MIAMI -- At the tail end of Sunday morning's practice at the American Airlines Arena, the Knicks looked loose -- literally -- as they stretched as a team. Even Mike Woodson participated, as Mike Bibby led the exercises.
mIn general, the players seemed relaxed and upbeat, as if their 67-point performance in Game 1 on Saturday -- a franchise low for a playoff game in the shot-clock era -- never happened. As Bibby called out the different movements, laughter filled the arena based on, what appeared to be, some of the guys cracking a few jokes. When Bibby wrapped up, they initiated a fun halfcourt shooting competition, while playfully interacting with one another like it was summer camp. The scene represented a team that was together, a team that was in high spirits.
Afterwards, addressing reporters, Woodson said "the mood was great."
But in the back of their minds, the Knicks know that the challenging climb they faced coming into the first-round series now has an avalanche falling on them. Not only did they have to prepare to deal with the second-seeded Heat's Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but they have to continue to lock them down with a weak Tyson Chandler (flu), and a hobbled Baron Davis (sore right hamstring) and Jared Jeffries (sore right knee). In addition, Jeremy Lin (left knee injury) is unlikely to play until next week and now Iman Shumpert (torn left ACL and lateral meniscus) is out for the season and up to eight months.
"We're going to have to play a perfect game to come out of here with a win," Woodson said, referring to Game 2.
Woodson said he hasn't decided yet who will replace Shumpert at starting shooting guard, because he first wants to get a better gauge on Chandler's health -- something that will be looked at closer later today. If Chandler does play, it's likely Landry Fields would get the call up at the two.
But, of course, no one on the Knicks' roster can replace Shumpert's perimeter D on Dwyane Wade, which involves constant bumping, active hands and hardly ever leaving his feet to avoid Wade's trademark ball fake off his favorite stepback move. In fact, right away in the first quarter of Game 1, within just two minutes after the opening tip, the rookie forced the eight-time All-Star into a tough 18-foot jumpshot from the baseline (which he missed) and then a traveling violation two plays later.
Woodson called what happened to Shumpert "a tough loss." The rookie was also showing progression on offense since March 24, when Lin and Amare Stoudemire both went down. He improved his decision-making off pick-and-rolls (he lowered his turnovers per game) and increased the accuracy on his 3-point shot (from 30.6 to 37.9 percent) to end the season. That was a credit to having the privilege of working with arguably the greatest Knicks marksman of all-time, Allan Houston, now the team's assistant general manager.
"He's had a heck of a rookie year," Woodson said. "He's a big part of what we do from a defensive standpoint. He's just a solid all-around player that's young, that's got a lot of room for improvement, but he'll bounce back. That's a big blow, but somebody else has got to step up. That's the whole beauty of having a pretty solid basketball team."
If Chandler doesn't play, Woodson could potentially move Stoudemire to center (a position in which he's excelled offensively because he has the quickness and explosiveness edge over slower and more stationary defenders), while sliding Carmelo Anthony to the four, inserting J.R. Smith at the three, and then putting Fields and Davis in the backcourt. Smith at small forward, rather than Fields, could work a bit better at small forward defensively because he was very aggressive with LeBron James in Game 1, even applying full-court pressure on him -- more than what Fields has ever done against the Heat's superstar.
Bigger picture, the Knicks are not only facing major concerns this week, but now Shumpert's long-term injury is just another addition to a pressing list of important long-term questions surrounding the team. The ongoing ones have included: Who will coach next season? Will Anthony and Stoudemire ever really be able to co-exist, or will a trade be necessary? Will Lin, Smith and Steve Novak re-sign? If not, what backups and other players will be interested in signing for less because the Knicks are locked up in three hefty contracts for Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler?
Out of those questions, re-signing Lin for the available mid-level $5 million exception is the likeliest to happen. Don't think for a second Knicks owner James Dolan is going to let Lin get away. At the end of the day, he's a businessman who knows what makes business, and that's just what Lin has done for him, the Knicks and Madison Square Garden entities.
Lin basically single-handedly made the Knicks a bigger global brand. That's why Dolan wanted Anthony before the 2011 trade deadline. Lin and Melo are both extremely marketable. Well, Dolan already has had one wish granted through a move Mike D'Antoni never wanted to happen because he felt like the team was giving away too much. But the core of players the former coach wanted to build around -- Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler (to play alongside Stoudemire) -- were shipped to Denver for Anthony.
But who would run with Lin in the backcourt to start the 2012-13 campaign? That would've been Shumpert, a player the Knicks see a lot of potential in, offensively and defensively. If it weren't for Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, you could argue Shumpert was the Rookie of the Year, as he averaged 9.5 points and 1.7 steals per game (second among rookies after Minnesota's Ricky Rubio).
But Shumpert may not return until two months into the 2012-13 season. The Knicks said that once he's operated on, which will likely happen in the next two weeks (after the swelling in his left knee goes down), his recovery could be up to eight months. So that would put his return around December. The team re-signing Smith would be helpful so they'd have some insurance at starting shooting guard.
However, Fields may be more likely to return than Smith because the team, after let's say they re-sign Lin for the mid-level exception, only has a biannual exception for roughly $2 million. That's more in line with Fields' value, whereas Smith could demand and receive more than $5 million per season, based especially on how he's adjusted quickly from China and has played well in New York.
The Knicks also have veteran's minimums (each worth $1.4 million per season) to spend, but that won't be in Smith and Fields' ballpark (low for Smith; not eligible for Fields). So the team will have to look at alternates on the cheap. Some 2012 unrestricted free agent shooting guards (for their offense and defense) could include: Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus (Celtics), Delonte West (Mavericks), Randy Foye (Clippers), and Shannon Brown and Grant Hill (Suns). A potential dark horse could be, although his defense is suspect, is former Knick Jamal Crawford, but he has a player option with the Trail Blazers. That means he has until the end of the June to decide if he wants to remain with the team or test the market.
As Crawford knows, having gone through an ACL tear in 2001, things should be looking up for Shumpert, even though his absence is "critical" for the Knicks in the Heat series, as Anthony described it today, as well as heading into next season. That's because there have been more standout guards in roughly the past 20 years who have played even better after coming back from the serious setback and long-winded rehabilitation process.
In addition to Crawford, two players that quickly come to mind are Tim Hardaway (who suffered the injury in 1993 with the Warriors) and the Knicks very own Davis, who hurt his knee in 1998 during his freshman season at UCLA. The only other recent standout guard who had a significant decrease upon his return from this kind of injury was current Suns sharpshooter Michael Redd, from 2009 (when he was sidelined) to '10.
Besides Davis, another player on the Knicks who can relate to Shumpert is Stoudemire, who has battled major eye and knee injuries in his career that sidelined him for nearly the entire 2005-06 season and big chunks of future ones leading up until the fall of '09. Stoudemire worked extremely hard to come back, and he's confident "rook" will do the same.
"Iman was a intricate part to our team," STAT said. "He’s great defensively on the ball. He was doing a great job scoring as well. He was really coming into his own. I told him before, 'I’ve been though injuries At this point, it’s going to take a lot of hard work, perseverance and self discipline in order to overcome your injury.' He has a lot of work cut out for him, but I have a lot of confidence in him."
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