Offensive clarity and defensive passion thicken this week's plot

Tuesday, March 20th -- VS Toronto

Wednesday, March 21st -- @ Philadelphia

Friday, March 23rd -- @ Toronto

Saturday, March 24th -- VS Detroit

I fully understand no one will care about this story. Anyway, when I was an undergraduate, I played intramural basketball with the same group of guys three out of the four years I participated. A couple of kids on my team had played in high school and were pretty competent players, a few of us had never played in an organized league but loved basketball and tried really hard, and then there was Ray Fray. Ray transferred from a different school after his first semester as a freshman, and he is one of the less athletic looking people I know. He is really handy with computers, listens to a ton of "Rush," and is part of a running joke that his ass is actually concave. To be inclusive, both because we were nice guys and because he was a new kid, we asked Ray if he wanted to be on our team and he said "sure, I love basketball." We signed Ray up.

In the first five minutes of the first intramural game we played, Ray Fray went five of six from behind the arc to put us ahead something like 25-6. Ray told us later that he led his high school conference in three pointers made as a senior, and so no, this shooting was not a fluke. From that point on, we all decided to play really annoying zone defense and let Ray shoot whenever he wanted to (we pretty much all shot whenever, but that's not the point). The play I ran with Ray more than any other was simple: he would go to the corner and I would stand on his wing. Then, I would take a couple of steps forward, set a screen on his guy as he ran up to replace my spot on the wing, and he would get a pass from the point guard and shoot an open wing three. It is a stupid little play that is the equivalent of living and/or dying by the three ball, but because he was such a good shooter and because we played cohesive defense most of the time, it was a viable offense when we really needed points.

In a very roundabout way, this story represents both Steve Novak, as well as his emergence as the true first option of the Knicks second unit.

For the past three to four years, it has been convenient to say that the Knicks were trying to play basketball without an identity. This had been particularly true of their bench, which has been a weakness since I can remember being a Knicks fan. However, the emergence of Jeremy Lin coupled with the acquisition of Baron Davis gave the Knicks two point guards perfect for the PG/C pick and roll. Lin runs a steady stream of screen and rolls with Chandler, while Baron Davis uses screens from Jared Jeffries to break down the defense. I want to focus on the Davis/Jeffries variation which is surrounded by the exact type of personnel that sets it up for success: J.R. Smith and particularly Steve Novak. Because the Knicks now have specialists at varying offensive roles rather than duplicate parts being pressured to create, their bench unit is actually predictable in a good way.

The best case possession for this second unit is for Davis to run a screen and roll with Jeffries, use his crafty ball skills and generally high-level decision making to hit Jeffries on the dive, and for Jeffries to lay the ball in. After all, the dunk / open lay-up is the best shot in the game, even if Jared Jeffries is attempting it. If the defense is drawn in to help on the pick and roll, Davis has the option of kicking the ball out to one of two dead-eye shooters, Novak or Smith, to either drain the open three or kick the rock back up to Shumpert, whose strength is penetration and who should have some room to do just that. If the offense breaks down, they can either rinse and repeat or set up a simple screen play for Ray Fray Novak.

The caveat to this offense is that it doesn't work if the shooters are not hitting shots. When this is the case, the defense will just sag and dare the shooters to let 'em fly. Enter Novak, who has joined the ranks of Ray Allen, Mike Miller and J.J. Redick in the land of Ohmygodneverleavethatmanopen. With him and his preposterous 48% three point shooting posted in the corner or on the wing (and his defender sticking him like fly paper paper), it gives Davis enough room to ziggle zaggle between defenders and to find a way to create havoc. J.R. Smith deviates most often from this plan to isolate and hoist midrange fadeaways, but for the most part the Knicks have found a simple but effective offensive formula for their second unit.

When you throw in the facts that Jeffries is one of the more gifted help defenders in the league today, Shumpert is turning into the Diddy Kong version of Ron Artest, Novak is outperforming his expectations defensively, and both Davis and Smith seem to be engaged on that end: the second unit looks a lot like my former intramural team.

Normally this is the section I would provide a bunch of statistics proving that the bench has been killing it lately, but the Knicks haven't had a game without garbage time in a week, so everything would be skewed. The important thing to keep within your cognizance, however, is that while Coach Pinocchio, Jeremy Lin, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire have occupied the headlines, the Knicks have developed a bench that should be able to run with Toronto and Detroit's first units. Davis's injury makes it difficult to tell what the coach's preference will be in games sans-Boom, whether Bibby will replace him or Harrellson will get more burn with Shumpert handling the ball, but when this unit is healthy it is a winner.

The Knicks, since I remember, have never had one of "those benches." I mean a bench like Phoenix's from a few years ago, or like Dallas's second unit, or an intimidating X-factor like Chicago's bench. The Knicks have always trotted out a general "ball-handler" and some wing players and hoped one of them popped off or the ballhandler had his stroke that night. Now, the Knicks seem to be developing one of "those benches," one that I would argue is headlined by Steve Novak.

