It's always tough to know what to expect of a team coming off an extended break (especially when that team is the Knicks, I bet). Against the Mavs last week, New York started slowly but got their shit together and ran away with the game. Tuesday night in Orlando was a little more complicated. The Knicks came out flat, then bolted out to a double-digit lead, then floundered again only to survive and win by double digits for the fifth consecutive game.
How did a team that's been so dominant through four games nearly buckle to an awful team missing several starters? Well, to begin with, Tomahawk Stomp's comment from the game thread covers the first three quarters or so. The Knicks just didn't appear to care very much. On offense, the cheerful cutting and ball movement we'd become accustomed in games one through four dissolved into everyone lounging while Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith isolated. They ran the occasional limp pick-and-roll, but didn't actually gain any traction with it and didn't have anything extra going on around the perimeter or in the paint. Thankfully, Melo was cookin' soup in the first half and J.R. Smith was cookin' the fanciest, most delicious gourmet soups ever in the third quarter, and that was enough to rescue the Knicks from their own stagnation.
Note also that Raymond Felton led the team in field goal attempts, which seemed to be exactly what the Magic wanted. They sagged to blanket the roller on every ball screen for Felton, inviting Raymond to call his own number. And he did. In his finer moments, Felton used all that space to churn up some momentum and rumble into the paint. In his duller moments, he missed pull-up jumpers and forced passes into the jaws of the defense.
On the other end, the Knicks played some uncharacteristically spazzy defense. Against an opponent without a real isolation weapon, New York switched and trapped early and often. That approach is fine-- weird when the object is Glen Davis, but fine-- if executed to completion, but it was run lazily and disjointedly enough that the Magic could simply reverse the ball and find somebody cutting backdoor for an easy basket over late-arriving or totally negligent help. It didn't help that no Knick could stick with J.J. Redick doing donuts around baseline screens. And on top of all that, New York got steamrolled on both backboards (31 to 42 in rebounds) and spent far too much time queefin' about non-calls while the Magic were racing out in transition.
...and yet they won. Orlando's decision (at least early on) to single-cover Melo and hope for the best may have contributed to the ruin of New York's ball movement, but it allowed Melo himself to go off. When they fronted him, he either sealed beautifully or wrestled his way into good position out on the wing. He couldn't get a call for some reason, but his dance moves were beguiling and his jumpers on point. As Orlando focused more on Melo, J.R. Smith took the reins and put in some spectacular second half possessions. Smith checked in early for Ronnie Brewer (who experienced a bit of swelling in his knee, but seems to be fine) and immediately got to work isolating and drilling all sorts of unguardable off-balance shots. Those buckets seemed to innervate J.R., as he was key in a defense that finally got back to forcing turnovers in the second half. Orlando hit goddamn everything they took in the third-- in part because New York kept collapsing into the middle, in part because they were just hot-- but J.R. kept the Knicks level with some deadly jumpers and a bit of drive-and-kick action as well.
In the fourth, the Knicks defended a bit more like the Knicks and the Magic just sorta peed themselves. Instead of just offering token traps without help, New York rotated to fill their own gaps and cut off any developing outlets. Orlando threes stopped falling and they ended up with 7 turnovers and just 13 points in the fourth, which is a lot more like it. All it really took was a quarter or so of caring to earn another double-digit win. It wasn't exactly inspirational, but we'll take it. Just a few more individual notes on guys not mentioned above:
- Rasheed Wallace was terrible. With Marcus Camby only playing four minutes (and doing nothing in those four minutes) and Kurt Thomas still stuck to the bench for some reason, Sheed was the one Woodson called upon when Tyson Chandler got into foul trouble. It didn't pan out. He buckled against such fearsome post presences as Andrew Nicholson and routinely turned his back on penetrating guards. Wallace also insisted on stopping the ball to heave threes even when Steve Novak was on the floor and ended up 0-5 from behind the arc. They weren't awful attempts, but I'd let Novak shoot a three double-teamed and drunk on fermented fruit punch before I'd let Wallace take an open one. Those shots will fall some nights, and it's not like he was the only one failing to rotate on the interior, but those 14 minutes were pretty uniformly awful.
- Chandler's help wasn't the best either, though the guy can only offer so much when he's also asked to tend to jump shooters like Nikola Vucevic and Glen Davis. He made a jumper(!), though, and after botching a couple tough lob finishes, soundly spiked some nice pick-and-roll feeds from Felton later in the game.
- It took him a little while to get going, but Brewer finally realized he could blow right by Glen Davis late in the first quarter and did so successfully on several possessions (Davis also beat him backdoor a few times). Again, though, Brewer sat most of the second half because that knee was bugging him.
- Melo's gonna try to eat some pretzels tonight only to find that Moe Harkless keeps swatting them out of his mouth. Dude is obnoxious!
- Jason Kidd's 32 minutes were quiet, but I think he had a lot do with the tighter defense in the fourth quarter. He did an admirable (if often futile) job bird-dogging Redick over screens and showed the usual wizardly forethought to barricade passing lanes.
- It was pretty easy to forget Novak was out there on offense. He just disappears when the ball isn't moving. I didn't think his defense was so bad, though.
- Pablo Prigioni played just seven minutes, all in the first half, and looked determined to debunk his reputation for tentativeness with some driving attempts and a made step-back three.
- For all my fretting over his play, I very much enjoyed Sheed screaming "YEAH AFLAC" while Arron Afflalo missed a free throw. I actually vaguely remember that being a thing when the two were teammates in Detroit.
- I missed the close-up of Clyde's orange jacket in the pre-game show, but caught flashes of it when the camera panned across the sideline. It was highly orange.
- Mike Breen called himself a "connoisseur of desserts" while having a conversation about Clyde's restaurant.
- During a commercial break, an Orlando cheerleader fell off someone's shoulders onto her head (MSG showed us a replay. Thanks, guys.) and had to be carried out on a stretcher. Thankfully, she could move her arms and legs (waved to the crowd as she left). Last we heard she was being taken to the hospital. Hopefully all's relatively well there. It was a truly scary fall.
- John Rucker, who you can read about here, did a sideline interview and seems like he might be the coolest old man there is.
- The Knicks trailed briefly in the fourth quarter, which was the first time they've done that all season.
- From good to bad: Nine turnovers committed, 9-24 from downtown, 8-11 from the line.
So, the Knicks made up for 30-plus minutes of sluggish play with a quarter or so of vigor, and it was really all they needed. Perhaps we should be praising them for saving some energy for the brutal back-to-back they've got coming up? Perhaps not, but the Knicks gave enough of a shit to save themselves from having to scrap down the stretch. They're still undefeated and they've still got a tremendous point differential, and that's still very cool.