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X’s and Uh-O’s: Breaking down 4 plays from Knicks-Wizards

Some good, some bad.

NBA: Washington Wizards at New York Knicks Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

There were a million possession in last night’s Knicks/Wizards game. In today’s X’s and Uh-O’s, let’s look at four that hinted at hustle, non-hustle, non-intelligence, and what could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Marshall Plumlee getting after it on D

The Knicks are not a good defensive team. I’m not smart enough to understand why that is. Everybody talks about defense. Everybody talks about its importance. Often when they lose, that’s the issue the conversation centers on.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re unfair to players. We take their skills on one side of the ball and project them to the other. Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose are world-class athletes on offense. Shouldn’t that translate to the other end? But an athlete’s ability to dictate to a defender is a completely different fluency than their ability to react when they become the defender, and vice versa. No angel earned its wings when Bruce Bowen or Tony Allen had the ball in their hands.

However, one thing that doesn’t seem unfair is expecting players to hustle. If defense was a planet, the primary element in its atmosphere would be hustle. Check out Marshall Plumlee in the clip below against John Wall at the end of the first quarter.

Plumlee hustles right out to Marcin Gortat the instant the ball is inbounded. There are only a few seconds left and Gortat isn’t a threat from out there. Plumlee isn’t going to break-up the handoff to Wall. But he dashes out full-bore so he can better defend the next action in the sequence. Wall looked to be heading toward the center of the floor, where he’d been killing New York all night. Plumlee blitzes and cuts Wall off, forcing him to change directions as the clock drops below three seconds.

As Wall heads right, Gortat picks off Courtney Lee. Wall is an A+ penetrator but only a B- jump shooter; he wants to get as close to the basket as he can. Notice that Plumlee doesn’t get caught up trying to guard his man. He knows the clock and knows Wall’s desire and limitations. Plumlee runs to a spot on the floor, a spot he doesn’t want Wall to reach, forcing Wall to pull up from as far out as possible.

A final note of praise for Plumlee: he doesn’t pretend he’s a shot blocker! He doesn’t need to try and block Wall’s shot. All the Knicks want here is to dictate the type of look the Wizards get. Plumlee goes straight up and gives his all, improbably, while in midair. That’s all hustle. That’s good defense.

On the other hand, thirty seconds earlier...

Derrick Rose not getting after it

One of my pet peeves is when a team rolls the ball in from out of bounds to get it as far up the floor as they can before touching it and starting the clock, and the defense lets them. The basic premise of any defense should be “You wanna do what?! No.”

With 40 seconds left in the first, the Wizards were in good position to play for a two-for-one. Former Knick Dudley Do-Right, a.k.a. Jason Smith, inbounded the ball to Wall, who let the ball roll and roll and roll, past half court. All that time, Rose is hanging back at the three-point line, content to let whatever’s about to happen unfold, never suspecting the danger. It reminded me of the pencil trick scene in The Dark Knight.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Wall picks up the ball and in two dribbles is already past Rose, who’s been picked off by Gortat. Plumlee again does all that’s humanly possible to keep Wall in front of him, but the true threat is what Wall’s setting up. After Gortat picked Rose, he sort of casually loped toward the hoop; ever the gracious host, Rose did the same. The thing is, Gortat’s lope allowed time and space for Wall to pull Gortat’s defender, Plumlee, into jumping to contest Wall’s jumper, eliminating him as a threat to contest Gortat. Rose was loping because...not sure.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Rose on this possession. Thing is, there were about a half-dozen of these throughout the game. That can’t be coincidence. Maybe the Knick defense is structurally flawed, or too complicated, or too sporadic, changing from game to game. What’s not in question: hustle helps. What also helps: brains. Which brings me to...

Brandon Jennings pressing John Wall is bad for business

Pop-quiz, hot shot: before last night’s game someone tells you the Knicks will be up one in the final minute. The Wizards will have the ball in Wall’s hands. What do you want him to do? Get a full head of steam driving toward the basket? Or pull up for a jumper like he did at the end of the first?

Brandon Jennings strikes me as a man who very much enjoys being Brandon Jennings. That’s good! He carries himself with a rhythm and tempo all his own. I respect that in people. The danger with being so internally in-tuned is it usually requires a degree of myopia regarding external reality. For example, 99 of 100 people will tell you Jennings can’t keep Wall in front of him. Sadly, the one who thinks Jennings can is Jennings.

Washington clears out the whole floor for Wall to work with. They want him to work one-on-one against Jennings. Again, pencil trick: you don’t want to go along with what your opponent is setting up. Disrupt, don’t defer. By pressing up so high on Wall, Jennings gives him an E-Z Pass to blow by him, which he does, thereby drawing the foul that led to the game-winning free throws.

This is all too sad. Let’s end on a high note.

The Unicorn as high-post playmaker

In the second quarter, Anthony set a franchise record with 25 points, including 16 in a row. Even when Melo’s cold opposing defenses are keyed in on him; when he’s hot, even more so. So the Wizards were presumably focused on him. In the clip below, Kristaps Porzingis gets the ball on the high post while Anthony is mid-post on the other side of the floor. Because of KP’s shooting ability, Smith has to play right up on him. On the weak side, Melo sets a screen for Jennings to cut back door. Markieff Morris sees the ball, but not his man. Watch what happens the instant KP sees Morris eyeing him eyeing Jennings.

That’s a difficult risk/reward evaluation for Morris. His fear of a literal lay-up by Jennings left Melo open for what’s basically a lay-up for him.

For reasons of system, personnel, or both, the Knicks are not a good defensive team. If they’re going to make the playoffs this year, it’s probably going to be because of their offense. If Hornacek increases the amount of KP at 5/Melo at 4 like he did last night, this is a glimpse at the Catch-22s the Knicks can dictate to opponents. If you’re gonna lose, lose pretty.

(Videos courtesy of Stingy. That dude is all right.)