NEW YORK -- During shootaround at the Knicks' training facility Friday morning, Mike Woodson called for a brief meeting. But it didn't entail a film or strategy session to prepare for the Pacers. The Knicks' new interim head coach, who the players view as a very matter-of-fact guy, had a message for his team.
"He just came in and basically told us how good he knows we can be," Steve Novak said. "He just told us we need to focus in and we need to take advantage of this time that we have as a group like this, because you can be on a lot of teams and never really feel like you have a special group. We feel like we have a special group right now."
For Woodson, that message reigns through holding the players accountable and enforcing a sense of urgency, especially to start the game.
"Absolutely," Woodson said. "I came here for one reason and one reason only, to win a title. The only way you can do that is you've got to get to the playoffs and give yourself a chance."
That first-quarter clamp was clearly evident Wednesday night against the Trail Blazers, when the Knicks held them to 12 points, en route to a 121-79 blowout win. And it happened again tonight, as the Pacers only scored 14 points in the first quarter on 22.7 percent shooting.
"All year, our goal was to take teams and hold them to 25 points or less," said Woodson, referring to the opening period.
The Knicks' shutdown D started on the block with Tyson Chandler's (once again) one-on-one defense on the opposing big man. This time, it was All-Star center Roy Hibbert, who finished with only four points and three rebounds. His season averages are 12.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony's frontcourt help defense was also huge, and it painted a picture that when those two superstars want to man up on the opposition, they can. They just haven't been doing it consistently this season.
Speaking of Anthony, he added the next layer of effective first-quarter defense -- this time from the outside, guarding one of the best swingmen in the game, Danny Granger. Melo was all over Granger and his lack of penetration enabled the Knicks' rotations to be one step ahead of the Pacers' passing. Granger only had nine points on 4-for-15 shooting, and his season average is 18.0.
"I think you can tell tonight was different," Novak said. "Tyson and those guys set the tone. I think if we do that every first quarter, I think we'll win most games. That's for sure what's making us tick right now with us being successful."
What was also crucial to the Knicks jumping out on a 24-14 first-quarter lead was their defensive traps on Pacers point guard Darren Collison. In fact, the Knicks even executed full-court defensive pressure on Collison a couple of times, mostly orchestrated by Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis with assistance from Jared Jeffries.
One on play toward the end of the first quarter, Davis picked up Pacers point guard Collison full court and Jeffries joined him with a moving defensive trap. It was an unusual Knicks' maneuver, but it forced Collison to make a difficult pass beyond midcourt. Then, Jeffries sprinted back fast enough to block Hibbert's layup with 3:25 remaining. It was the kind of the effort the Knicks displayed all evening.
"We want to be able to bring our energy and use our depth, and that's one of the ways that we can do that," Lin told ESPNNewYork.com, referring to the full-court traps. "It's to wear opponents down, especially Jared. I've never seen a guy do it like him, chasing Collison around, the point guard, and then coming back and blocking the shot. That was unbelievable. I mean, when you have someone who can do that, why not?"
Novak said to expect more of that kind of full-court pressure early in the game, especially because the team fed off the extra energy tonight and translated it to the offensive end.
"I think one of our new approaches is really making our defense felt very much, being aggressive, maybe a little over aggressive just to be felt by the other team," he said. "I think we've responded well to it and I think it's helped us. I think just the confidence of knowing like if you're a little over aggressive, it's fine."
One of the biggest reasons the Knicks can apply that kind of defense their depth, which is exactly what Woodson utilized early in the game. In fact, in the first quarter he played 10 guys.
"It definitely helps because you always have fresh legs," Chandler said. "Coach is doing a good job of watching guys and if he sees any signs of guys letting up or getting a little fatigued, he's changing it up."
While Chandler was surprised and saddened to see Mike D'Antoni step down on Wednesday, he knows that change is sometimes good for a team. And so far, there's no doubting after two games, both wins, where the change is mostly coming from and having a major impact on the Knicks: in the first quarter.
"Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something dramatic to open up guys' eyes," he said. "And I think guys now are responding to everything that has happened. Now we're trying to make a positive out of negative."
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