This year the Atlanta Hawks picked up former Knick Jamal Crawford, who is second on the team in scoring and is the likely winner of the Sixth Man Of The Year Award for the most valuable player off the bench. In addition, their should-be-All-Star power forward, Josh Smith, aka JSmoove, has taken his game to the next level by no longer settling for hoisting up three-pointers, thus greatly improving his field goal percentage (& shot selection). As a result, the Hawks have taken that next step to where they’re almost up there with the big boys in the league. No one would likely pick them to beat Cleveland or Orlando in a seven game series, but they’re no longer the gimmes they used to be. And if the Cavs or Magic came out with less than their A game, the Hawks could easily come out as victors. All of which makes it more amazing that the Knicks beat the Hawks yet again last night. Particularly right after losing to one of the historically worst teams ever in the Nets.
To further highlight the difference, in the Nets game the Knicks made negative NBA history by attempting the most threes (18) without hitting one (aka 0). Against the Hawks, the Knicks came out and went four-for-four from out deep to start the game. Of course they didn’t keep up that insane pace, but they still finished off hitting 10 of 15, for a whopping 66.6%. Teams would kill to shoot that well from two-point range, so to do that from beyond the arc is just downright amazing. And don’t kid yourself into thinking that it has anything to do with the other team’s defense — the Nets are one of the worst teams at defending from the three-point line.
As announcer Mike Breen stated at one point, seeing the Knicks play this well kinda makes you angry that they play so crappy in other games. The Knicks have had periods where they play excellently against top teams like the Lakers, Cavs & Hawks, but it’s easy to get psyched up to play the best of the best. A really good team plays the same regardless of whoever they’re up against.
In the Knicks’ recent game against the Toronto Raptors, little-known Sonny Weems notched a career high in scoring. As one who also watches a fair amount of Clipper games, I’m an authority on what bad teams look like, and one of the biggest signs is that unknowns have career highs against you. Yes, sometimes the team’s defensive plan is to say double LeBron and make the rest of his teammates beat you, but rarely with bad teams is that the cause. The Raptors were missing Chris Bosh, their one player who would demand a double-team. So Sonny Weems didn’t have a career night ‘cuz we viewed him as the lesser of two evils, it was ‘cuz the team has awful defensive principles. If you’ve got your D down, you rotate/switch/show, regardless of who the offensive player is. It’s just part of your DNA. It’s like if you buy a new shirt, even if you’ve never seen it before, you know how to put it on ‘cuz you’ve put on shirts a billion times before.
However, the poor defensive team doesn’t have set principles that’ve become instinct. They know (like the rest of the universe) that if LeBron has the ball that they should look to help out, but when it comes to an unknown like Sonny Weems, they aren’t expecting him to beat his man off the dribble, and thus are left confused and clueless when such a thing happens. It’s sorta sad that we’ve gotten to the point where even when the Knicks do actually win, I still rip ‘em apart.
Another example of good playing that only makes me angry, was Danilo Gallinari’s performance last night. He went off for 27 points, his deep shot finally falling regularly, but also nicely mixing that up with post-up plays and drives to the hoop. Now for those who haven’t been watching closely, while Gallo has become a non-factor on offense who only makes cameo appearances, you can clearly tell he’s been putting in the work off the court. His defense is much more active (& improved), he puts the ball on the floor more often, and he’s even been working on posting up smaller players (a great idea when you’re 6’10” and don’t play against big men). Yet he hadn’t scored over 20 points in 21 games. That’s more than a quarter of the season. And it’s not due to a lack of minutes. Part of is that he needs to be more aggressive and demand the ball more, but part of it is that the offense needs to be run through him more. Off of pick and rolls he got an open three at one point and at another the defense switched so he was able to post up the much smaller point guard Mike Bibby down low for an easy bucket.
The fact that he’s not used to the offense running through him almost cost them the game. When they tried to go to him a few times in the closing minutes, and the defense tightened, he didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t been in that position before. He jumped up to take a shot, felt his man was too close, so mid-air he aborted his attempt and passed the ball… to the Hawks. There was another point where his defender reached in and Gallo tried to do the classic Paul Pierce/Kobe Bryant/Reggie Miller move of suddenly bringing your arms up as if to shoot so you can draw the foul and get two free throws. But he did it poorly and turned it over ‘cuz he hasn’t been given the opportunity to do this over and over in games. This is a basic move that a shooter has to have down to prevent his man from crowding him, but he was a bit off in his execution (plus he hasn’t earned the respect of refs yet by doing it a bunch). For further evidence of how the Knicks don’t run the offense through their young guns, you need look no further than Wilson Chandler, who got only 8 shot attempts in 42 minutes. Five other players had at least that many shots, and only two had less (both of whom played significantly less minutes). And we would’ve lost that game if it wasn’t for Chandler’s last second block on what looked like it was gonna be an easy dunk for JSmoove.
Okay, okay, let’s try and focus on a couple of positives before I get outta here:
1. As mentioned, Gallo’s game is improving in multiple facets, even though he and Coach Mike D’Antoni are trying to keep that hidden from the league.
2. D’Antoni gave Toney Douglas 24 minutes, allowing one of our young guys to get valuable experience, and Douglas produced nicely in that time.
3. Along that line, Chris Duhon has remained nailed to the bench. If we’re gonna give Coach D hell for putting players in the dog house that we think should get a second chance (like Nate Robinson earlier in the year), then we also gotta praise him for keeping a player (Duhon) out of the rotation who correctly should not be playing. And by the way, Duhon ain’t the worst PG in the world, he just definitely isn’t a starter. So maybe we even end up keeping him as a back-up next year, but the thing is that Coach D already knows what Du’s capable of, so it’s a smart move to give Sergio Rodriguez and Toney Douglas a chance to prove themselves now.
4. We were able to get the win with Tracy McGrady sitting out (to let his still recovering body rest up).
5. Perhaps most importantly, is the potential impact this could have on this summer’s free agency feeding frenzy. After the “Big Three” of LeBron, Wade & Chris Bosh, the next biggest stud is probably Atlanta’s star, Joe Johnson. Even though JJ knows the Knicks have sucked this year, the fact that they’ve played well (&beaten) his team every time they’ve played this season has to help make him think that we’ve got more talent and potential than our record would indicate. JJ has said that he doesn’t want to start out on the bottom again with a bad team, so a game like this could help assuage some of those concerns. Plus it doesn’t help that he loves D’Antoni who coached him for several years in Phoenix and helped JJ finally blossom as a NBA player.
6. This is probably stretching it, but keeping on the free agency train: there was a report that the injured LeBron excitedly watched the end of the game. Any time the King sees us not sucking can only help. Then again, he was probably smart enough to notice that we were up 10 points with about five minutes left and then did everything in our power to try to lose the game and let the Hawks back in.
…Guess I wasn’t able to stay positive for too long. It’s hard when you’re a Knick fan.
Tags: Atlanta Hawks Chris Bosh Chris Duhon Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike D'Antoni Danilo Gallinari Dwayne Wade J Smoove Jamal Crawford Joe Johnson Josh Smith Kobe Bryant LeBron James Mike Bibby Mike Breen Nate Robinson New Jersey Nets Orlando Magic Paul Pierce Reggie Miller Sergio Rodriguez Sonny Weems Toney Douglas Toronto Raptors Wilson Chandler