The Knicks throttled the defending champs on Friday night. 'Twas a fine season opener.
The Heat owned the Knicks last season. They swept New York mercilessly in three regular season games, then granted them just one playoff win (aka MILPCAT/4) in their stampede to the championship. Even during the stretches in which New York hung with Miami, their success felt precarious, and it'd prove to be just that when, say, Bill Walker stopped drilling fade-away threes or the Heat reeled off a dozen straight fast break points in a matter of moments. So, like Tomahawk Stomp said in last night's wonderful game thread, it would have been impossible for our 2011-2012 selves to conceive of the Knicks dominating the Heat the way they did last night. In this season opener, we regularly witnessed things-- evasion of ball pressure, transition containment, command of the defensive glass-- that happened only in spurts and seemingly by accident against Miami last season. The Knicks played slowly and deliberately, stuck (mostly) to a consistent game plan, and, once they'd built a big lead, barely let the Heat gain ground.
Said differently: HOLY SHEEP BOSOMS THE KNICKS BEAT THE HEAT BY 20 ON OPENING NIGHT. Let's go over some notes.
- Thumbs down for the pregame intro with behoodied Knicks bounding around a "playground" court doing cool "basketball moves" and making meanfaces.
- Thumbs up for Carmelo Anthony's pre-game address to the crowd and the post-hurricane city in general, which seemed unplanned and genuine.
- Thumbs in my earholes for any and all Swizz Beatz contributions.
- I say "Carmelo" Anthony, but I really mean Melo Anthony, because what Mike Walczewski has decided to call him this season. Melo says it wasn't his idea and he'd rather just be called "Melo". I am on board with this. If you're gonna do it, do it whole-assed. It might as well say "Melo" on the back of his jersey, too.
- There were two actions (to my eye) central to New York's first unit possessions. The staple was a simple 1-5 pick-and-roll between Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler, often with Chandler slipping the screen. Often, the pick-and-roll was preceded by something a little less familiar. Tyson Chandler possessed the ball early and often, pivoting at the elbow while Felton scurried in a loop below the rim and back around to receive a hand-off. THEN they'd get to picking and rolling or Ray would find himself open for a jumper. I need to see more of this, but it seemed like a nice wrinkle to agitate the defense a bit and muddle the subsequent pick-and-roll coverage. That only works so well against a team like the Heat-- Felton rarely had lanes to the rim, for instance-- but it's potentially much deadlier than a rote pick-and-roll.
- In nearly all the above instances, Melo played decoy, or at least worked off the ball. Very early on, he got his shots off the catch, either curling away from the rim off Chandler pin-downs or simply stalking at the elbow, lying in wait for kick-outs. He missed his first few jumpers this way, but quickly caught fire. His early buckets came off prompt, decisive, assisted shots. By the end of the quarter, though, Melo was just cookin' soup. He drilled a series of pull-up jumpers (including a couple of the spastic, foul-baiting, nipple-high-release, zero-follow-through threes I despise) to end the quarter, finishing the period with 16 points on ten shots (four threes).
- The soup turned a bit sour (Is that what soups do, or is that just a milk word?) midway through the second. Early in that quarter, the Heat tried to check Melo with Rashard Lewis, which was a terrible fucking idea that got hastily aborted. After that (and after some non-calls in the paint) Melo ceased driving to the basket and resorted to a few of those unseemly pull-ups and nipple shots, none of which fell. He'd either pull way too quickly on the run or fire after dribbling a crater into the floor. Melo's allowed a few heat checks after that kind of first quarter, but this was not a fun stretch.
- Melo's second half was a healthy mix of both the above bullets. He chucked on occasion, but made a few quick shots off the catch and drew contact off the dribble as well. It wasn't the most efficient offensive game ever, but it was solid and any transgressions can be forgiven after a first quarter like that one. Meanwhile, what really stood out was Melo's near-uniform shit-giving on defense. He defended like he gave a shit. Early, he was assigned to Shane Battier and hardly had to do anything but fight for rebounds (which he did. Finished with ten). Later, he switched on to LeBron James and the two took turns bludgeoning each other about the heads without anyone blowing a whistle. That was fun.
- Melo also did a consistently good job of passing out of double teams. A lot of New York's open threes off the catch could be traced back to a timely Melo bail-out. This has been far too many points about one man, but I thought he played a pretty great game that looked better on the court than it does in the boxscore (and don't forget all those inside looks that rolled off the rim or got blocked). We'll move on.
- I was far happier with the dual point guard lineup (Felton-Kidd, that is) than I thought I'd be. Felton had a quiet game and didn't get to the rim as often as he might against weaker teams (I can remember two lay-ins, one in transition and one of Ray's signature righty finishes over a big man left of the rim), but he shot a solid three of seven from downtown and did a brilliant job of of dissolving Miami's early traps. He punched right through double teams, then kept dazzling control of the ball (that one zig-zaggy drive stands out) as he boogied into the paint. His kick-outs off the dribble were every bit as useful as Melo's passes out of doubles in terms of spurring rapid perimeter ball movement and open looks.
- Well, Felton wasn't totally in control. He booted a couple dribbles and passed the ball away once or twice.
- When playing point guard, neither Jason Kidd nor Pablo Prigioni had Felton's success bisecting those traps (which is understandable. They have neither the horsepower nor the handling nor the, uh, towing capacity that Felton has at this point). I had a few harrowing flashbacks to last year's playoff series when I saw Pablo cornered by a mob of stifling Heats, his back turned blind to the two Knicks wide open on the weak side of the floor. Still, even without busting those traps, Pablo and Kidd mostly managed to survive them without turning the ball over, and they each showed the poise to retreat and either reset or throw long cross-court passes to engage that weak side.
