The Knicks face the San Antonio Spurs tonight at the Garden. The Spurs are quite good at basketball-playing. They've got the league's best offense, one of the league's best defenses, and they shoot the three-ball ridiculously well. If there are any aspects in which they "struggle", relatively speaking, they're defending the three (among the league's worst at that, actually) and preventing offensive rebounds. The absence of Danilo Gallinari and promotion of Ronny Turiaf will hurt New York's chances of exploiting the Spurs on the former front but (we hope) help them on the latter. All of this information was gleaned from HoopData, by the way, lest you think I can do the maths.
JollyRogerWilco, the man in charge at the superb Spurs blog Pounding the Rock, was thoughtful enough to reach out to P&T for a brief dialogue to preview tonight's game. You can see their version of this post here. After the jump, you can take a look at our conversation.
Seth, the Spurs just played OKC and had to deal with the league's leading scorer in Kevin Durant, and the very next game they have to travel to face your Knicks and the #2 points man, Amar'e Stoudemire. It'd be bad enough if that was all, but The Apostrophe has more than just a little history with the Spurs, and it feels like he's never has a bad game offensively when playing San Antonio. He averages nearly 55% from the field against the Spurs. That's just insane. By the way, I'm curious as to whether you guys call him STAT like the Suns fans used to.
And speaking of history, there's Mike D'Antoni, who you could argue, left the Western Conference to get away from the San Antonio. What with all of the changes in the Spurs' style of play this year, there have quite a few jokes about the San Antonio Suns: all offense and no defense. Any feeling in New York that you guys have become the Suns East, with the team leading the league in points per game? From breezing over the stats, it doesn't look like there's a ton of defense (Ronny Turiaf excepted) being played, but is that a fair evaluation? The Knicks are only scoring 0.7 points more than their opposition this year, and yet they're 5 games over .500. Has there been a bad loss or two that's skewed that differential number, or does it seem they're playing with house money as they sit at 19-14?
I'm sorry for asking so many questions, but I'll admit that I just don't know the Knicks very well. They've suffered through quite a few lottery seasons, and (although suffered might not be a strong enough word) the Isaiah Thomas Era as well. It looks like you guys will be enjoying some postseason ball for the first time in the last 6 seasons, and I'm sure that's giving the fans a ton to be excited about, but I'm really pretty lost just looking down your roster. Of course Stoudemire and Gallinari are pretty well known) although Danilo's injury might keep him out of Tuesday's game -- any word on that?) then there's Chandler, Fields and Felton -- and they sound, more than just a little, like a law firm. "Chandler, Fields and Felton, serving your domestic legal needs since 1999." Would you mind shining a light on these guys, so that I can know them a little better before tip-off?
Well, those Amar'e stats are certainly encouraging on my end. Amar'e has been pretty frustrated with physical, crowding defense lately, and he's shot at or below that 55% mark each game for the last two weeks or so. I'm sure the Spurs will look to help on Stoudemire (right?), so we'll see whether history or recent trends wins out.
Meanwhile, the Knicks are certainly more "Suns East" than they've ever been. The Spurs will likely see a "big" lineup in Danilo Gallinari's absence (we're still waiting on MRI results, but it sounds like he'll miss at least Tuesday's game), with Ronny Turiaf stepping into starter's minutes. When fully healthy, though, D'Antoni has gone with Wilson Chandler at the four and Stoudemire at the five. What you get then is a squad of five guys who can run the floor and hit an open jumper, which behooves transition basketball and creates open space in which to run the pick-and-roll. As a trade-off, you lose a little bit of rebounding and defense. The Knicks block a ton of shots (first in the league, last I checked), but that has as much to do with granting a lot of penetration and second efforts as it does with Stoudemire, Chandler, and Turiaf being able shot-blockers. The point differential is, in fact, perfectly indicative of how the season's gone. When the Knicks play bad teams, they beat them but rarely blow them out. When the Knicks play elite teams, they lose, but rarely get blown out.
On that note, what do you make of the Spurs' increase in offensive tempo? I haven't seen all that much of them this season, so how has that taken place? Which Spurs besides Parker have allowed for the offensive renaissance? Is it really a 180 in style, or has that been overblown a bit? Does the increase in pace ever feel disingenuous or dirty? Do you lose sleep over it?
All told, this has been a very pleasant season to date, and it does feel like this team can make the playoffs. The three guys you mentioned have all played a major role. Fields is by far the most surprising. Those of us who were ignorant to his dominance in the Pac-10 (myself included) hated the pick, but it didn't take long for Fields to win us over with his Landriness. The guy just fits perfectly. With the Amar'e-Felton two-man game being the crux of the offense, Fields's ability to hit uncontested jumpers and cut through open space is just the ticket. Additionally, Landry's rebounding (he leads ALL NBA guards in that department) is part of the reason D'Antoni can afford to go small. With an undersized front line, you need that kind of help from the backcourt. Fields needs to work on his defensive instincts- staying on his feet, helping when appropriate, etc, as well as his shooting form and ball-handling, but the guy has demolished all expectations. We are all very much in love with Landry Fields. It gets creepy sometimes.
Felton has also been a pleasant surprise (not quite as jaw-dropping, but that's mostly because he was already established). Felton's regressed a bit recently while playing with various sore backs (yes, he has multiple backs) and a badly bruised hand, but he's been a very solid lead point guard. After struggling to mesh with Amar'e through the first ten games, he's developed an excellent rapport with his big man, and a deadly pick-and-roll to boot. The key to that has been Felton's own ability to can the occasional jump shot, which prevents his defender from ducking under a screen and necessitates a hedge or switch of some sort by the opposition. Again, Felton's been banged-up and off for the last week or two, but he's having an excellent season. The last guy you asked about, Chandler, is improving right on schedule. He's becoming a pretty reliable outside shooter, but still looks to attack and put that otherworldly athleticism to use. Wil, like Danilo Gallinari, has a tendency to disappear sometimes, but he's blossomed into a legitimate two-way player who thrives as the third or fourth option in any unit.
