Middle Kingdom Previews: Last of the 3 AM Knicks Games

USA TODAY Sports

Knicks. Playoffs. Second Round. Sounds good to me!

This is a special day, people - not only are the Knicks opening a second-round series at home for first time since 1995, but this will most likely be the last time I have to wake my ass up at 3:30 am to watch a professional sporting event. HUZZAH!

Looking at these two teams on paper, they have one thing in common: they play at a similar pace (SLOW). And that's pretty much it. This is the textbook "offense vs. defense" match-up. The reason pace-adjusted stats were invented in the first place, at least in my mind, was so that lazy hack writers would stop calling the old D'Antoni Suns vs. Popovich Spurs playoff series "offense vs. defense" while ignoring the fact that the Spurs were top-5 in the NBA in offensive efficiency themselves. This Knicks-Pacers match-up is the real-deal - they average nearly the same number of possessions per game, and their offensive and defensive ratings are polar opposites:

  • Knicks: 111.1 ORtg (3rd), 106.3 DRtg (18th)
  • Pacers: 104.3 ORtg (20th), 99.8 DRtg (1st)

A deeper look at these teams reveals even more differences. The Pacers don't score much, but what offense they do generate comes from offensive rebounds (4th in ORB%) and at the foul line (7th in FT/FGA), both of which happen to be the Knicks' two biggest offensive weaknesses. On defense, the Pacers' one weakness is that they don't generate many turnovers (26th in TOV%), which is pretty much the only thing the Knicks have done well on defense consistently throughout the entire season. These teams are as different as, oh I dunno, the city of New York and the state of Indiana.

And now that I've spent 300-or-so words building up the "all-offense vs. all-defense" narrative, let me tell you why it's a crock of shit. Defensively, the Knicks aren't the same team they were even a few weeks ago, for a few reasons:

  1. Tyson Chandler finally looks healthy for the first time in more than a month.
  2. Ditto Kenyon Martin. Remember that these two spent almost no time in the lineup at the same time during the regular season. K-Mart is the first defensive-minded backup the Knicks have had since Rasheed Wallace went down back in December, when the Knicks were still pretty good on defense. (yeah, I don't count the rare appearances by Marcus Camby.)
  3. Mike Woodson has been giving more minutes to Pablo Prigioni, the best defender among the Knicks point guard-types. There's a small caveat here: sometimes Woody forgets this, like in Game 5 when Pablo only played 12 minutes and the Celtics put up their highest ORtg of the series.
  4. Iman Mothershumpin' Shumpert. You've seen him play, right? He's a different dude than he was in the regular season. It's kind of a big deal.

Those are all very good signs for the Knicks on defense. Offensively, however, there are a few storm clouds on the horizon. The Knicks must deal with the Pacers league-leading defense. We know they split the season series with Indiana, but how have they handled the other teams in the top 10?

Rk Team ORtg DRtg
1 Indiana Pacers* 104.3 99.8
2 Memphis Grizzlies* 104.9 100.3
3 San Antonio Spurs* 108.3 101.6
4 Oklahoma City Thunder* 112.4 102.6
5 Washington Wizards 100.2 103.0
6 Chicago Bulls* 103.5 103.2
7 Boston Celtics* 103.1 103.3
8 Los Angeles Clippers* 110.6 103.6
9 Miami Heat* 112.3 103.7
10 Atlanta Hawks* 104.8 104.4
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/4/2013.

The Knicks have managed a tidy 22-15 record against these teams, including the playoffs, and including their 0-4 against the Dark Wizard Tom Thibodeau. I think it's safe to say they won't be cowed by facing an elite defense.

My real concern heading into this series is the disturbing offensive trend that reared its ugly head in the Boston series - the tendency to abandon real offense in favor of half-assed isolation plays. It didn't work against the Celtics, and it sure as hell won't work against the Pacers.

The Knicks didn't win their last series because Carmelo Anthony was better than Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett; they won the series because all of their players played collectively much better than all the Celtic players, and they almost let the series get away from them because they suddenly forgot that fact. I actually give Melo credit for his play in Game 6 - his shot was still off, but he moved the ball effectively and played his most complete game of the series.

Of course, all this stuff about "team" will be thrown out the window in the media lead-up to Game 1. Star players sell news stories, so expect today to see a whole lot of this: What's wrong with Melo's shoulder? Will Melo find his shot again? Will Amar'e play in the series? Who will win the Melo-Paul George match-up?

Okay, I'll bite on that last one. Paul George is a hell of a player. Let's check out his playoff numbers so far.

Rk Player MP PER eFG% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS WS/48
1 Paul George 240 20.6 .462 13.0 22.9 2.4 1.7 13.8 21.6 0.6 0.5 1.1 .221
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/5/2013.

Impressive...most impressive. Can any Knick match up with that? Let's check out the Knicks star wing player from the Celtics series.

Rk Player MP PER eFG% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS WS/48
1 Iman Shumpert 171 17.3 .571 14.4 8.3 3.5 1.8 13.3 14.9 0.3 0.5 0.8 .225
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/5/2013.

As you can see, Melo has stacked up pretty well thus far. Wait, what? THAT'S NOT MELO AT ALL! Welcome to the NBA playoffs, Iman Shumpert. It helps here to remember that Shump was pretty terrible in Game 1, and he still put up numbers comparable to the Pacers best player. Forget all that stuff about Amar'e, Iman Shumpert has earned the title of Biggest X-Factor in this Series. If he continues to play at a level approaching that of the Boston series, he will throw a wrench into Indiana's plans. If he continues hitting from outside, it won't be easy to put David West on him. If he continues to rebound with a vengeance, it will go a long way toward negating the Pacers' advantage on the boards. And if he and Pablo continue their Playoff Steals Party, the Knicks can exploit a glaring Indiana weakness (27th in TOV%). There are a whole lot of "ifs" in there, but what the hell? I'm feelin' lucky.

I'm not saying Melo isn't crucial to the Knicks hopes in this series. I hope his shoulder is fine, I hope he finds his shot. But the Melo story is getting pretty damned boring (not as boring as George Karl, but boring nonetheless). The Knicks have quite a few good players this season. If they remember that fact, and play the way they're capable of playing, then there's no reason why they can't take Game 1, and this series. Let's Go Knicks!

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