- After getting steadily overshadowed by Prigioni during the preseason, Kidd really looked terrific. It's amazing how much he can do from the perimeter. That kind of accuracy (3-5) on catch-and-shoot threes makes such a huge difference, and some of those skip and entry passes took avenues nobody else detected. I'm equally amazed at Kidd's aversion to the paint. Like, I knew he'd pretty much given up driving, but it's really astounding to watch closely for a full game. The moment he steps below the free throw line, he pretty much loses muscle tone, forgets his own name, and succumbs to crippling fear of his own mortality. I expect to see him pump fake and pass up a free throw this season. (But seriously, great game. The threes were great, the passes were great, the defense on Dwyane Wade was adequate, the snaggling of telegraphed passes was nice, and that drawn foul while shooting a three was crucial).
- It should also be noted that Kidd's first two plays as a Knick were tipping the ball into the wrong basket and whipping a pass off Melo's cheek. Face cheek, but still.
- Pablo didn't play poorly, but he didn't take care of the ball as well as I expected and his defensive gambles didn't pay off. He did, however, get the assist on my favorite play of the game. J.R. Smith and Kurt Thomas ran a corner pick-and-pop. Thomas pump faked through a close-out, then hit Pablo knifing up the middle. Pablo caught the ball on the move and, in one motion, relayed it to Steve Novak in the opposite corner for a huge three.
- Novak was brilliant. Not much to it. He didn't have to move-- on or off the ball-- that much to get his looks, which speaks to New York's excellent ball movement (he did shake Ray Allen with a pump fake once, which was awesome). After a quiet first half, the Knicks did a better job finding him and he hit a whole mess o' huge threes off the catch. Defensively, I didn't see much that stood out, but he did put in a few tough possessions (and one good, hard foul) on LeBron James.
- Kurt Thomas boxed out and shoved folks, and he did a fantastic job of it.
- We got the full J.R. Smith experience. On one hand, expended a few too many possessions with straight-on jumpers off the dribble. On the other hand, he anchored the second unit for long stretches by taking that dribble into the paint and either kicking to the perimeter or drawing contact. On the other other hand, he committed a couple dumb, unnecessary fouls. On the other other other hand, he blanketed Dwyane Wade with remarkable aplomb and stripped him clean of the ball on multiple occasions. Got LeBron a few times, too. He and Melo loves those match-ups, and I just so very badly want to see them keep defending that ferociously when it's, like, John Salmons holding the ball. I don't even know what team John Salmons is on right now.
- Ronnie Brewer defended James on a bunch of possessions. When LeBron got moving, Brewer didn't have a prayer of keeping him. Ronnie did a pretty good job, though, of giving him a step and funneling (as best as one can funnel a 250-pound man-missile) him toward help. On offense, Brewer ran the floor expertly and cut toward the rim at every opportunity. He bungled some of his gathers near the rim-- it's like he loses count of his legs, not unlike Iman Shumpert early last season-- which resulted in some missed bunnies, but he finished a few as well. It's just fun to watch Brewer run around, really. He's got a generally goofy gait.
- Tyson Chandler did his Tyson things. He played so thoroughly Tysonly that I nearly forgot about him. The picks and passing from the elbow were Tyson, the activity on the offensive glass was Tyson, the diligent goalkeeping against Heat penetration was Tyson, and the finishes whenever the ball came his way (5-5!) were Tyson. Chandler really got to cover the whole paint because, I thought, the Heat didn't go to Chris Bosh nearly as much as often as they should have.
- The RA-SHEED WAL-LACE chants, followed by Mike Woodson's surprisingly immediate response, followed by the three Rasheed Wallace hit off the pump fake just made my evening. Cockle-warming in every regard. I love that he embraced that role (though I suspect he'll earn a slightly greater one as time goes on).
- Interesting lineup choices: A Felton-Prigioni-Smith-Melo-Thomas group in the first half and a Felton-Kidd-Smith-Novak-Melo (at the five!) unit in the mid-fourth quarter.
- The rare defensive lapses could be classified in the following ways, I think: 1. Timid pick-and-roll coverage with James handling the ball, leaving him a lane to drive. 2. Over-attention to Wade or James, leaving lanes for backdoor cuts and offensive rebounds. 3. Failure to stick Rashard Lewis all the way out to the perimeter.
- This has already been said a lot, but: Yes, shooting lights out from downtown and...lights-on(?) from inside the arc isn't necessarily sustainable. Like I said last night, though, the threes were of the finest quality and truest origin, and fucking nobody scores in the paint against the Heat. This team will fall in love with the three sometimes and it'll punish them sometimes, but the "YEAH WHATEVER THEY GOT HOT THAT'S UNSUSTAINABLE" responses to last night's offense get a vigorous hand-wank gesture response from this guy.
- Stats I love: 21 takeaways to just 12 turnovers and just 13 free throw attempts for Miami. All of that spells discipline.
- Odd that only occurred to me last night that Clyde pronounces "center" as "sinner", as in "there are no sinners over here in the East!".
- On that note, Spero Dedes is growing on me. I would've loved a Mike Breen "BANG!" or two (no fucking way I'm watching ESPN when MSG's got the game), but Spero called the game soundly, I thought.
And that's the recap. Sorry for taking so long (and for typing way too many words). I'll have another post up later with some other odds and ends from the game, then we'll move on the 76ers. Great night, everybody. I hope you're all enjoying your Saturdays.