Now on to specific teams for this week.

Toronto Raptors

Hey! Last time I saw you's guys was when you's was gettin' beat at that buzzer type thing! A few important things about the Raptors:

- The last time the Raptors and Knicks met in Toronto, Jeremy Lin was unceremoniously lit aflame by Jose Calderon. It looked for awhile to be the game during which Lin smashed back to earth, but luckily Shumpert switched onto Calderon after halftime and absolutely shut him down. Lately, Calderon has been hurt with an ankle injury, so Jerryd Bayless has been starting in his place. Bayless has made the most of his minutes and has put up Linsanity-type numbers: his last three games include two games of 28+ points and two games of 9+ assists.

- Although Calderon is expected to play tonight, for the past two games Toronto has been operating with no more than two healthy guards on its entire roster. Go ahead, peep their depth chart. I mean, even when Calderon is healthy they only have three. Astonishing.

- It will be interesting to see what Mike Woodson does defensively with Bayless, DeRozan and Calderon. Shumpert has already shown the ability to lock down that Jose man, but with Bayless on a tear it wouldn't surprise me to see Shumpert on him for much of the game. If Baron Davis plays, things only get more interesting.

- This will be the fifth and final game of a lengthy road trip for Toronto on which they beat decent teams Cleveland and Memphis and lost to horrible squads New Jersey and Charlotte(!).

- Ed Davis seems like a pretty good bet to be "that guy," no?

Philadelphia 76ers

- You remember these guys as that excellent defensive team that has gotten worse offensively as the year has progressed, that team who never turns the ball over, that team who dominates the defensive glass but can't buy an offensive rebound. If you look at the big picture, Philadelphia is the standard opponent. They don't make mistakes but don't overwhelm you offensively either, while challenging you defensively every single possession.

- Largely due to the fact that this game will be on ESPN, expect this angle: "The Sixers lead the Atlantic Division, but the Knicks have been playing with more passion lately and it's fair to ask which is actually the better team."

- Evan Turner eviscerated the Knicks a week and a half ago to the tune of 24 and 15.

- I am intensely excited to watch Carmelo Anthony vs. Andre Iguodala. With the spotlight securely fastened to his defense, Carmelo Anthony will have his hands full. I would equate Iguodala's defense as roughly the same level as Anthony's offense, so I think the onus will be on Anthony to play defense well enough to neutralize Iggy's O. Anthony has shown the defensive gusto lately to make this match-up feisty as hell, and I'm hoping both players take it as a personal challenge.

- I want to think of more things to say about the Sixers, but I think we all know a decent amount by now. If Davis is healthy, this game will be a barometer.

Detroit Pistons

- Charlie Villanueva

- Ben Gordon

- $19 million

- The Pistons have by my count one excellent player, a couple good ones, a rookie or two, and a whole slew of complete scrubs. I think a good comparison for Detroit's current set-up is the Toronto Raptors a couple of years ago when it was essentially Chris Bosh and a bunch of assholes trying not to screw up too badly.

- Detroit is 27th in offensive efficiency and 26th in defensive efficiency, yet they are the 24th best team in the NBA. What does this tell you? They are a team full of winners!

- Both the Knicks and Pistons will be on the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday. The Knicks play the Toronto Raptors the night before. The Pistons play the Heat the night before. Somehow, that feels relevant, huh?

- The last time a Piston not named Greg Monroe or Rodney Stuckey led all scorers in a game was February 10th (Jonas Jerebko) against the Nets. This supporting cast really sucks, y'alls.

- Detroit is horrible at blocking shots (dead last in the NBA, 3.9 a game), which may benefit Amar'e Stoudemire more than anyone. Amar'e has gotten his shot blocked seemingly five times a game since he returned from his leave of absence, so the lack of intimidation in the lane could facilitate his path to get back on track.

- I've been looking for something positive to say about Detroit, and here it is: They are second to last in the NBA in technical fouls, so it's tough to get under their skin!

- In all seriousness, Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe in the future will be a problem, and as they are now could torment the Knicks if they're too tired from the traveling back-to-back.

That's most of it, guys and girls. Make sure you pay extra special attention to the Knicks' second unit and its offensive sets. A huge reason the Knicks have been winning is their increased focus on the defensive side of the ball, particularly early in the game to set the tone. Most of that is just effort, and it is a good barometer for how passionately the Knicks will play offensively. It has been a joy to watch the starting Knicks unit set the tone defensively and then witness the second unit light it up offensively, mostly from behind the arc. This little reversal has been shattering my expectations, and I think it's a good formula to win. The next time I write one of these, the Knicks could be above .500. Cross your fingers!

Sorry that story took forever!

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