We sent some questions to Jared Zwerling of ESPNNewYork.com about the Knicks ahead of Thursday's game. Here's the rundown:
1.) What stood out as the team's biggest stride on Wednesday night vs. Atlanta?
Their team defense. After the Knicks' 100-92 loss to the Nets Monday night, D'Antoni said he wasn't concerned about individual matchups. He said his guys needed to focus more on defending players collectively. And against the Hawks, they did just that. For starters, they forced Hawks starting point guard Jeff Teague into 0 assists. Yes, 0 assists. It was the first time all season that an opposing starting point guard had 0 assists in at least 20 minutes of action. Charlotte's Gerald Henderson did it twice nd Utah's Raja Bell did it once, but they're both shooting guards.
Teague wasn't the only position player the Knicks limited. This season, the Knicks have made a habit of allowing above average (not great) power forwards, such as Boris Diaw, Ryan Anderson and Kris Humphries Monday night, to go off at the Garden. With Hawks starting small forward Joe Johnson and center Al Horford out on Wednesday, Josh Smith had the opportunity for a big game. But his defensive assignment, Stoudemire, and the Knicks limited the Hawks' power forward to only 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting. He came in averaging 16 points per game.
Over, the Knicks rotated quicker on the perimeter, closing out on shooters, and protected the interior, not allowing any easy buckets. While the Knicks shot 47.5 percent from the field, the Hawks finished at 39.5. In other critical categories, the Knicks won the rebounding margin (47 to 40) and the points-in-the-paint battle (54 to 38).
2.) Should Knicks fans accept a moral victory if the Heat win on Thursday or has expectations risen to call Miami an equal?
During his pregame press conference on Thursday, Mike D'Antoni said the Knicks are much more talented than they were back on Jan. 27 -- their first meeting of the season against the Heat. But the Knicks still have a ways to go to adjust. While Jeremy Lin and Tyson Chandler played well together for a week, Carmelo Anthony (injuries) and Amare Stoudemire (family death) were not in the lineup. Not only are they back, now Baron Davis is back playing and J.R. Smith has joined the team. The expectations are high for the Knicks, but let's be realistic. It's going to take a few weeks for the Knicks to click, if at all.
The Knicks now have a lot of offensive weapons -- Lin can pick his pick-and-roll poison with Anthony, Stoudemire or Chandler -- but the key for them is to bring defensive intensity throughout the entire game. While the Knicks have been winning the second- and fourth-quarter scoring margin, they haven't had an advantage in the first and third -- two significant periods that start the action. If the Knicks can carry that defensive energy and effort throughout the entire game, they'll be a force in the East like the Bulls and Heat, their opponent Thursday night.
3.) How would you best define the current tone of the team: humble, measured, confident, anxious or nervous?
Humble, especially for Lin, and confident, based on how Lin has set the tone for the Knicks. The Knicks have a great locker room and they're developing chemistry fast. The key for the Knicks is sacrifice. In the second half of the season, Anthony can't be the same volume scorer and Amare can't be the pick-and-roll focal point. Chandler has also been excelling with Lin. So if they all can sacrifice a bit on offense, but pick it up on defense for four quarters, that's most important for the Knicks looking ahead.