NEW YORK -- Let's face it: The Heat's defense has been really good against the Knicks. It's started with LeBron James guarding Carmelo Anthony, wearing him down with his bigger frame and forcing him into tough shots; it's extended to their traps, intercepting passes and capitalizing in transition; and it's finished with their rotations, closing out on 3-point shooters and giving them no room to release the ball.
But the Heat have run over the Knicks' offense too much like they're facing a true seventh seed. However, the Knicks entered the playoffs having won 18 of their last 24 games from March 14 to April 26 under Mike Woodson, averaging just a shade under 100 points per game (11th-best during that span), while holding opponents to 91.5 points per game (fourth-best). The Knicks were getting it done on both sides of the ball, playing like a third seed and beating four of the better teams in the Eastern Conference (the Celtics, Hawks, Bulls with Derrick Rose and Magic with Dwight Howard).
But in the series so far, the Knicks have had significant drop-offs defending and scoring. But the bigger issue is offensively. In fact, in Game 3, they shot 31.9 percent, which set a franchise record for brick laying.
The most puzzling part is that they're not really making adjustments mid-game and game to game. During timeouts, Woodson can be heard saying, "We've got to get a bucket here and then we've got to get a stop. And then we've got to keep scoring and getting stops." But how about showing them how to do it? As a result, after Games 1 and 3, Woodson said the same thing: the ball stayed on one side of the court too much.
"Offensively, we just didn't have it," he said after Game 3. "We are so stagnant. I've got to take the heat for that. I thought in Game 2 we moved the ball from side to side and tonight we just played one side of the floor all night long, which is ridiculous."
Addressing reporters at his locker after the game, J.R. Smith reiterated what his coach saw.
"We keep going strong side, strong side, strong side," he said. "We've got to play on the weakside."
Smith then summed it up in two words: "Bad offense."
He said the Knicks have the talent to make noise in the playoffs, but he hinted that there's been too much of a focus on defense, which has been Woodson's MO since taking over the team. But offense? It doesn't appear that Woodson is really coaching that department. The Knicks' offense has looked like one featuring a bunch of guys who just formed a pickup team.
"A lot of times we come in here and talk about our defense. We've got to play defense, we've got to play defense," Smith said. "Tonight, we played good defense. We just started taking bad shots, we got in a bad rhythm and it led to [the Heat] on their offense, scoring in transition and getting open shots. We've got to do a better job of moving the ball. No turnovers, take good shots. We can't just swing it, swing it, swing it and wait until the end of the shot clock and expect to get a good shot. I mean, today we definitely beat ourselves."
The problem is: the Knicks are coming in with basically the same simple game plan: work the ball through Anthony and see what happens. But there hasn't been enough emphasis on audible playcalling in their halfcourt offense, changing up schemes to throw off the Heat. Creativity has never been Woodson's forte; traditional basketball is.
The Knicks are playing too predictable and the Heat have been sticking on secondary scorers Smith and Steve Novak like glue. The Heat's defense has controlled the Knicks and hasn't allowed them to take easy shots in the flow of their offense.
"You can take bad shots in the regular season and still be in the game," Smith said, "but in the playoffs you've got to take good shots, you've got to penetrate and kick, get to the free throw line, which we're not doing also. We definitely settled and took what the defense gave us. We've just got to come back Sunday and be ready."
The Knicks could actually benefit right now from having Mike D'Antoni as their offensive assistant, as Woodson was their defensive assistant before he became interim head coach. Just hear Anthony explain it.
"It seems like we can’t score the ball right now," he said. "That’s the toughest part right now. Tonight, we played phenomenal defense for most of the game. [LeBron] came on in that fourth quarter and hit a couple shots in a row. It just seemed like that kind of opened the game up. No body was able to score the basketball. Both teams was playing great defense. D-Wade hit shots, consecutive shots in a row. LeBron came in with fresh legs, hit a couple shots and it seemed like they just opened the door from there."
To be somewhat fair to coach Woodson, he's had to coach a banged-up roster for most of his short tenure, and Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire haven't really been in the lineup. He's done a nice job with the cards he's been dealt, considering it's been hard to develop continuity.
But has Woodson done enough offensively to remain competitive in the series? In fact, in his last seven playoff games, with the Hawks and Knicks, he's 0-7 and his teams have been outscored 559 to 720. The average margin of defeat? 23 points.
During the regular season, Woodson had to get them to play hard and play D so they'd secure a playoff seed, but the offense has seemed to take a backseat, where it's become too much freelance and hope-that-something-happens basketball. That's sure how it's looked on the court, but he has another game to at least show he can change some things up.
If Woodson officially becomes head coach in the offseason, he's definitely going to have to work with Anthony to encourage him to be a more willing passer. When Woodson coached the Hawks from 2006 to 2010 with Joe Johnson, his star player understood that aspect. While Woodson ran what became known to insiders around the league as the "iso Joe offense," Johnson knew how to facilitate team offense through passing.
Melo certainly has the ability to dish, even going to back when he won the NCAA championship at Syracuse in 2003, but he's shied away from that part of his game in the NBA. His agenda is to score. Overall, willing passers and defenders are hard to come by in the league, and if he can learn to do both of those things consistently, and sacrifice some shots in the process, he'll become a better teammate and playoff contender. Currently, his 32.0 winning percentage is the worst individual record in playoff history with a minimum of 50 games.
Heading into the offseason, the working relationship between Woodson and Anthony -- coach and star player -- is something that will be front and center on GM Glen Grunwald's evaluation report to see what the Knicks need. Of course, Anthony isn't going anywhere, so it comes down to this: Can Woody work with Melo full-time where he buys more into the team system, or will that be Phil Jackson, who knew how to do it with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Melo, after all, is a superstar talent.
If not Jackson, one veteran NBA scout said out of the sideline bosses available, Alvin Gentry, Scott Skiles, Keith Smart and Monty Williams would be great candidates for the Knicks because they hold team offense and defense to the same standard, and orchestrate great sets pregame and out of timeouts. And the scout called them "player coaches" who would quickly earn the respect from his staff and personnel.
Of course, the Knicks face a pressing list of important long-term questions. The ongoing ones have included: Will Anthony and Stoudemire ever really be able to co-exist, or will a trade be necessary? Will Lin, Smith and 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 Tyson Chandler?
But the biggest question is: Who will coach the team next season? That's where it all starts.
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