That "four straight at home" JC25FoMVP mentioned after last night's game is nooooot the kind of four straight at home you want to be associated with. The Knicks have dropped consecutive home games to the Timberwolves, Bobcats, Spurs, and now Rockets, already developing a streak they didn't come close to reaching last season. By the final buzzer, it felt like the Knicks lost because they couldn't think clearly or get calls in crunch time on their home court. It's hard not to dwell on Raymond Felton's close-out foul on James Harden, or the near-continuation on Carmelo Anthony's waved off three in the final seconds, or, if you're not just hung up on the refs, the jumpers Melo and J.R. Smith rushed and forced down the stretch. It sinks the stomach to watch New York fail to close at MSG for the second or third time already.
How the Knicks arrived at a close endgame with the Rockets interests me more, though. I saw two teams who couldn't really stop one another, but didn't always bother to exploit each other's faltering defenses. Dwight Howard and friends couldn't do a thing to contest Andrea Bargnani's pick-and-pops, yet the ball found Andrea less and less as the game progressed, and Melo didn't stay hot enough to justify that. The Rockets created open looks and fouls every single time they ran New York's hapless perimeter defenders through a pick-and-roll, yet they kept trying to post Howard even once the Knicks realized Bargnani could guard him one-on-one down there (which took way too long).
I'm tired of wringing encouragement out of losses, but...well, it wasn't NOT nice to see the Knicks compete against a team that dominated all 96 minutes they played last year. I liked seeing Melo find some touch. I liked seeing Bargnani do the same-- and on good shots, too. I liked that the Knicks adjusted to the point where they could defend half-court post-ups, even if they allowed absolutely everything else. I liked that they held their own on the glass and committed only nine turnovers, jacking up their field goal attempts to make up for the SO MANY GODDAMN free throws Houston took.
New York's defense-- from littles getting vaporized by picks to wings overplaying close-outs to bigs failing to rotate-- failed every time the Rockets tested it. Even still, it took only two Knicks making shots (and, shit Melo had 45 on 30 shots. Let's not downplay that) to keep the game close. Since it's hard to picture New York's pick-and-roll or transition defense improving with the current personnel, I'm looking for signs that the Knicks can score and possession-hoard (via rebounds and limited turnovers) their way out of trouble. They showed those signs and fell just short against a decent team. It hurt me right in my kidneys, but it's something. Some notes:
- Let's just get this all out of the way: If the Rockets applied any pressure at all, the Knicks' defense crumbled. Everybody was culpable, but the Rockets made the perimeter D look especially awful. Felton's decision-making and positioning against picks could not have been worse, Pablo Prigioni couldn't stop fouling (I'd still have kept playing him, but...), Iman Shumpert kept over-playing closeouts and getting distracted in transition such that Houston's constantly attacking wings were often unchecked, and none of the Melo/Bargnani/Metta World Peace/Kenyon Martin/Amar'e Stoudemire frontcourt bros had anything to do with anyone driving to the rim. Guys kept switching, then just loitering in no-man's land, undecided whether they should recover or stick to the switch. The team defense against fast breaks and pick-and-rolls is broken from top to bottom, but we knew that. They compounded the problem early by sending help at Dwight Howard, taking the ball out of his hands and putting it into the hands of four guys perfectly capable of finding the open man against the Knicks' scrambling trio of defenders. It was terrible, and I was happy to see the Knicks let Bargnani hold his own against Howard in the second half. Which he did, because he can do that. Post defense has never been a problem, and the Knicks should be inviting those kinds of possessions, not deliberately turning them into open threes. If Houston didn't shoot so terribly from outside in the first quarter (1-9, I believe), the Knicks would have had to claw back from a double-digit deficit.
- And let's get this out of the way, too: A few of those calls sucked. The non-continuation on Melo was the right call (Harden did strike him before he started his shooting motion), but it would have been an easy and understandable wrong call to make. That Felton foul on Harden and a couple other ticky-tack things on dribble-drives bugged me, too. So did Melo intentionally fouling Howard off the ball with under two minutes to go, but that's not on the refs. I dunno. James Harden and friends get to the line. They're great at that. It was to be expected, and it's not why the Knicks lost. I'm certain there were some bad calls the other way, too. Still frustrating.
