I always prefer a blowout win, but I've got room in my heart for an uneven win. There's something to be said for weathering a storm, even if you brewed the storm yourself. The Knicks built a double-digit lead like their 2012-2013 selves. The ball kicked and skipped about the perimeter to find open buckets from the outset, first for J.R. Smith, starter/STARER, then for second unit guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Pablo Prigioni. Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani enjoyed their space, using and setting screens to can jumpers of all ranges. The defense stopped little when the Hawks leaked out in transition or when Jeff Teague bothered to drive, but the Knicks played enough D with their offense-- looong shot clocks, made jumpers, and few turnovers-- that it didn't matter. They led by ten at halftime.
Annnnnd then they played possibly the worst quarter of a season that's already had some hellish quarters. On offense, it was that familiar, inexplicable phenomenon wherein everyone stops moving, the ball stops moving, and Carmelo Anthony uses every possession to jab and jab and jab and take two dribbles and brick a contested jumper. He shot 2-10 in that period, just farting X's all over the right side of his shot chart against solid defense from Paul Millsap and some helping Hawks. And the Hawks' offense went the opposite direction, as if they'd suddenly figured out Jeff Teague can ruin the Knicks if you just set a pick for him. Guards got lost, help arrived late, and Teague created shots, assists, and free throws with ease. The more the Knicks missed, the quicker the Hawks could catch New York off-balance and mismatched defensively. The quarter may have been worse if the Hawks didn't miss so many open threes.
Atlanta building a big lead and holding on despite a Knicks comeback would have been an expected variation on a developing 2013-2014 Knicks trope, but...no! Surprise ending! A bench group anchored by Pablo, Timbert, and Iman Shumpert forced a few turnovers and scored quickly and explosively (thanks, Bronx Chica) to prevent the Hawks from blowing the game open. Then the starters returned looking reinvigorated. Melo's shots started to drop and Raymond Felton created great looks out of the pick-and-roll. And, lo and behold, an offense that didn't kick-start the Hawks with long misses gave way to a settled halfcourt defense that actually trapped and rotated on occasion.
As BJabs insinuated, Wednesday night had all the trappings of a mid-2012-2013 ugly Knicks win. For long stretches, the Knicks produced so much offense they hardly needed to play defense. When the offense stagnated, the defense got exposed more regularly. When it came to nut-cuttin' time (did I use that right, Mr. Woodson?), they generated enough stops and buckets to preserve the rights and undo the wrongs. Some notes:
- Melo's still kinda off. Even subtracting that 2-10 third-quarter sludge, he was a middling 7-15 from the field. And he didn't offer enough rebounding or defensive hustle to compensate for a mediocre offensive night. Melo did make plays in transition, cut nicely across the baseline for some clean looks, and stick a few big shots late, but he missed enough uglies to make this an underwhelming game overall. Some of those misses were just poorly timed jumpers, but a few were weirdly ineffective first-step drives past bigger defenders. Al Horford proved quicker than Melo expected.
- Melo did successfully execute the first half of a two-for-one at the end of the first quarter. Even just drilling a quick three with more than 24 left on the game clock is rare enough to merit recognition, I think.
- Continuing the "this game reminded us of last year" bit: Andrea Bargnani played a lovely Andrea Bargnani game on offense-- pick-and-pop jumpers, awkwardly brilliant finishes as a trailer-- and resembled an injured Tyson Chandler on defense. I mean that in a semi-good way. When Bargnani got the chance to defend Al Horford straight up, he did fine, and when he was in position to contest dribble penetration, he did fine. And 11 rebounds is a very healthy number of rebounds for Bargnani to grab as a center, especially when four of them came from hard work on the offensive glass. Hard work, really. I mean that. Physical exertion! It's just that New York's perimeter defense on Teague was SO consistently awful that great interior help was required, and Bargnani absolutely did not provide that. It was like those bad times last year when you expected Chandler to clean up every mess and he didn't, except we never really expected that of Bargnani. Like I said, it got really gross when the Knicks started producing long rebounds and the Hawks started setting solid picks for Teague early in the clock. When Bargnani's the only big person around to help, he's sorta damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn't, but he mostly didn't, and it got embarrassing.
- And that is not to single out Bargnani at all. He's easy to pick on because he was usually the last guy staring at the scorer and because he's filling in for Tyson Chandler. And because we're so used to dreadful perimeter defense from Raymond Felton that it just blends into the background at this point. Pablo Prigioni at least tried to lose ballhandlers toward help. Felton ducked under screens and just disappeared forever, as if he'd found a warm pouch on Al Horford's tummy and decided to crawl inside. On the other flipper, Felton did a lovely job using picks-- often two or three in a row-- to distribute to his fellow starters and even sink a few jumpers in a close fourth quarter. We talk a lot of the Knicks not running plays late, but they got their iso ya-ya's out in the third and really operated in the fourth. The worst look they got down the stretch was because of over-passing out of the pick-and-roll.
- This has been said (and pointed out above), but even in a solid performance, Bargnani is always good for a few absurdly awful moments. Trying to shoot over a double and getting swatted by Kyle Korver would be one of those from Wednesday night.
- Iman Shumpert missed most of his jumpers, which...I dunno, I'll forgive him if he wasn't totally focused. Shump made his 35 minutes count with his passing. Shump's been deferring unnecessarily at times, but he makes effective passes, doesn't he? The kid logged nine assists by just kickin' ove rpicks or making an extra pass around the arc. Shump has gamely assumed the role of vice-ball-mover in these units without two point guards. His usefulness can go unappreciated (I sure as hell didn't notice he had so many assists until I saw the box score) as it happens, but it was easy to spot the lack of motion when he wasn't out there and nobody stepped in to swing in his place. The brunt of that Hawks rally with all the pick-and-roll breakdowns and Melo-chucking came after Shump left the floor midway through the third. And while Shump got beat off the dribble a few times and lost Kyle Korver in transition a few more times, his numerous strips and deflections (four steals) helped push New York's turnover margin. Shump quietly held things together even while shooting quite poorly.
- J.R. Smith gave that starting unit much of what it needed by just hitting his open threes off the catch. He stopped doing that after the first quarter, but he made his later minutes count with seven rebounds and some aggressive help defense down the stretch.
- Mike Woodson's rotation was short and he got some useful performances out of the bench without really leaning on it (or, conversely, the starters played a lot of minutes). Pablo wasn't thaaaat much better than Felton at contesting ball-handlers, but he at least applied some pressure on Teague, particularly in the early fourth quarter. Hardaway drained his catch-and-shoot jumpers and finished stuff in transition, limiting the holy-shit-even-J.R.-wouldn't-shoot that misses to only one or two. Metta World Peace and Kenyon Martin could have done a better job as rim protectors (and Metta needs to hit his threes), but they rotated well enough and kept the second-unit offense moving with good picks and cuts.
- I want the Knicks to play the Hawks more often, if only because they now have the wonderfully Clyde-friendly frontcourt of Al Harvard and Parl Meresap.
- THIS GUY.
I'll take that kind of win. I have little hope for this Knicks defense against teams with guards that can push and attack over picks. I did regain some faith in the Knicks' ability to play "defense" by just winning the turnover battle by a landslide (Three turnovers! Three!), rebounding decently, and slathering on the threes. The opponent can't score if you never give them the ball!!!!
So, there's that. Now the Rockets. Tonight. Keep it going, Knicks. Don't fall flat. Not now. Not against those guys.