Good day! 12 hours removed the Knicks' fourth straight win and a full week into the season, this is still pretty nuts. Last night against the Mavericks, the Knicks didn't even play the near-flawless, flowing, highly defensive basketball we saw in previous games-- at least not for the whole night-- and still managed to beat a winning team by double digits.
It was heartening, in a way, to watch New York win a game in which their execution was sub-par. The way they locked down and blew the game open in the second half was impressive, but I was equally encouraged to see them survive that first half down just two. Early on, it seemed to me like the Knicks were creating (and, on the other end, denying) the opportunities to their liking, just not finishing them. Carmelo Anthony/J.R. Smith isolations and Raymond Felton feeds provided enough to keep the offense afloat, but hardly any of the set-up threes fell (Steve Novak attempts included) and, for all his success creating for others off the dribble, Felton couldn't get his own drives to drop. On the other end, it didn't feel to me like New York's defense slackened much. It just seemed like O.J. Mayo was splashing threes with hands literally in his face-- like, fingers tickling his sinuses-- Vince Carter was hitting Vince Carter shots, and the Maverick bigs were connecting from the outer regions of the paint when the Knicks ran guards off the perimeter.
And while I'm sure the Knicks made second half adjustments, I don't think there was a major change in approach beyond the heightened vigilance that follows a heavy dose of halftime beardterror. The offense got less effective, if anything, but New York tightened the defensive rotations, denied targets the ball, and, thanks to better close-outs and recoveries, sandwiched Dallas offense into the middle ranges. Sure enough, the Mavs stopped hitting jumpers and continued turning the ball over (Mayo, at least until he got in foul trouble, could be thanked for both), allowing the Knicks to take and build their lead.
And, as commenter Linsanity said in last night's thread, once New York built that lead, they hit the shots and made the stops necessary to preserve it. That's been a hallmark of the first four games. In this case, two second opportunities saved the Knicks' lead. After a 4-0 Mavs run cut the difference to four with 7:30 to go, Melo missed a driving layup only to have a series of tips find him in the left corner for a huge three. A couple possessions later, Melo rimmed out another layup, only to watch Tyson Chandler do this:
So, that was good. I hope Tyson didn't fracture his own sternum. Those two plays plus a couple Melo free throws pushed the lead to 12, which gave New York enough room to play like hot sharts for the game's final five minutes and still win by ten.
Of note before we get into individual things: 1. This was the first fast-paced game that the Knicks won. New York's been playing sub-90 possession games, but they won with a pace factor of 98.0 last night. 2. Another night of splendid ball-clutching (just nine turnovers) made up for all the points New York abandoned at the line (26-38). All those missed free throws would have ruined a team less composed in other realms. 3. This was a rough game with some hard fouls and a little jawing, but nothing fight-wise beyond this intensely cheery (or was it cheerily intense?) confrontation after Vince Carter got his shot blocked. Carter had a good point, by the way. Tyson was mouthing off, but Shy Ronnie was the one who'd made the block. Okay, some individual things:
- Carmelo Anthony worked his ass off for those 31 points. Jae Crowder and Dahntay Jones-- taking the assignment in Shawn Marion's absence-- made up for their size disadvantages and (calculated, I assume) lack of help by crowding Melo and trying to maim him on every drive. Melo got some of his points catching off screens and pushing in transition, but most of them jab-stepping, spinning, and faking his way in isolation to either score or get jumped trying. On defense, Melo's handsiness got him into foul trouble, but he did a decent enough job keeping Brandan Wright off the glass (and yeah, Melo was defending center to open the game) and came up with one of those signature swipe blocks on a Crowder drive.
- Tyson Chandler, as is sometimes the case, got in spots of trouble early for helping on guard penetration. He'd rotate to pin Mayo or Collison to the baseline, leaving a nifty hooker like Wright, Elton Brand, or Chris Kaman to score from six feet out. Chandler was able to strike more of a balance and stick those guys as the game progressed and he did a terrific job of finishing the entry feeds Felton sent his way. Big, big rebounds in the fourth quarter, too, as I mentioned above.
- Once again, Raymond Felton's most aggressive play came in the first quarter. He had five assists in the game's first seven minutes, passing out of drives and over picks to feed one Ronnie Brewer three and at least three Melo/Chandler dunks. He was getting to the rim, too, but couldn't get anything but a couple quick buckets in the third quarter to fall. And uhhhh we'll just forget that fourth quarter stint with all the missed free throws. Didn't happen.
