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Even with Amar'e and Melo returned, the Knicks fell behind early and couldn't quite pull off a comeback.
Yeah, gymtanlandry's comment from the game thread summed up exactly how I'm feeling about the Knicks right now. I guess there's some small encouragement to be taken from New York's valiant near-comebacks in each of the last two games, but only if you ignore those glaringly awful starts. The Knicks simply shouldn't have found themselves attempting comebacks against the Kings and Blazers.
It was a familiar shovel that buried the Knicks tonight: New York's guards got beat over and over and over again off the dribble and on screens and backdoor cuts, which led to all sorts of unfriendly switches and missed box-outs by the big guys (Portland had eight offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone). Tyson Chandler and those around him kept getting pulled away from the rim, allowing ample easy o-bounds and inside buckets for J.J. Hickson and friends. The Knicks managed to stave off a deficit as dramatic as the 27-point hole in Sacramento because Carmelo Anthony shot absurdly well from the very beginning of his return, but that defense and those rebounds plus a heap of early turnovers had them down double-digits for much of the first half.
And yeah, then the Knicks came back. They rotated a tiny bit better defensively (and I did love the insertion of Marcus Camby alongside Chandler to open the second half. I hope we see more of that.), started grabbing occasional rebounds, and watched Hickson catch foul trouble and disappear while Melo and J.R. Smith only got hotter. New York made the last few possessions matter, but couldn't seize enough of them to complete the comeback. Chandler gave up a put-back to LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard stuck a ruthless three in Pablo Prigioni's eye while the Knicks-- out of timeouts thanks to some prior desperation-- simply handed the ball to Melo and prayed he could save them. Dude tried his darnedest and hit a couple big ones, but missed two important free throws in the final three minutes and bricked a potential game-tying pull-up three with 15 seconds to go.
Too little, too late. Again. The Knicks' offense has issues-- some of these lineups (including the starting one) can't spread the floor and even the usual floor-spreaders have slipped-- but it's that defense that keeps demanding comebacks. Everything is bad. The guards' inability to push through screens anywhere on the floor leads to slapdash switching and doubling from the others, which ends with Chandler feeling compelled to abandon the paint and expose the rim, and that's never a good idea. Mike Breen pointed out a few zone defenses in this one, but I thought some of those were just muddled sets. These are persistent, systemic issues, and ones that can't quite be excused by the injuries and rotational shifts. (And while Amar'e Stoudemire can hopefully provide some better weak side help, his pick-and-roll defense seems likely to cause even more problems. It definitely did tonight.). Whatever Mike Woodson's been screaming about at halftime, I wish he'd start screaming about it before tip-off.
Bad times. More notes:
- Ronnie Brewer finally hit a three, and I'm happy for him, but he is not playing good enough defense to excuse how tentative and ineffective he is on offense. Meanwhile, Mike Woodson clearly doesn't value Kurt Thomas as part of the rotation, so I'm not sure why he's still starting and eating away even four minutes when Marcus Camby is healthyish and coming off a solid game in Sacramento. I suppose the Knicks are still thin enough in the backcourt to allow Brewer to work himself out of his slump, excruciating as it is, but I feel pretty comfortable saying Kurt Thomas should not be receiving minutes. I don't get this placeholder starter thing. I understand and support Woodson's insistence on bringing Smith and Stoudemire off the bench, so they're out, but I really hope he'll give Camby those early minutes from here forward. Camby's second half start suggests he might.
- Rough night for Jason Kidd. He threw a couple beautiful passes in the third quarter, but committed an egregious early turnover (apparently none thereafter, but I swear he threw more bad passes) and missed all of his open jumpers. To nobody's surprise, Kidd spent a lot of his defensive time reading the back of Damian Lillard's jersey. Kidd actually played spots of sound D against Lillard, but for the most part, didn't have a prayer of contesting him off the dribble or on backdoor cuts. I'm surprised the Blazers didn't attack that match-up more often, though I suppose a lot of Hickson's easy buckets came because Lillard demanded help on the move.