- Oh, how pleasant it was to watch Carmelo Anthony cookin' soup like we know he can. His jumper had been a little worrisome at times over the last few weeks, but it was a goddamn weapon against Houston. Melo mixed things up nicely on offense. He got open off down-screens for quick jumpers and one-dribble moves, sunk some simple catch-and-shoot jumpers from the weak side, bulled his way to the rim at every available opportunity, and made many of those "this is only okay if he's on fire right now" pull-up jumpers count. And, like...he did hit that last three, whether or not the call was right. It did happen. 45 points on 30 shots is a very good amount of points on a very good amount of shots. Ten rebounds, too, which partly represents Melo battling for caroms off his own misses and partly represents him just making sure things were clean at the other end. Melo worked very hard and played very well. (Yes, his team defense was quite bad. This is a given in pretty much all individual notes from this game.)
- Closely related to Melo's excellence: Bargnani played an excellent offensive game. He worked more and more as a screener, either picking and popping for long straight-on jumpers or freeing Melo up for other stuff. Bargnani made plays as a decoy, too, standing in wait above the arc of flashing into the paint late in a possession for a quick take off the catch. That 9-12 shooting line (3-3 from downtown, which is great) really makes me wish he'd gotten more touches (Update: and playing time!?) in the fourth quarter. He was 1-1 in the fourth. And yeah, Bargnani's post defense on Howard looked just fine when the Knicks finally let him work alone. He drew some charges, affected some shots, and just generally held his own. Bargnani played efficiently *and* fit in quite nicely, boosting his teammates with his play. He and Melo supplemented each other last night where they'd been impeding each other at times before.
- I hope rebound well/make great extra passes/take few shots and miss them/get burned repeatedly on defense isn't becoming the new nightly Iman Shumpert offering. He's off. He quietly made some contributions last night while being off, but he's off. His jumper's shriveling up and his defense is even wilder than usual. It's unnerving, but his head is probably somewhere else.
- Oo-wee, did that penguin lay an egg. Raymond Felton ran plenty of solid 1-5 pick-and-rolls and made some great decisions out of those increasingly frequent left-to-right-over-two-screens sets, but all other things were bad. He was way too loose with his dribbles and passes, just handing the Rockets free points with some sloppy turnovers. And he missed his outside shots. And he got serially embarrassed by Jeremy Lin. Bad, bad, bad, night. He's been having those. Pablo Prigioni didn't look much better defending Lin in the pick-and-roll, and neither had any help. That problem runs deep.
- J.R. Smith was fine when he caught and shot threes and fine when he penetrated all the way to the rim, and completely un-fine when he settled for anything in between...which he did kind of a lot. Good on J.R. for being part of some successful traps late in the game, though. If the Knicks had won, we'd be admiring some solid defensive stops in the final minute.
- Nearly nothing from the bench. Tim Hardaway Jr. got a lot done in 14 minutes-- canning one three and drawing a foul on another, then finishing one of the most beautiful plays of this young Knicks season:
Thanks to Bronx Chica for that one. That is an astounding leap and finish from waaaay too far out. You're not supposed to be able to finish that kind of play, but Timbaland is pretttty bouncy and pretttty deft around the rim. Or at least he was there. Nice little gem out of that loss.
- But yea, nothing else. Amar'e Stoudemire played five minutes, which is a stupid amount of minutes for him to play. Either let him spin or let him rest. Kenyon Martin didn't really play much more, offering a basket and a few rebounds but not enough in the way of interior defense in ten minutes. Pablo's foul trouble kept him out. Metta World Peace suddenly can't hit open jumpers anymore.
Buns. Enough with these encouraging losses. The Knicks finish their three-in-four-nights with a home game against the Hawks Saturday, then head to Detroit on Tuesday. I would not be opposed to them winning both games. Time to end this home loss streak, and definitely time to get back to .500 and start building upward.