Mike Woodson will wake up on Sunday morning with plenty of reasons to smile.
His team is 16 games over .500. They're four games ahead of Brooklyn in the Atlantic Division and 1 1/2 games behind Miami in the East.
Woodson's Knicks have one of the top offenses in the NBA and one of the league's strongest benches.
All reasons for the coach to be optimistic about the future.
But there's an underlying issue that's been gnawing at Woodson for weeks: the Knicks haven't played defense with any consistency since late November.
The Knicks' defensive struggles continued on Friday, when New York allowed the Timberwolves to shoot 47 percent from the floor and had to comeback from 11 down in the fourth quarter.
After the game, Woodson talked about the Knicks' 'slippage' on defense, particularly against the pick and roll, which has been a common theme of late.
John Wall torched the Knicks on pick-and-roll plays in the Wizards' win over New York on Wednesday. The Bucks and Magic backcourt scored at will against the Knicks in the first half of recent home games. And Jeff Teague (27 points) and Jrue Holiday (35 points) had big scoring nights against New York, thanks to pick-and-roll success.
"When you're playing quick point guards like that you have to stick to the game plan and if the game plan doesn't work, then you have to make adjustments," Tyson Chandler said last week. "We had problems in accomplishing either."
The Knicks have relied heavily on switching against the pick-and-roll play, rather than having the player guarding the ball handler fight through the screen. This has led to favorable mismatches for the opponent. It's also forced the Knicks into defensive rotations that oftentimes have created fissures in coverage.
"We've got to stop begging for help," said Woodson, whose team has another tough test on Sunday against Chris Paul and the Clippers.
Guarding the opposing back court -- and defense, in general -- hasn't always been a problem for the Knicks.
In their 8-1 start, New York ranked fourth in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and sixth in opponents field goal percentage.
They also held guards to the lowest per-game field goal total (6.6) in the NBA and the eighth lowest field goal percentage (42.8%) in that span.
In the 39 games that have followed, the Knicks have fallen off remarkably.
In that span, New York ranks 19th in the NBA in defensive efficiency and 23rd in opponent field goal percentage.
Opposing guards have converted 46.6 percent of their field goals, the 23rd highest percentage in the league.
One factor at play is personnel.
Jason Kidd had a tough time guarding opposing point guards in Raymond Felton's absence; Felton has struggled since returning from injury. The Knicks' premier perimeter defenders (Ronnie Brewer, Iman Shumpert) haven't yet performed to expectation with Shumpert still regaining form following ACL surgery.
Another factor is the Knicks' schedule.
In their first nine games, Woodson's club faced just two of the league's stronger point guards (Tony Parker, Jrue Holiday).
To Chandler, though, the opponent is irrelevant.
If the Knicks want to make a deep playoff run, they need to commit defending on a nightly basis, the center says.
"It's never about the opponent that we're playing," Chandler said earlier this week. "It has to be about us every single game. It has to be sticking to our principles...having responsibility defensively, rebounding the ball."
That's something the Knicks didn't have a problem with earlier this season.
Can they reclaim that identity?
Stats courtesy of NBA.com
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