- Rough night for Chandler, too. When he got to defend Aldridge one-on-one, he did so quite effectively, but more time was spent shadowing Lillard or scrambling elsewhere outside the paint to patch holes. As one can tell by browsing recent comment sections, it's tough to apportion blame between the holey perimeter D and Chandler's failure to strike a balance between helping and goalkeeping. Either way, there's no doubt that Aldridge grabbing seven total offensive rebounds and Hickson hitting nine of ten field goals in the first half alone are huge problems and things Chandler would typically be expected to negate. He hasn't had much help, nor is he helping himself.
- It stings to waste such an outstanding performance from Melo. Coming off a two-game absence because of a hyper-extended knee (which didn't appear to bug him until a play late in the game), Melo came out cookin' a bubbly cauldron of delicious soup and continued to do so pretty much all game long. 45 points on 24 shots is some outrageous stuff, and relatively little of it came at the rim. Melo connected on five of eleven threes, including a desperation banker before the first-half buzzer, nailed all sorts of step-backs/pull-ups/catch-and-shoots, and duped his way to sixteen free throw attempts. The man also ran some splendid four-five pick-and-rolls with Amar'e and passed well out of double teams, though the latter action bore pretty much zero fruit because of the other Knicks' frigidity behind the arc. In short, it was an outstanding return performance from Melo (he's getting better and better after these two-game lay-offs. Next time he suffers a minor injury, I look forward to a 50-point performance) and probably the single factor separating New York from a performance identical to the one in Sacramento.
- The rest of the offense came from J.R. Smith. A lot came from J.R. Smith, actually. J.R. brought the usual barrage of jumpers and acrobatic finishes off the dribble (did miss 8 of 12 threes, though, which sucked), and added a handful of superb kick-outs and short shuffle feeds on the move. Eleven rebounds(!), too, including an intricate, extraordinary put-back of a Melo miss late in the game. It was another in a string of consecutive brilliant performance from J.R., though I will point out that his lagging over screens allowed Nicolas Batum to shake free for several of those six three-pointers.
- Amar'e checked in mid-way through the first quarter to a resounding ovation, then played as rusty a game as you'd expect. He played center early, first alongside Melo for a moment, then alongside Chris Copeland, and immediately tried and failed to create out of the post. It wasn't anything terrible; just a few rushed, undercooked attempts inside that fell way short. In the second half, Amar'e briefly played the four with both Melo and Chandler out there, but mostly remained at five in a frontcourt with Melo and Steve Novak. Those second half stints got him some quality touches in four-five pick-and-rolls with Melo and one-five pick-and-rolls with Pablo Prigioni. A couple genuinely fierce dunks and a drawn foul out of those sets proved quite heartening indeed. Those plays and a couple solid recoveries to contest shots were the good parts of Amar'e's return. The bad parts: Everything outside the immediate vicinity of the rim looked uncomfortable and inaccurate and the floor defense looked so outstandingly bad in almost every setting. I missed Amar'e and expect those offensive ills to heal considerably with repetition, but I did not miss the paralyzed ball-watching while someone soars past him for an easy dunk and have little hope that he'll improve in that regard. At this point, it's just about finding the right lineups to augment Stoudemire's assets and allay his weaknesses. A healthy Rasheed Wallace might help.
- 'Twas another game of playing four-on-five with Steve Novak out there. That slump continued, as Novak missed another five jumpers off hurried, wonky releases. Chris Copeland actually joined in the fun this time by missing all of his open looks as well.
- Six turnovers in the first
half quarter, none in the second, three in the fourth, one in the fourth.
- I like Camby alongside Chandler. I like him alongside Amar'e, too. He rebounds and plays some defense and throws a very nice lob. I know he can't play big minutes, but I hope he'll get to spin more and more.
- Ya know, Prigioni didn't play such bad defense on Lillard down the stretch. Pretty bad and gamble-y before that, but Pablo impressed on a couple late possessions.
And that's all. The Knicks are kinda broken right now, on defense in particular. The ills are totally fixable with more time, better health, and a lot of coaching, but they are undoubtedly broken for the time being. The Spurs are up next. Go ahead and rest them starters, Pop. I won't complain.