- Ronnie Brewer hit two of four threes, bringing him to 7-13 on the season. So, uh, that continued. As usual, Brewer did a great job loitering around the rim to grab offensive rebounds (four), especially when Dallas played zone. I liked Brewer's work off the dribble, too. That's certainly not a first option, but Ronnie's smart enough to pass through defenses dumb enough to help when he drives. And yeah, he was the one who swatted Carter on that one play.
- Mike Woodson managed to get away with playing Jason Kidd just 15 minutes. Kidd gave up a couple of threes in those 15 minutes, but also threw a couple laser passes, kicked off transition with some jumped passing lanes, and managed said transition expertly (I'm thinking in particular of the time he curled away from good transition defense to find Melo trailing the play for that straight-on three). He also wiled Darren Collison into fouling him (read: baited him and sold the foul in a way that reminded me of how much I used to despise him) on a jumper and-- after a switch-- slid over to draw a charge on Mayo and send him to the bench with his fourth foul. Also, I'm pretty sure both Kidd's baskets came in the paint, didn't they?
- J.R. Smith made his boners-- he missed a few bad shots, committed a few bad fouls, and got bullied by Carter on a few plays in the second quarter-- but played a terrific, crucial game. His defense was, for the most part, terrific as he gave both Mayo and Carter trouble with those pokey fingers. He drew Mayo's third foul by knocking the ball away from him on the perimeter, then getting hooked while pursuing the loosie, and made one gorgeous defensive play in the fourth in which he forced Mayo left, then stripped the ball off his leg and out of bounds. In between, J.R. drilled a bunch of shots in isolation, got all the way to the rim once or twice, and nailed all three of his threes. It's always a bit of a struggle for J.R. to lead that second unit offense without calling his own number too often, but I thought he struck a balance, especially during his little one-man run in the third quarter.
- Oh, and Earl's straight-on three to cut the Dallas lead to 2 before the first half buzzer felt pretty important.
- Rasheed Wallace was the first big man off the bench...so, perhaps that's a thing now. Sheed's help defense was typically solid and six defensive rebounds in 18 minutes is excellent, but I thought he held onto the ball and settled for jumpers a little too often. Gotta join in on that extra passin' magic, Sheed.
- Sheed suffered a pretty viscous posterization from the hands of Brandan Wright, too.
- Marcus Camby was the other big off the bench, and he also rebounded very efficiently (four in eight minutes). Didn't do much else that I noticed.
- A major reason the second unit struggled at the beginning of the second quarter was Steve Novak's sudden inability to hit threes (and that was juxtaposed with Mayo hitting everything). They weren't the best of looks, but it still made me dizzy and disoriented to see Novak strike rim that often. One time I stood up because I thought a Novak three was definitely going in, then it missed and I fell down and threw up and stepped on my own ear. He hit a three in the second half, but made things even weirder by drilling a pull-up twelve footer off the dribble.
- It should also be noted that we were centimeters away from witnessing something profoundly alien. Novak cut baseline with nobody around him, caught a pass on the move, then gathered for...a dunk? A layup? A form jumper from six inches away? We'll never know, because he stepped on the baseline. I swear he did it on purpose just to tease us.
- Pablo Prigioni just played poorly. Too reluctant to shoot, unable to facilitate much offense on the move...
- ...and I think part of the reason for that was he didn't have Kurt Thomas to work with. I know there are only so many minutes to be distributed, but I loved what I saw from the Kurt-Pablo pick-and-roll in Monday's game and wish we could've seen more of that last night. Kurt didn't spin at all.
- Check out this shooting chart from the first half. They were down 2 after all that.
- I really don't know what happened in those last five minutes. Everyone just started fouling each other and taking horrible shots. I genuinely feared a fight of some sort, but all we got a few minutes of ugly play while Mike Breen commended Walt Frazier for having excellent signature penmanship. (I can actually attest to that. I got his autograph when I was 8 and it is, indeed, very legible.)
New York doesn't play again until Tuesday, which is bizarre but will allow me to milk this win for all it's worth. I'm thrilled to have seen the Knicks win a game without shooting well and without playing at an exceedingly slow pace. Despite a rough start and bad shooting they beat (what appears to be) a good team convincingly with superb defense and a massive discrepancy in turnovers (9 to 20). Sustainable practices such as those can save the Knicks when a more capricious entity like shooting betrays them. In a way, last night's win was the best of the four.
That next game'll be against the Magic, which could mean another easy victory or, if there's a letdown, a pretty massive crash after these first four games. Until then, the Knicks remain undefeated. Still feels pretty weird.