Talking about Fields reminds me of San Antonio's rookies (sans James Anderson). It seems like Gary Neal is rather Landryesque, while Tiago Splitter has been a bit of a disappointment, no? What's your impression of those two halfway into the season?
Helping on Stoudemire should be a done deal for sure. Pop doesn't hesitate to send an extra man at Nazr Mohammed, so he shouldn't get shy when a force like Amar'e has the ball. Especially when he's not much of a danger to drop dimes on his teammates when the second defender shows up. Dude is a beast of a scorer, but he sure has an anemic assist/turnover ratio. Is there something underneath that stat that I can't see, or can I take it at face value?
"Suns East" with 5 guys who can all run, hit the J, and block shots. That sounds pretty interesting to watch, but even more so when you talk about how they're in just about every game they play. What a turnaround from those recent forgettable lean years. I have a theory that it's not just a team's record that gets a lot of fans to the game and watching on TV, it's whether the games they play are fun to watch. All other things being equal, a team that is well over .500 but who is mostly either being blown out, or romping to double digit victories is no match (ratings and attendance-wise) for a team that's right at .500 but is in every game right down to the wire. If you beat mediocre teams in close games, and lose to good squads right at the end, then your fans will gladly live and die with your boys night in and night out. My guess is that N.Y. is loving their Knicks right now. But of course I've done no research on this and have no proof whatsoever. It's just an idea of mine.
So we're going to talk pace now, are we? Well, I must say that it's a fun discussion to have after all those years of being called boring. Well, Tony's always been an OMFB waiting to happen, but now he's not the only one with the green light to get out and run. Pop will say that they've always wanted to take advantage of easy scoring opportunities, but I've got to say that the difference in watching the team in the preseason was shocking, and I never thought that it would continue into the regular season, but it sure did didn't it. How has it taken place? I'd describe it as 180 in style. Running off misses and after makes? Rebounders, immediately spinning around to see who's available for a long outlet? Multiple guys on the break instead of just one or two? Tony, Hill, and Manu playing passing lanes to get steals and get out running? This isn't the team, style or action that Spurs fans are used to. But they're getting used to it. And over the last few games, the defense seems to be catching up to the offense too. So that's exciting to see.
Landry Fields is getting it done with his jumper as well as his ability to swipe boards, is he? Well, that's a good thing to know before the game! Seriously, it's annoying when a player from the opposing team that you've never heard of just goes off on your team. You just have to sit there and wonder, "Who is this guy?" Well, I'm also going to save you from such a fate against the Spurs, who will counter Field's Landriness with Gary's Nealitude. Gary Neal is a rookie, although he's been playing in Europe for the last 3 years, and while the word on him was that he was a gunner who'd never seen a 3 pointer he didn't like, we had no idea his game was complete as it is. Sure he shoots from outside, but he can put it on the floor and finish with an array of floaters and pull ups too. He shows full effort on defense and isn't getting lost in all of the Spurs' complicated sets. And he also rebounds pretty well for a guard. He may not be leading the league, but it's nice to get something you didn't expect for Christmas. It's safe to say that no one in the Spurs organization was looking for the rookie to lead the Spurs in scoring in three of last seven games of 2010.
As to your question about Splitter -- well, returns are mixed. He's showing flashes, but he's been nicked up quite a bit this season, and he was hurt just before training camp started, so Pop has used him very sparingly. None of us who've seen him play are anything less than excited about his potential, but as the season wears on, and he continues to have games like he did against OKC (when he was about the only player on the roster who wasn't filling it up like a gas station attendant) then the thought of him providing real help to this year's team begins to continually recede.
You have a point guard with multiple backs? That's awesome! Our starting center has no ACL's. Anyway, I'm not surprised to hear that Felton is scary in a pick-and-roll with Amar'e. In fact, I could imagine D'Antoni's system working without such a point guard. And if he's able to make his jumpers too, then Mike has got to be sleeping easy at night. Especially if Chandler's been able to combine outside shooting with defensive presence.. One thing that might disturb that slumber is the thought of how the Knick's defensive rating (24 of 30) will match up with the number 4 offense in the league. Any thoughts about that? How have you guys fared against the better offenses you've faced this season?
Amar'e's assist to turnover ratio can pretty much be taken at face value. On certain nights, Amar'e takes it upon himself to do too much dribbling too far from the basket (earlier in the season, a lot of this could be attributed to Felton feeding him the ball way too far out). When he's in that mode, it's pretty easy to make him turn the ball over. Though his assists are up this year, they're nowhere near high enough to justify his moving very much with the ball. The more work Stoudemire does before making his catch, the better off he is.
I kind of expected you to temper my expectations regarding San Antonio's pace, but it sounds like the rumors are true. It's funny that, even with these changes, the Spurs are still in the bottom half of the league in that department. That said, I won't be surprised if they're happy to play up to the Knicks' league-leading tempo.
All told, I'm mostly hoping that the Knicks can make a game out of this one. They've managed to beat (Denver, OKC) or at least hang with (Miami) some of the league's most efficient offenses. With Gallo out, the Knicks lose a chunk of their top-notch three-point shooting. Considering that the Spurs are the toppest of notches on that front, I worry that the Knicks' inability to keep pace from outside will doom them. You never know, though.