Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Defense driving Knicks' perfect start
By Michael Wallace ESPNNewYork.com
ORLANDO -- After improving to a league-best 5-0 start following their fifth consecutive win by double figures, the New York Knicks could point to a number of impressive streaks that are defining one of the best starts in franchise history.
But the one they're drawing the most inspiration from after Tuesday's 99-89 victory over the Orlando Magic is their stunning stretch of defensive dominance.
One clear sign that things are changing when it comes to the Knicks' establishing their identity came in a key stretch late Tuesday when Carmelo Anthony raised his voice to bark out instructions to teammates.
On the defensive end of the court, of all places.
Of all people, Carmelo Anthony has been the catalyst for the suffocating Knicks defense.
"He's been talking, and you could see in the fourth quarter," guard Jason Kidd said of Anthony's assertiveness. "He kept telling everybody we need to get another stop. 'Get another stop.' He's our leader. He's been great. He's been off the charts playing both sides of the ball."
As a result, the Knicks are playing their best ball in 20 years. Anthony scored 25 points and both Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith added 21, but it wasn't the offense that allowed New York to become the first NBA team in 25 years to open with five straight wins by 10 or more points.
Instead, it was another second-half defensive surge that has become a staple for the Knicks under coach Mike Woodson. New York, which entered the game holding opponents to a league-best average of 39.2 points in the second half, limited Orlando to only 36 after halftime.
New York is off to its best start since the 1993-94 season, when it won the first seven games and eventually made it to the NBA Finals.
The rebuilding Magic, who were without Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu because of injuries, isn't the kind of team that offers a true gauge of just how improved New York is defensively this season. But the Knicks measure themselves by their own high standards of consistency.
The second-half lockdown they applied against Orlando was similar to the efforts in earlier wins against Miami and Dallas, the past two NBA champions. On Tuesday, the Knicks scored 24 points after forcing 20 turnovers. That kind of production led Woodson to suggest his team is evolving offensively but is ahead of schedule on defense.
"I thought the third and fourth quarter, our defense came back, and we've been that way [all season]," said Woodson, whose team has held four of its five opponents under 90 points. "This is the fifth straight game we haven't allowed 40 points in the second half, [and] that just tells me our defense is right where it needs to be."
That defense is also showing up in some surprising places. Anthony spent the bulk of his night giving up nearly 40 pounds in a defensive matchup with forward Glen Davis. Anthony, who entered the game averaging a career-high 1.3 blocks on the season, finished Tuesday with a team-high eight rebounds in 43 minutes.
Anthony insists his inspired commitment to defense doesn't represent any sort of identity crisis. It's all about sacrifices.
"I don't know about it being a new Melo," Anthony said. "It's just my focus level is real high right now. I know what I want for myself and this team. It starts with me -- lead us on both ends of the floor. It's carrying over to everybody else."
He's making believers out of teammates who have seen him work to expand his game after establishing a reputation solely as a volume shooter and lethal scorer with little regard to balancing out his game on the opposite end.
"You are seeing a more mature and efficient Melo," said Smith, who also played with Anthony in Denver. "It's a great feeling. We just want to keep this going. We credit that to being mature enough on defense. We know we can score with the best of them, but our D has to be our focus. And we're not going to let up on that at all."
For now, the focus isn't as much on trying to remain the league's lone unbeaten team as it is on bringing consistent energy and effort -- even when shots aren't falling.
"It's still early, but anytime you can go on these kinds of streaks, you build character," said center Tyson Chandler, last season's league defensive player of the year. "When you're able to win games in a certain kind of way, you develop a formula that you can always come back to. Even when you hit rough patches, which every team will go through, you have tape to show what's good for you, what you need to study to try to get back to."
The tests for the Knicks get tougher from here. Their next two games are against San Antonio and Memphis, part of a stretch in which they play seven of 10 on the road.
Kidd was essentially asked Tuesday if the Knicks' hot start was a fluke or whether they have found a legitimate formula for sustained success.
"We'll find out," Kidd said. "Right now, we're just at the beginning of this journey. We'll find out. The biggest thing is we trust one another on the defensive side. When you play great team defense, it gives you a chance to win in this league."