Knicks 107 Lakers 106

At the risk of over-selling this road victory I was most impressed by two things the Knicks did well.

1. The Knicks limited their turnovers.

I recently remarked to a friend, “if the Knicks aren’t going to play any defense the least they can do is force the opposition to play some.” On the season the Knicks manage to fritter away almost 19% of their possessions. We saw the clearest implications of this team’s “butterfingers complex” at Utah. Twenty-two turnovers allowed a team that NY had otherwise outplayed most of the night to hang around until their most explosive scorer exploded. Last night against LA the Knicks turned the ball over a more reasonable 11 times. In fact two players, Marbury (6) and Richardson (5), were responsible for all of them and both had an uncharacteristically poor games in that regard. In the first half NY consistently found themselves down by 5 and 8 points–the Lakers shot a sizzling 40.7% from 3 point range for the game. In the past, the Knicks would compound a team’s hot shooting by turning it over, allowing the opposition to push a 5 or 8 point lead to 15 or 20. Last night NY never allowed LA to run away and hide. An 11 turnover night is probably a somewhat unrealistic expectation for this team going forward, but there is no reason the Knicks cannot be in the middle-of-the pack on turnovers at 14 or 15/game. For all the discussion that has come out of the Utah loss, the Knicks have generally performed well in games where they have a late lead and in close games. When the Knicks keep the game close they are a tough, tough cover.

2. The Knicks defended well in the last five minutes.

Although the Knicks are not blessed with very good defensive players, the Knicks are certainly exerting more effort on defense since the beginning of the season (and more than at any point last season). Stephon Marbury has been impressive in his efforts on defense recently, definitely since the start of the new year. Keeping in mind John Wooden’s adage not to mistake activity for outcome, Marbury’s efforts last night on Kobe Bryant were noteworthy. He consistently fought through screens, and did a relatively decent job of keeping Bryant from getting into the lane at will. Of course, Bryant spent much of the night at the free throw line (11 FTAs), so let’s not start the petition drive to get Marbury onto the All-NBA first team defense just yet. Nonetheless, I have been very critical of Marbury’s defensive effort in the past. So I would be remiss to ignore the most sustained defensive effort of his career and its deeper meaning. Thomas, for all the slick PR spin on his team’s shortcomings and assorted shenanigans, has managed to get Stephon Marbury of all players to recognize the value of defense and pay it more than lip service. Helping players confront their weaknesses and then improve on them (rather than merely exposing them in the press) is a trait I find to be much undervalued in coaches. As a friend once said to me, “getting a gunner to play defense is a sign he respects his coach.”

The next hill to climb for any coach trying to turn a poor defense into a respectable one is to get players to defend well in the last five minutes. (Then of course you try to get them to defend the whole game, but baby steps people, baby steps.) The Knicks did a poor job against the Jazz on Saturday but appeared to have learned some things from that loss. Below is the play-by-play for the Lakers only from the 5:04 mark in the 4th quarter.

5:04 [LAL 96-95] Bryant Free Throw 1 of 2 (26 PTS)
5:04 [LAL 97-95] Bryant Free Throw 2 of 2 (27 PTS)
4:30 [LAL 98-95] Evans Free Throw 1 of 2 (14 PTS)
4:30 [LAL 99-95] Evans Free Throw 2 of 2 (15 PTS)
3:53 Bryant Jump Shot: Missed
3:51 Odom Rebound (Off:3 Def:6)
3:50 Odom Turnover:Foul (5 TO)
3:24 Parker Jump Shot: Missed
Team Timeout:Regular 2:41
2:41 [LAL 100-101] Evans Free Throw 1 of 2 (16 PTS)
2:41 Evans Free Throw 2 of 2 missed
Frye Rebound (Off:2 Def:5) 2:40
2:00 Parker 3pt Shot: Missed
1:58 Odom Rebound (Off:4 Def:6)
1:58 [LAL 102-103] Odom Layup Shot: Made (12 PTS)
0:59 [LAL 103-103] Bryant Free Throw 1 of 2 (28 PTS)
Team Timeout:Regular 0:59
0:59 [LAL 104-103] Bryant Free Throw 2 of 2 (29 PTS)
[LAL 106-105] Bryant Running Jump Shot: Made (31 PTS)
Team Timeout:Regular 0:07
0:00 Odom Jump Shot: Missed Block: Lee (1 BLK)

By my count that’s 2 for 6 from the field, including a drawn charge and an excellent defensive stand on the last play. The Knicks gave up 8 FTAs and some untimely offensive rebounds over that span but played quite well from the field defensively.

It was perhaps the season’s most satisfying victory. It reminded me of last season’s quip from Antonio Davis about how the team’s 7-game post-holiday winning streak was “fool’s gold” because the defensive effort wasn’t there. Let’s hope last night’s victory leads to real gold this time around.

Knicks Own Flaws, Not Referees, Doom Them

The time on the clock read 6:15 in the 4th quarter when David Lee scored on a beautiful cross court alley-oop pass from Jamal Crawford. The Utah Jazz didn’t account for the Knick forward in transition and Lee signaled for the ball by waiving both arms. It was fitting that Lee scored on this play, seeing that it was his work on the defensive end that started the break. The play prior, Harpring lost control of the ball in the paint and Lee tipped it to Francis to begin the possession.

