The Knicks are back in New York following a fairly predictable Western road trip. If you had something better to do last weekend -- and I pray to God that you did -- you missed an absolute pasting at the hands of Golden State and a let's-get-home-already second half disintegration against Phoenix.
Yep, the Knicks are still bad. They rely on dudes like Lou Amundson and Alexey Shved. They are routinely slaughtered at the altar of legit NBA clubs. I guess we should feel bad about that, right?
And yet this current iteration of Knickerbocker -- the birth date is somewhat hazy, but let's say it began on January 19 when Amundson and Lance Thomas were integrated into the lineup -- has proven to be surprisingly better at the actual winning of basketball games than its more talented predecessor.
You may find it odd that the squad which included Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Amar'e Stoudemire ran up a pathetic 5-36 record, with far more help from Carmelo Anthony, while the scrub unit simply trying to play out the season has posted a less pathetic 8-17 mark.
What is the secret of their -- and I'm using this term very loosely -- success? These wacky new Knicks have turned around a crippling affliction which plagued the franchise for the past two seasons -- a complete inability to perform in the clutch.
Do you recall a time earlier in the season when it seemed like New York choked away games on a regular basis? It was even worse than you remember. Before January 19 The Knicks' record in clutch scenarios -- games in which they either led or trailed by no more than five points with five minutes remaining -- was a staggering 3-17.
Three wins. Seventeen losses. Let those numbers wash over you for a moment. The Knicks played 100 total minutes in clutch situations and were outscored by 63 points. An NBA squad wearing blindfolds should be able to post better numbers.
Not only have the new Knicks halted that dreadful trend, they've actually turned it into a positive:
How have they done it? They improved both in drawing fouls on offense and avoiding fouls on D. The old Knicks shot an average of 1.7 free throws and allowed an average of 4.6 free throw attempts in the last five minutes of close games; the current Knicks essentially closed that gap, averaging 3.3 FTA and 3.4 opponent FTA in the clutch.
Four of their seven recent clutch wins came just before the All-Star Break, when Carmelo Anthony was not only playing but taking the ball strong to the hoop and dishing to teammates at the end of games in a way he hasn't done in the last three seasons.
And then, of course, there's this guy.
We've already discussed Langston Galloway's tank-busting clutchness at length, and the numbers back it up. The undrafted rookie from St. Joe's is shooting an absurd 51.7 percent from three in the fourth quarter.
This is the part where I must remind you that a team's performance in close games does not generally reflect its overall ability. There's a reason modern NBA minds pay such close attention to margin of victory. Over the 82-game long haul, you are what your point differential says you are.
Yet I do believe that this clutch turnaround speaks at least somewhat to the job Derek Fisher has done getting his players to buy into the system. The old Knicks were an iso-heavy, jump-shooting catastrophe in close games. Fisher has used creative ATO play calls to get players easy looks at the bucket and trips to the free throw line. He has occasionally gone away from the Triangle at the end of games to run high pick-and-rolls that have ended in open shots. And he got the team to spread the wealth, even when Melo was still playing.
In a season like this, you often have to dig deep -- very deep -- to find signs of improvement. The Knicks are a squad almost totally devoid of talent. Yet on those rare occasions when they catch an opponent on an off night, they have demonstrated an ability to execute late in games that hasn't been seen at MSG in quite some time. It may not be great for the tank, but it provides a glimmer of hope that Derek Fisher can build a disciplined team.