"The East is big, man."
If I could physically bury the Knicks' 2013-14 season (I've tried...I bought a shovel and everything), those words would be the epitaph. It combined everything I hated about that failed campaign -- the overreaction to the series loss to Indiana, the supposed need for Andrea Bargnani, the ill-conceived defensive schemes obsessed with doubling the post, the abandonment of the lineups which carried them to the 2012-13 division title.
Derek Fisher undoubtedly wants to play traditional lineups with a traditional frontcourt this season; you can see it in the lineups he chooses to start games. But Fish also wants to win games, and unlike his predecessor, he is willing to make changes based on actual need instead of some ill-conceived basketball philosophy.
On a game-by-game basis, Mike Woodson's unshakable faith in the Church of BIG tended to hurt the Knicks in two ways. He played dumb lineups simply to pair two tall dudes in the frontcourt, and he focused way too much attention on guarding opposing bigs. Needless, haphazard doubling of any big man in the post (even Ian Mahinmi!) became as much a staple of the Knicks' defense as the incessant screen-switching.
For those hoping Fisher would not repeat those same mistakes, Sunday's matchup with the Charlotte Hornets provided an ideal test. Charlotte isn't particularly big with Marvin Williams starting at the 4, and they got even smaller when the injured Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was replaced with Gary Neal and Gerald Henderson. What they do possess is one of the league's elite low-post scorers in Al Jefferson. For all the "East is big" bullshit, Big Al was the only player in the Eastern Conference to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game last season.
Fisher met the challenge of Charlotte's small-ball lineups the same way he handled Cleveland's Kevin-Love-at-the-center unit last Thursday, by rolling with a foursome of Pablo Prigioni, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Carmelo Anthony to close both games. He mixed and matched with the center position, using Amar'e Stoudemire on Thursday and Samuel Dalembert on Sunday (with a sprinkling of STAT for offensive possessions).
Unless they're facing a team with two post threats, like Memphis or Chicago, this is a pretty damn ideal closing lineup. J.R. takes some of the scoring burden off Melo, and the two wing players are strong enough on the boards to make up for the lineup's lack of overall size. It shouldn't come as surprise that this unit worked against two playoff contenders -- it's been working for years.
Honestly, I was more impressed with Fisher's strategy for guarding Jefferson. Yes, Big Al got his points -- 21 points on 9-17 shooting -- but most of that damage was limited to a hot stretch in the second and third quarters. Jefferson finished the game shooting 1-5 for two points over the last 21 minutes of play.
As Jefferson was tearing through the Knicks' D in the beginning of the third quarter, I started having terribly Woody flashbacks. Surely they will start sending way too much help, and the entire defense will fall apart, as usual.
That didn't really happen. Fisher adjusted his defense by not adjusting his defense. He simply trusted his big man to improve his defense on Jefferson, without help. And it worked.
The big problem was Jefferson was that he was consistently getting the ball far too close to the rim. Look at where he catches the ball early in the third quarter:
You're too close, man! Doesn't matter if it's Amar'e, Dalembert, or prime Patrick Ewing guarding him, Big Al is probably going to score from there.
Now, Amar'e will never be an elite defender, but you can't say the dude isn't big and strong. It appears that Fisher reminded him as much some time during that third quarter, and STAT responded by pushing Jefferson farther out on the block:
For post players, establishing deep position is half the battle. As the Knicks forced Jefferson farther from the rim, he grew frustrated and starting settling for some wild shots. This was his final field goal attempt against Amar'e -- not exactly ideal shooting form here:
These adjustments resulted in fewer chances at the rim. Here is Jefferson's shot chart for the first 27 minutes:
And here is Jefferson's shot chart for the final 21 minutes:
Fisher did what many fans have been begging the Knicks to do for at least two years -- he had his defenders stay on their assigned man. There were very few switches and double-teams. It was simple and sensible. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
There's no guarantee that Fisher will always close games with the same small-ball lineup. He is still finding out what works and what doesn't. But the coach has shown a pragmatic streak that hasn't been seen at MSG in quite some time. He isn't stubbornly holding to his preferred frontcourt alignments. He isn't throwing his entire defense into chaos by adjusting the entire scheme every time a single opponent gets hot.
Contrary to popular opinion, the East is not very big. And the Knicks might finally have a coach who can see that.