Seemed to me like Sunday's loss to the Timberwolves was a clearer-cut case of what happened when the Knicks played the Bulls last week. The Bulls are pretty much designed to stop the Knicks with their terrific pick-and-roll defenders and individuals capable of defending Carmelo Anthony one-and-one. It took a while for New York to figure their own stuff out enough to exploit that Chicago defense. Sunday, the Timberwolves played directly into the Knicks' hands, yet New York still couldn't take advantage with those hands tied behind their back. The Knicks are a united lifeform with one pair of hands in this case. Yeah, kinda creepy.
Once more, Mike Woodson experimented with awkward lineups early, then turned to elegant groupings late. Once more, the Knicks struggled early and thrived nearly enough late to counteract their struggles. For the 44 minutes (yikes) Carmelo Anthony occupied the floor, he and the Knicks scored in space and blundered in a crowd. Unlike the Bulls, the Wolves left men open to help on Melo and the pick-and-roll. Ricky Rubio roamed to make sure entry passes couldn't happen and a second Wolf abandoned his assignment to harass Melo on nearly every touch inside the arc. Melo took some poor shots over that defense and the Knicks suffered for it, but he spent a lot of time reading and passing out of those doubles with aplomb. When the guys receiving his passes were guys capable of passing and shooting, the ball often found an open shooter in the opposite corner. When those guys were stationed too close to the action or unwilling to make the extra pass, things went awry. Passes hit fans, Knicks' hips, and-- worst of all-- rapacious Wolves who turned them into fast-break buckets. It was just like DontDrinkFromDaHudson (seriously, don't) said in the thread. Stagnant offense 'n' turnovers. A poor recipe.
Subplot/microcosm: For four minutes in the first quarter, Melo sat with foul trouble. For those four minutes and only those four minutes, Kenyon Martin and Tyson Chandler shared the floor. The Knicks turned from a stumbling but competitive team into gurgling pond sludge. No surprise there. The Knicks' offense can barely function with two guys who can't shoot threes on the floor, let alone two guys who rarely produce offense away from the paint. Pablo Prigioni and Raymond Felton drove with no one to pass to (what a waste of the point guard tandem!), so the stagnation and turnovers and Minnesota fast breaks doubled. Tim Hardaway Jr. couldn't find space to shoot. The one field goal the Knicks scored during those four minutes came when Martin stepped out and hit a baseline jumper. I had the score at 19-15 Wolves when Martin replaced Melo (two fouls) with 3:56ish to go. It was 40-19 at quarter's end. Don't do that. Shit, if only because the rotation is short on centers and Martin's minutes ought to be husbanded, don't do that. But also don't do it because it unequivocally does not work and there are ample suitable alternatives.
In the fourth quarter, Woodson gave 3:30 to a lineup of Pablo Prigioni, Tim Hardaway Jr., Carmelo Anthony, Metta World Peace, and Tyson Chandler. He gave the remaining 8:30 to Prigioni, Melo, Chandler, Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert (last year's starting lineup). Both those groups won. The first group cut Minnesota's lead from 15 to 11, and could have cut it further if Hardaway didn't brick two open threes off the catch. The second, game-closing group cut the deficit to 5, but fell victim to some poor shot selection and a few devastating Minnesota baskets over good defense. That's a reliable Knicks phenomenon, no? When they dig themselves a deep hole then climb most of the way out, the opponent kicks them back into the abyss with, say, a Kevin Martin dagger three with a hand in his face or an off-balance Kevin Love bank shot. Fuck Kevins, man.
- You'll notice that Andrea Bargnani wasn't on the floor for any of that comeback fourth quarter. And indeed, part of me looks at the eight guys who played that quarter and sees a rotation fine on its own. On the other hand, Bargnani put up good numbers overall and played one particularly solid stint (which included minutes at "center") to close the second quarter. He entered the paint mainly rolling off picks or driving off kick-outs, not just lingering down low and ruining everyone's space. He made his jumpers, too, catching and drilling a few long ones from the left side and up top. He employed that style of play in the first quarter, too, though the jumpers didn't fall and even well-planned drives met unfortunate ends. (Yes, hilarious non-finish, but that's a great play). Bargnani defended adequately enough for Andrea Bargnani. He hedged a few pick-and-rolls nicely, defended the post fine at a standstill, and got torched only...ehhh...a couple times. Nothing major. When he avoided loitering in the paint and attacked from the perimeter or as a screen-slipper, the Knicks looked okay. They looked downright good when he actually made those shots. That, to me, is the two-step plan to Bargnani helping the Knicks on offense. First, he has to recognize that people double Melo and Melo can't exploit those doubles when his shooters aren't in shooting position. Second-- once he's is in shooting position-- he has to make jumpers or attack seams off kick-outs.
