Call me delusional or an eternal optimist or whatever you will, but after sitting in the Garden for another 48 minutes of disappointment last night, I see hope on the horizon for the flailing Knickerbockers. My duties at my primary place of employment have involved a number of nights recently taking in the action at MSG and a few day trips up to Weschester to the Knicks practice facility. What I’m trying to say is that I feel like I have a decent grasp at what is ailing the Knicks, based upon what I have seen with my own two eyes and what I have heard come out of the players’ and coaches’ mouths over the past few weeks.
Let’s start with what Mike D’Antoni had to say following Tuesday’s practice, which followed the bitter defeat to the Boston Celtics on Monday at MSG. He hit on two themes when he met the media at around 12:30. The first was that D’Antoni felt his offensive scheme had become to stagnant. The second was that his team, which has now played 7 games in 11 days is flat out of gas. He wasn’t trying to use it as an excuse, just stating the facts and the effect this vicious stretch has had on the physical well being of his squad. Anyone who saw Amar’e Stoudemire having trouble getting back up the floor to join the OFFENSE (yeah you read that right, the offense, not the defense) can surmise just how tired those legs are.
Let’s start with the coach’s thoughts on what is ailing his team on the offensive side of the ball. Too much standing around and isolation scenarios and a lack of ball movement. There is a bit of a misconception out there that D’Antoni’s offense is based on getting up and down the floor as quickly as you can. A lot of misinformed folks think he preaches that up-tempo, run and gun style like the Paul Westhead Denver Nuggets used to play in the early 1990’s. In fact, as the coach pointed out Tuesday, his offensive philosophy is based on quick decision making on the offensive end of the floor. On the defensive side….not so sure there is a philosophy, but I digress.
To flesh what I mean out a little more, he believes that the less standing around and dribbling the better. That means less isolation and clearing out for 1-on-1 basketball and more rapid passing and shooting sequences. His theory as I see it and have absorbed from guys like Newsday’s Alan Hahn and The Daily News’ Frank Isola, who cover the team on a daily basis, is the quicker you make a decision with the ball, whether it is to pass, or to drive, or to pull up for a three, the better. Hesitation and stasis allow the defense to gain the upper hand.
Of course, the problem for the Knicks is that Carmelo Anthony’s style of game does not fit Mike D’Anoni’s scheme well at all. Carmelo is best when in isolation scenarios on the block and is a volume shooter who becomes a black hole on offensive at points. This clearly has disrupted the goal of the coach’s offensive flow and anyone who has watched this team play the past 10 games can see the negative effect Carmelo’s lack of ability to conform to this philosophy has had. On the flipside, D’Antoni said it is on him to try and adjust a to some degree based on what Anthony’s known strengths are and try to incorporate them into his offense.
Monday vs. the Celtics, the Knicks were obviously lost offensively in the 4th quarter. The outcome was visibly ragged possessions resulting in low quality shot attempts and a number of turnovers. Here’s where I am going to highlight what I see as some glimmers of hope that the players (mainly Anthony and Chauncey Billups) are starting to get the picture. Let’s fast forward to last night against Orlando. From the first tap, I trained my eyes to watch for the things that D’Antoni said he needed to see to make his frenetic, spontaneous style of hoops function at a peak level.
I specifically watched Carmelo to see how much quicker his decision making was on the offensive end and there was a noticeable difference. When he decided to pass, it usually happened 2 or 3 seconds after he received the ball. When he decided to drive to the hole or pull up for a jumper, it seemed like a lot less stationary dribbling and backing his man down preceded these actions. It wasn’t just Anthony though. Billups, Toney Douglas and others seemed to be executing the offense in the same manner. The result for the first 3 quarters was very positive, with the Knicks only down by a point, 79-78, heading to the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, like has been the trend of late, the Bockers folded up the tent in the final frame, lost all semblance of offensive continuity and were outscored by Dwight Howard and the Magic, 32-21. Game. Set. Match. Four-game losing streak.
Yet, when we listened to Coach D’Antoni’s post game press conference and heard from Carmelo, Amar’e and Billups in the locker room afterwards, it wasn’t the doom and gloom most fans and the media have been preaching. I know the recent results in the standings don’t support this claim, but could it be that these guys are starting to see the light a little bit and that is why they aren’t overly worried? Did they and the coaches see the same things I did while watching the nuances of the offense work well for the majority of the contest? Is it possible that despite yet another tick upward in the loss column, the kinks are slowly but surely being worked out and this team is ready to go on a run?
Call me crazy (which I might be since I have yet to utter the words defense and improvemnet together in this blog), but I have a gut feeling last night was nadir of the Knicks fortunes. I smell a successful final stretch of basketball before playoff time in mid-April.