D'Antoni for the moment has seemed to channel his inner Coughlin and has found a way to survive questions about his job status. D'Antoni finds himself a coach with a talented roster and the necessary pieces to make a run for the title now. As my neighbor the Heat fan told me yesterday, "The Knicks are the only team in the East that scares me, if your coach can put what he has together, my Heat team could be in for a real fight come playoff time." Here is how D'Antoni can put it together:
1. Keep defense at the forefront: Half way through the season and we need to give it up. The Knicks can play defense! The team is 12th in overall points allowed and because of their pace the Knicks rank 6th is overall defensive efficiency. That is right the Knicks have a top 10 defense and that hasn't happened since before Van Gundy left town. Well the media and fans are going to be looking at the offense now that Melo is back, Lin has become an international star, and the Knicks signed JR Smith and Baron Davis has gotten out of traction. But D'Antoni needs to leave that to the fans and media to ponder, he needs to make sure this team keeps up the performance on the defensive end consistently and if possible improves it. This has to be the case even if all he does is turn to Woodson and says "keep doing what you are doing only do it better if you can." As long as the players buy into the offense and strive to properly execute what D'Antoni draws up, time and cohesion will get the offense to start clicking on all cylinders. Defense will allow the Knicks to keep winning games, a clicking offense will allow the Knicks to blow people out.
2. Be smart with Lin: D'Antoni needs to be careful with how he handles Lin. He needs to get Lin to dial back his shot attempts without diminishing his aggressiveness. Lin is successful in the offense because he is aggressive, but with the offensive talent the Knicks have on the roster around him, he cannot continue to lead the team in shot attempts game in and out. It is time for Lin to focus on being more of a distributor instead of a primary scorer. However, Lin is a scorer and that is a big part of his game, so he still should probably look to shoot about 14-15 times a game but his days of 20+ shot attempts needs to be the exception not the rule from here on out.
In addition, D'Antoni needs to go a little deeper in his play book to get the most out of his talent offensively.. However, making the offense more complex, puts more pressure on Lin to make the right reads. D'Antoni kept things pretty basic, when Amare and Carmelo were out, and thus Lin's reads in the offense were basic. Lin looks like a pretty smart cookie though so I am sure he can handle the increased load, but D'Antoni needs to make sure that he is not going at too fast a pace for the kid. Remember Lin in terms of experience is still basically a rookie.
3. D'Antoni needs to fix one of his stars, no not that one, the other one: While daily handwringing about Amare Stoudemire has become common place every where one looks in Knicks land. Amare for all his challenges is actually having a good season and is not the problem. The compressed schedule does not give Amare the recovery time he needs to perform at his peak athletic performance. Still he is averaging 18 pts a game and has managed to keep his rebounding rate at his customary 8 per game. There is nothing that can be done about the lack of recovery time until the playoffs. Even so his production is enough for the Knicks to be successful if the other star plays like a star. Hence D'Antoni's major challenge is to get Carmelo to play better. A large part of the Knicks problems stem from the fact that Carmelo Anthony is not really having a good season. While his pts, rebounds and assists per game are all decent when taken by themselves, Anthony has been extremely inefficient (even by the standards of his harshest critics) and thus ineffective. Much has been made of Anthony not disrupting the offensive flow established since Lin has taken over the point, but more than just playing in the offense Carmelo needs to thrive in it, if the Knicks are to make a run in the conference standings the second half of the season and go deep in the playoffs. D'Antoni needs to fix Melo not Amare.
4. D'Antoni needs to use his role players well: This is not just about having guys in the rotation, D'Antoni has already said that everybody who has been playing of late is in all year barring injuries. He even indicated that Harrellson who could be back for the first game after the Allstar break played well enough before he got hurt that he will have to find minutes for him as well. But he also indicated that how he mixes the guys on the floor and divides up the minutes is going to be a challenge. It may not seem like a big deal if Novak plays 15 minutes and JR Smith 25, but if that happens on a day when maybe those numbers should be reversed it could cost the Knicks a game. So D'Antoni is going to have to guess right about who to play, when and for how long consistently to get the most out of his guys from game to game.
The Knicks can make a run in the second half of the season. Several teams like Philly, Indiana, and Atlanta for example all have seem to come back to the pack after fast starts this season. The Knicks as of today are only 5 games out of the 3rd seed in the East with 33 games to play. That is enough time to make up that ground. So it is doable to get a high seed and if they do, they will be playing well enough that it is not impossible that they could win a match up with either Chicago or Miami on paper they have the firepower, D'Antoni's challenge is to make paper a reality.