The Knicks started the season 3-8, scoring 103.3 points per game; since then, they've gone 10-1, while leading the NBA in points per game at 112.2. Not much has changed on defense (106.5 ppg allowed vs. 105.6, ranking them at the bottom of the league). Let's take a deeper dive into their biggest improvements on offense in their last 11 games and see where they can pick it up on defense.
Amare Stoudemire is now Standing Very Tall and Talented. In the pick-and-roll with Raymond Felton, he's having better timing and spacing to get open, which has allowed him to get looks closer to the basket like he did with the Suns (he now only has one attempt less at the rim than he had last year, and his shooting percentage is just about the same in that location -- more than 64%). He's not taking as many 20-foot shots as he did to start the season. Now, thanks to the pick-and-roll running more effectively, the midrange game has opened up for him and he's knocking down the 10- to 20-footer. (Speaking of the midrange game, Raymond Felton looks more poised pulling up off the screen, and he's shooting around 50% from 10 to 23 feet.) Stoudemire is also under control more with his dribble and he's making quicker and stronger moves to the basket, avoiding getting smothered by double teams. That's enabled him to cut down on his turnovers; in the Knicks' first 11 games, he averaged nearly four turnovers per game, and in their last 11 he was at 3.3 -- still high, but gradually decreasing.
The Knicks are now shooting the lights out from the field, downtown and at the line. In their first 11 games, the Knicks had a 43.6 FG% (third-worst in the league), 32.1 3FG% (seventh-worst) and a 76.4 FT% (middle of the pack). In their last 11, the Knicks were second in FG% (49.9), fourth in 3FG% (40.6) and tied for first in FT% (83.9). In the beginning stages of the season, the Knicks' pick-and-roll game was stale, they were stagnant on offense and, therefore, were shooting forced jumpers with hands in their faces -- occasionally with the clock winding down. Now that the pick-and-roll is clicking and there's more attacking and ball movement in the offense, the Knicks are scoring more quickly and finding more room to operate on the court, instead of having to make the tough pass or take the contested shot. Case in point: Last night, because of the Knicks' excellence in the dribble-drive game, they had four more assists and five less turnovers -- 25 and 10, respectively -- than their season averages.
The Knicks' recent consistent streak proves that they are becoming a team, they're more focused and look up to their leader, Amare Stoudemire. Keep in mind that coming into training camp the team had 11 new faces, so an adjustment period was necessary. It just took a little longer for the Knicks to get going -- 10 games and three quarters into the season, to be exact. After the Knicks fell to the Rockets, 104-96, on November 14, Stoudemire voiced his frustrations and publicly called out the team's lack of urgency to win games. Then, two days later in Denver, the Knicks nearly overcame a 12-point fourth quarter deficit by playing arguably their best basketball up until that point of the season, scoring 36 points and holding the Nuggets to 26. Since then, the Knicks have taken the court with more of an authoritative demeanor, patterned after Stoudemire, while playing within their games. The starting five knows to work it through Felton and Stoudemire first, and as a result, Danilo Gallinari (35.9 FG% in the Knicks' first 11 games vs. 44 FG% in their last 11) and Wilson Chandler (43.1 FG% vs. 50.4 FG%) are getting easier scoring opportunities and playing more efficiently. (While Landry Fields was shooting 58.8 FG% through the first 11 games, he dropped to 45.2 FG% since then, mostly due to erratic three-point shooting. But in the larger scheme of things for how he's contributing to the team with intangibles, that's a small speed bump in his rookie learning curve). And off the bench, Ronny Turiaf, Toney Douglas and Shawne Williams understand and feel comfortable in their roles; Turiaf as the energy and defensive catalyst, and Douglas and Williams as three-point specialists.
The biggest knock against the Knicks so far this season is that they've only beaten two teams with winning records, the Bulls and Hornets. While the Knicks are putting points on the board, they're allowing sub-.500 teams to score more than 105 points per game. And their December home schedule gets much tougher starting on Sunday when the Nuggets arrive, followed by Boston, Miami, Oklahoma City and Chicago. Here are three things the Knicks need to work on tomorrow against the Raptors and Friday at Washington in preparation for some of the league's elite.
Stoudemire has to be the anchor of the Knicks' interior defense whenever he's in the game. In the first half last night, Stoudemire didn't do a great job of protecting the basket, especially against Darko Milicic early on before he went down with an injury and Kevin Love, and the Timberwolves went on to score 68 points. While Stoudemire was aggressive again on offense, scoring 30-plus points for the fifth straight game, his five boards were unacceptable. Even though the Timberwolves were hot to start the game, they cooled off a bit in the second half and Stoudemire missed some rebounding opportunities. Against the Knicks' upcoming formidable foes, Stoudemire has to make guarding the glass a priority because those teams are exceptional at scoring at the rim. Finally, starting in the third quarter, Stoudemire showed what he's capable of on defense. He flexed more muscle in the middle and starting blocking shots -- he had two in the game -- and the Knicks held the Timberwolves to 18 points while they scored 31.
The Knicks have to start strong defensively. You sometimes have to wonder if the Knicks, because of Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offensive system, conserve energy in the first half by easing up on defensive stops in order to guard more intensely in the closing quarters. The Knicks simply can't allow the Nuggets, Celtics, Heat, Thunder and Bulls to score 68 points in the first half, because each of those teams is already averaging 100 or more points per game. You never want to add more fuel to a burning fire.
Last but not least, and I've mentioned this before in earlier posts, the Knicks need to continue to improve their pick-and-roll and transition defense. What sometimes happens guarding the P&R is that the point guard, typically Felton because Douglas is a better one-on-one defender, doesn't fight through the screen hard enough and then the big man plays up too far, allowing easy penetration to the lane. Reading the offensive situation and being a step ahead on rotations are what the best defensive teams in the league, like the Spurs and Lakers, excel at year after year. The Knicks also need to realize that usually when they lose a lead or their opponent makes a run on them, it's due to poor transition defense.
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