From the start of last night's game up until Timofey Mozgov's rare 21-foot jumper with 1:04 to go in the third, the Knicks were within reach. After Mozgov's make, they were down six to the Rockets, 81-75. But from that point on all the way to 5:36 left in the fourth, the Knicks didn't make a single field goal, they only collected two offensive rebounds and they got beat down the court several times in transition. When Landry Fields finally erased their scoring drought with a bucket, the Knicks were already in too deep of a hole to make a comeback, and they ended up losing, 104-96, as the boos filled the Garden (ESPNNewYork.com). After the game in the locker room, co-captain Raymond Felton said, "We're doing a lot of things wrong, but we have to keep fighting and play smarter." Here's what needs to be corrected during the Knicks' upcoming four-game road trip, which Felton said is "really going to test us."
On offense, it all starts with the pick-and-roll between Felton and Amare Stoudemire. After last night's game, the New York Post reported that each player "met separately with Mike D'Antoni in his office well after the reporters left the arena." Hopefully they'll also be meeting with D'Antoni collectively because they need to get on the same page. There are a couple of things going on. Most importantly, and this applies for all of the Knicks' big men, they need to set harder (and timelier) screens, especially Mozgov. This will help tie up the two defenders guarding the pick-and-roll and, therefore, allow the big man to move closer to the paint and create better spacing for the point guard to make a pass that can result in an immediate basket. That's what Steve Nash was able to do in Phoenix, where Stoudemire only needed to take one dribble off a bounce pass and then dunk, or it was a direct alley-oop assist. What Nash was also able to do so well, which Felton has to work on, was attack the pick-and-roll, rather than simply go around it. That allowed Nash to keep the defense off-balanced more, and give himself an opportunity to score if he saw one. The best point guards in the league -- Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Nash -- and even a couple of the second-tier ones, like Jameer Nelson, do a masterful job of keeping their dribble alive, even after the screen is set, and they're able to patiently weave through traffic without giving the ball up too soon. Their exquisite timing and court awareness are main reasons why these guys lead the league in assists year after year. A main part of the problem with the Felton and Stoudemire pick-and-roll is that Felton is giving up the ball too soon to Stoudemire too far out on the wing, and he's having to go one-on-one against his man. Yes, Stoudemire has to become a better iso player, which he showed he can be in the first quarter last night when he exposed his mismatch with Brad Miller and scored 12 points against him (more on this in bullet No. 2). But Stoudemire thrives off the pick-and-roll, and that has to be tweaked. Speaking of which, according to a report by the New York Daily News, a Knicks' team source has reached out to the Suns to inquire about Nash's availability for a trade.
Speaking of Stoudemire going iso, while that wasn't the kind of player he was in Phoenix, he has to improve on his one-on-one moves. Stoudemire knew coming to New York that his game would have to adjust not playing with Nash. He knew that he would have to expand his offensive repertoire. And from the Knicks' front office perspective, you don't sign a player to a max-level, $100 million deal for him to be the same exact player he had been in the past. It's like in any line of work. After someone adds more experience to his resume and then is hired by a new company to be an authoritative figure, his direct boss will expect him to take on new roles and assignments. At this point, Stoudemire is still strictly a linear player. What do I mean by that? When he faces up his defender, he wants to dribble hard in one direction to the basket, leaning on his strength to help him bully his way past his defender. He's dribbling more, which he didn't do in Phoenix, because he's catching the ball further out and he's going one-on-one more often. And what's happening is he's averaging a career-high 4.1 turnovers per game. In addition to improving his dribbling, Stoudemire needs to add more finesse and craftiness to his power moves, like Dwight Howard is starting to do in Orlando, thanks to his individual work with Hakeem Olajuwon in the offseason. Something as simple as a spin move or pump fake will help Stoudemire. At this point, when he drives he prefers to finish with a soft-played runner in the lane. Last night in the fourth quarter, it was Stoudemire's turnover off his foot and his two missed runners that gave the Rockets the rebound and the fastbreak opportunity (more on this in the bullets below).
Let's talk about rebounding first. Simply put, the Knicks have to be more of a banger team on defense. Getting Ronny Turiaf back will help somewhat. While the Knicks lead the league in blocked shots (75), which is due to their added athleticism this season, they have to get more physical on the boards. The best example of this was against the Timberwolves, when Kevin Love simply outplayed Stoudemire and the other bigs off box outs. In the past two games, they've also gotten beat on the offensive glass. On the season, the Knicks are now 23rd in the league in second-chance points (11.4 per game). And the Timberwolves? Well, they're first at 20.4 per game. Want more? The Knicks are third-worst in the league in giving up points in the paint (46.8 per game).
The Knicks have to improve their basketball IQ and court awareness. Here's one situation that's happened in every game: When the other team's shot goes up, sometimes the Knicks push themselves too deep into the paint for the rebound and they're not able to get back on defense fast enough. At one point in the fourth quarter last night, right as the Rockets started going on their double-digit run, Chuck Hayes grabbed the rebound and made an extremely easy full-court pass to Kevin Martin for the uncontested layup. Here's another situation: Sometimes the Knicks get too anxious to drive right away or take the three, especially late in games when the score is close, and they either get caught turning the ball over or missing the shot. The Knicks are now fourth-worst in the league in field goal percentage (43.5%), and that's mainly due to their erractic finishes blowing leads. While they're now feeling a greater sense of urgency, having lost five in a row, they have to focus on being patient on offense and that has to start with their bread-and-butter -- the pick-and-roll.
When all is said and done, the Knicks have to play better team defense and they need to fix their scoring woes. At one point in the fourth quarter last night, Felton was on the floor with 11 points and the four other guys had two, three, four and four points. Simply put, they don't have a consistent second scorer who can take over and help put away a game, which is where the Knicks need the most help. In the Knicks' last three losses, each opponent had two dominant scorers; last night, it was the Rockets' Martin (28 points) and Luis Scola (24 points), on Friday night it was the Timberwolves' Michael Beasley (35 points) and Love (31 points) and on Wednesday night it was three Warriors players, David Lee (28 points), Stephen Curry (25 points) and Monta Ellis (22 points). What's more, the back-to-back champions, Los Angeles Lakers, have two big-game scorers in Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. This season, Stoudemire could end up being what Gasol was when he played on the Grizzlies -- a great player on a good team who needed an All-Star sideback to win a championship. During the Knicks' dismantling last night in the fourth quarter, a fan screamed, "Fire D'Antoni! Bring back David Lee!" While D'Antoni won't get fired anytime soon, acquiring a proven player to complement Stoudemire -- ahem, Carmelo Anthony -- will definitely help the Knicks in the fourth quarter and in the long run.
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