While the Knicks made a 6-0 run to end the first half, they were still down 58-55 -- and not only that, Brook Lopez had 21 points. So the Knicks, and Amare Stoudemire, who had been guarding Lopez, went into the locker room knowing they had one main thing to do: Shut down Lopez, because he was the only Nets player in double figures. Starting in the second half, the Knicks, and Stoudemire, did a much better job of containing him, which helped them go on a 14-2 run towards the end of the third quarter. Here's how, including additional thoughts on the game:
Defending Lopez in the first half, two deficient things were happening: one, Stoudemire was playing soft and two, Mike D'Antoni was not calling for the double team. Overall this season, Stoudemire's defense has been subject and he's let several big men go off on him for 20-plus points. Fortunately, in the second half, Stoudemire showed some one-on-one defensive improvements. He bodied up Lopez better, held his ground in the post and got aggressive with his hands, and the double teams worked in the Knicks' favor, allowing Stoudemire to steal the ball from Lopez twice in the third quarter. Finally, the Knicks read the scouting report on Lopez that he tends to play more of a finesse game; in fact this season, he's shooting more from the outside (42.8% attempts outside of 10 feet versus 20.2% attempts at the rim). Even though Lopez finished the game with 36 points, the Knicks' double teams slowed down Lopez tremendously -- who already lacks foot speed -- and as a result, the rest of the Nets' offense. The double teams prevented Lopez, who's already not a good passer (his career average is 1.6), from seeing the court and making cross-court passes to open shooters. Case in point: Only one player in the starting five, Travis Outlaw, scored in double figures (13 points). Jordan Farmar, who somehow has his best games at MSG, scored 17 points off the bench, but he did that mostly off threes in the pick-and-roll game.
Stoudemire is finally seeing the game come to him, and he's not having to shoot from the outside or go iso as much as he did in the first couple of weeks of the season. Out of the 13 shots he made last night, 10 of them came from inside 10 feet. That's a credit to him and Raymond Felton running the pick-and-roll more fluidly and with multiple variations. What I mean by that is Felton may go off Stoudemire's screen one way, start driving to the basket, but then backtrack quickly if he sees nothing; at that point, Stoudemire may set a screen for him on the opposite side. Basically, Felton and Stoudemire are playing the two-man game better and more creatively, and their timing and spacing has improved off the pick-and-roll. While Stoudemire is playing more of his Suns-type game, getting one-pass-to-dunk opportunities, he's still not up to par with his past seasons' numbers close to the basket. His 5.1 attempts at the rim this season is 1.6 less than his average with the Suns the past four seasons (his shooting percentage is on par, though, at more than 60%). Fortunately, Felton is becoming more comfortable in the offense, and that's evident by him keeping his dribble alive longer. He's not just giving the ball up to Stoudemire 20 feet away from the basket and letting him go to work by himself. Confidence sure makes a world of difference.
Again, you have to love the Knicks' balanced scoring early from the starting five to start the game. It's been a common theme during every game, and it shows the guys come ready to play. Last night was extra special. After Stoudemire was the first to score, a different Knick got on the board, one after the other. I wrote yesterday that the Knicks needed to start and finish strong at home, and they did just that. They scored 30 points in the first quarter and basically maintained their 15-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, winning by 11.
Speaking of the starting five, you can sense by the overloaded minutes that they're playing lately, especially last night, that D'Antoni is anxious to win games. He even said after the game that if he puts guys in and they're not ready to play, he'll yank them fast. As long as the Knicks keep winning -- they're now 7-1 over their last eight -- D'Antoni won't change the rotations; he'll just have to be careful not to wear them down too soon to start the season; even Landry Fields, who's a rookie and should be the freshest of the bunch, said that after the double-overtime Pistons game he was definitely feeling sore. Fortunately, once Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azubuike returns, the minutes should spread out a little bit more from the starting five to the second unit.
Fields, by the way, remains as ESPN Insider's No. 3 rookie in its Top 50 Rookie Rankings, and today he was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (the Clippers' Blake Griffin was the West winner). But Scouts Inc.'s David Thorpe says that he can gain one skill that will make him more highly-regarded: three-point shooting. He writes: "For a player who is below average athletically for a shooting guard, having a great outside shot would work wonders for his game and his team's chances at winning. Fields is such a heady player, and if defenders had to run out at him faster than they do know, he'd be able to incorporate all sorts of shot-fake moves into his arsenal. That would help him earn a lot more free throws than the two per game he's averaging now."
Last but not least, I can't end without talking about the Knicks' team defense, which will be the make or break for the team this year. While they're putting points on the board and winning games, the teams they've been beating are, quite frankly, not on the upper echelon of the league. To get past the best, they'll have to improve their team defense -- and it starts in transition. The one time the Knicks looked horrendous last night was towards the end of the second quarter, when the Nets went on a 14-5 run -- literally, run. The Knicks were slow getting back on defense and the Nets burned them down the court. If that's the case, imagine what lightning-fast point guard Chris Paul will be able to do on Friday, when the Knicks visit the Hornets. The Knicks now have three days to buckle up their transition D.
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