- Looking at Popcorn Machine, Bargnani's one stint in which the Knicks actually gained ground was split between the starting five and a lineup in which Andrea played "center" with Felton, Hardaway, Melo, and World Peace.
- World Peace is the other will-he-or-won't-he-space-the-floor-for-Melo wild card, and he mostly did a good job Sunday night. There were a couple occasions in which Metta passed up a good open look for a bad contested look (sometimes he catches the ball and feels he MUST Cha Cha Slide before shooting) and a couple more in which Metta looked off the extra pass, but he was sharp overall. He spent a lot of time shooting, attacking, or posting up on the weak side of Melo doubles, and those plays often ended well. Metta wedged himself into many passing lanes and dribbling pockets to help force turnovers, too.
- Melo's got some weird (but familiar) shit going on with his shooting form. I don't know if it's uneasiness with the shoulder or what, but he'll occasionally shove the ball forth instead of flicking his wrist, "aiming his shot" as Clyde puts it. We've seen that before, and not just when he was hurting. Melo did shoot 6-12 in the second half, and that's with some terrible desperation forces in the final minutes. That was encouraging. He also ripped down an absurd 17 rebounds, which was great. Real rebounds, too, not just self-tippies. On defense, Melo had some weird moments of over-helping that allowed Minnesota threes.
- Tyson Chandler didn't patrol the paint with quite as much gusto as we saw in the first two games, though his post defense against Nikola Pekovic was mostly solid. And Chandler improved as the game went on, affecting more shot attempts against penetrators. By my count, the Wolves scored just eight points in the paint in the second half after 34(!) in the first half.
- The Knicks, incidentally, out-rebounded the Wolves as a team, but not when Martin and Chandler played together. When that happened, they hardly got chances to rebound because all they did was give up Minnesota baskets off turnovers.
- Minnesota also scored 12 of their 23 fast-break points in the first quarter alone.
- Rough, rough game for Raymond Felton. The Wolves pretty much didn't guard him, but they did guard the rim. That left Ray to take threes and weird pull-up twos from intermediate ranges, none of which fell. And even when he made great plays to get to the rim, he just didn't have the touch on this particular evening. On the other end, Felton repeatedly fought over screens only to stumble into Ricky Rubio as he dribbled to his right. Rubio seemed to recognize that Felton was kinda barreling through those screens and wouldn't have time to brake, so he paused to draw contact. Little shit.
- Shumpert never quite got into a groove because of foul trouble (stooooooop reaching), but hit several useful jumpers both off the catch and off the dribble. Hardaway matched him nearly minute-for-minute and seemed to make one overexcited awful play for every great one. He was deadly in transition, spiking a difficult alley-oop from Felton and taking a later turnover coast to coast for a huge dunk. Immediately following both of those plays, he got super hyped and bricked a hideous pull-up three. Like, the shot selection was poor AND his form totally fell apart. I love the excitement, but you must channel it, young Timbuktu. In the fourth quarter, both young wings struggled a bit. Hardaway bricked some wide-open far-corner threes and Shump made a few misreads on shoot/pass/dribble decisions. They had the right opportunities, though.
- And yeah, defensively, Shump's problem is that he gets overly wild and ball-hungry. Hardaway's problem is that he often fails to rotate in help situations.
- I'm sure there is a smart people name for this ("Elbow Weak"?), but I love the play where someone takes an off-ball down-screen from Chandler to get to the elbow, then catches as Chandler rolls to the rim for an open lob. Both Hardaway and Melo hit Tyson for easy buckets off that play.
- When Martin didn't play with Chandler, he looked fine (and in 16 whole minutes!). He rebounded very well on both ends and moved his feet beautifully to make sure guards couldn't attack even when the Knicks were all switched around defensively.
- No Beno Udrih, so perhaps that's already a thing. The guard rotation will only get more crowded.
- Maybe shelve those orange jerseys for a bit?
In short: The Knicks succeeded when they spaced the floor for Carmelo Anthony, lapsing mainly when good shooters messed up open threes (or when stupid stupid Kevin Martin stuck contested threes). The Knicks failed when their units gathered too close to Melo or included both their viable centers for a disastrous four-minute stretch of the first quarter. They did enough of the latter to outweigh the former.
And now they're below .500 for the first time in a while, which I don't like. A prolonged home-and-home with the Bobcats could remedy that. Could. Should, even. But Kemba Walker's a tough cover for the Knicks and there remains this potential fart away minutes at a time with terrible lineups and worse execution. We'll see!