The vision was for Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire to finally play well together and lead the Knicks' offense. But a knee injury sidelined Stoudemire before the season even began, forcing Mike Woodson to rethink the starting five.
What he instituted -- a point guard-oriented backcourt and a frontcourt with Anthony at power forward -- not only sparked the Knicks to an 18-5 start, it also led them to their first 50-win season since 1999-2000.
The smaller lineups enabled the Knicks to become the most dangerous 3-point shooting team in the NBA. They broke the single-season record for most 3s -- they currently have 882 -- and during their recent 15-1 stretch, they shot 40.9 percent from downtown.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose defensive-focused team lost to New York on Sunday, said some Knicks opponents have shuffled their lineups to match up smaller, which takes them away from their defensive identity. That gives the Knicks an advantage.
"It's hard to play [against] five 3-point shooters at the same time," Vogel said. "It's a very, very challenging style of play to guard against."
Most of the Knicks' offensive success stems from Anthony's move from small forward to power forward. When Anthony isn't shooting 3-pointers himself, he can post up and kick out to J.R. Smith, Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Steve Novak, Iman Shumpert or Chris Copeland.
"The move that changed their fortunes around was starting [Anthony] at the 4 and surrounding him with 3-point shooting, which has given him more room to operate," said Jeff Van Gundy, an ESPN analyst and former Knicks coach. "When that second defender does commit to him, there's enough shooting on the floor."
But can the Knicks' heavy reliance on 3-pointers lead them to a deep playoff run?
Teams with an All-NBA post-up player, like Melo, and a supporting cast of 3-point shooters have done well in the postseason. The Rockets won consecutive championships in 1994-95 with Hakeem Olajuwon working the paint and Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, Mario Elie, Sam Cassell, Clyde Drexler and Vernon Maxwell hitting big outside shots.
"If they didn't double, we would take advantage of the post-ups and score almost every time," said Drexler, who joined Houston for the 1995 title run in a trade that sent Maxwell and Otis Thorpe to Portland. "It was a question of the other teams picking their poison because we were a great 3-point-shooting team."
The biggest setback with a 3-point-friendly team is the offense becoming too standstill. But the Knicks have been moving the ball, thanks to seasoned point guards Pablo Prigioni, Felton and Kidd; there's creative schemes for screening and weakside movement; and Anthony and Smith are attacking more and passing well out of double-teams. Vogel hasn't seen complacency creep in.
"I don't think they're falling into it because they have two elite scorers right now," he said. "If you don't play them the right way, they burn you from the 3-point line."
The Knicks could improve with the playoff return of Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, who are strong screeners and pick-and-roll threats. They would also boost the team's offensive spacing and interior defense, leading to more 3-pointers.
"When a big guy can rebound and start some transition buckets, those transition 3s are back-breakers in the playoffs," Drexler said. "It's going to be tough to contain that crew."
Looking ahead, the biggest keys for the Knicks are going to be Chandler and Martin staying healthy, Smith and Felton penetrating, and overall execution in half-court sets during lower-scoring playoff games. Those factors will assist Anthony's scoring and the team's 3-point shooting, which has usually consisted of about 35 percent of their offense.
"It's the most highly volatile shot, so it makes you vulnerable to being beaten by a lower seed," Van Gundy said. "But it also gives you the ability to beat a higher seed."
That's how the Knicks cooled the Heat three times this season, and they'd be counting on those 3s in a potential Eastern Conference finals matchup.
"If they can shoot how they normally shoot," a veteran NBA scout said, "they're going to give Miami hell."
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