knick fan could have hoped for more at the start of the season. Still, because of how offensively reliant they are, the Knicks struggled mightily while Raymond Felton was injured. What happens when ‘Melo inevitably gets hurt? What happens as, like it did recently, the shots aren’t falling?
The Knicks are in as good a position record-wise as they could possibly hope. A game and a half back, leading the Atlantic, and without ever having all of their starters on the court together, Mike Woodson has done a miraculous job. It’s the home-stretch before the All Star break and the Knicks need to keep a foot on the pedal as they are well aware.
“These last four or five games before the All Star break are at home and we gotta just stay aggressive,” says Felton. “We want to get on a nice roll heading into the break.”