There’s no official significance of this play, but it has a special meaning to me. When I watched this game yesterday, it was after this play that I said to myself “the Knicks won’t lose this game – they’re up 10 points with just over 6 minutes to go.” Unfortunately my prognostication was incorrect as the Knicks would end up losing 104-102 in overtime. So one day later I decided to revisit the game to figure out how New York managed to blow that robust 10 point margin.

After Lee’s basket, the Jazz called a timeout to run a set play. Harpring used Okur for a quick screen and nailed a jump shot from the free throw line (5:59 [UTA 79-87]). It’s hard to fault any particular Knick on defense here. Okur used his hands on the pick to keep Richardson from staying with Harpring, and rehearsed plays after timeouts are usually more successful than regular ones.

On the Knicks following possession Jamal Crawford drove to the hoop, but lost control of the ball along the way and crashed into Harpring. The referees rightfully called a charge, and Jamal picked up his 4th turnover of the game. However, Utah was unable to take advantage of this free opportunity by missing 2 free throws, and New York proceeded to score on a Marbury layup (5:03 [NYK 89-79]).

Down by 10 points, Utah looked to exploit one of the matchups that was in their favor. Eddy Curry was responsible for guarding Okur, and Curry isn’t mobile enough to follow him on the outside. Hence, Utah looked to free up Okur on the perimeter. Williams set up Okur on the left side behind the three point line with Curry too far away to defend him. However before the pass arrived, Jamal Crawford decided to assist Eddy Curry and switched to Okur. Crawford was as close to Okur as possible, which prevented the Jazz center from shooting. However Okur’s height advantage allowed him to safely hold the ball over his head and survey the field.

While Okur waits with the ball, Harpring positions himself on the top of the key, and Crawford’s man Fisher is on the right sideline. To compensate Curry has to back away from Okur and cover Fisher on the far side of the court, but the Knick center can’t get too close to Fisher, because the Utah guard will be able to beat him off the dribble. Therefore Quentin Richardson tries to assist Curry by dropping back off of Harpring a few feet to play the passing lane between Okur and Fisher. Seeing the opportunity, Okur passes to Harpring with Richardson too far back to prevent a jump shot. Harpring gives Richardson a step fake then nails a three pointer (4:41 [UTA 82-89]).

The Knicks’ defensive breakdown on this play wasn’t the fault of Crawford or Richardson. When Okur sets up to get the ball, Curry is on the left block at least 15 feet away. Had Crawford not taken the initiative, the Jazz center would have had an open look at the basket anyway. Similarly Richardson left his defensive assignment to assist Curry who was mismatched with Fisher. Curry’s lack of speed to either cover Okur or Fisher on the perimeter gave the Jazz this opportunity to score.

With the Utah crowd energized, Marbury brought up the ball deliberately and delivered it to Crawford with 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Curry set a pick for Crawford, but Millsap stepped up to slow the Knick guard. Crawford was surprised by this tactic and lowers his shoulder into Millsap, dribbling the ball far behind the arc. With time counting down on the shot clock, Crawford is forced to take a long three point shot. Not surprisingly he missed.

This possession had two problems: the design and the execution. The Knicks had their slowest and worst outside shooter set a pick on the perimeter with about half of the shot clock to go. New York wasted a lot of time to set this play up, as it took Curry 4 seconds to get across court to set the pick. With little time on the clock in a high pressure situation, they could have chosen something that developed quicker.

Of course the execution was poor as well. When Millsap hedges the pick, Crawford commits the cardinal sin of dribbling while keeping his head down. Had he looked up, he would have seen Eddy Curry traveling towards the hoop alone, since both defenders followed Crawford on the pick. The rest of the Jazz defense had abandoned the two Knicks on the weak side to compensate for Curry. Not only could Crawford have passed to Curry, but he likely had Lee or Richardson on the weak side as well.

After collecting the rebound the Jazz looked to exploit Curry’s lack of speed again. Ironically the Jazz call a similar play to the one the Knicks had just run. This time the Jazz’s center Okur set the high pick for their guard Williams. Curry began the play at the free throw line, badly out of position. When Okur set the pick Curry was neither in place to slow down Williams so Marbury can recover, nor was he able to guard Okur. Instead he stepped back towards the hoop to defend against a possible drive by the mercurial Williams. Okur drifted out behind the three point line and Williams spun and hit him with a pass. At the point when Okur receives the pass Curry is nearly in middle of the paint. Okur has time to set himself, take a good look at the basket, and drain the three pointer (4:05 [UTA 85-89]). Curry’s poor positioning gave Okur an unguarded shot.

The Knicks would call a timeout to try to put the end to Utah’s run. However they were unsuccessful with their planned play, and neither team would be able to score for the next 3 possessions. Marbury would have his shot blocked on a layup attempt, Richardson would steal the ball from Harpring, and Curry would miss a jump shot from 10 feet.

With 3 minutes remaining, the Jazz would bring the ball across the court in hopes of cutting into their 4 point deficit. Again Utah would run a high screen, but with a poor shooter in Millsap. Curry is defending Millsap, but this time he doesn’t have to worry about Millsap on the perimeter. Curry stays at home on the foul line, as Williams kicks the ball out to Harpring. Millsap drifts into the lane, and at the time of Harpring’s release he is directly behind the Knicks’ center. Curry fails to put a body on Millsap and watches idly as Millsap catches the missed shot and lays it in (2:49 [UTA 87-89]). To prevent this Jazz score, all Curry needed to do was box out Millsap, something that Curry’s physique is amply suited for.

Attempting to keep their dwindling lead, the Knicks would race up court. Unfortunately Marbury would dribble the ball off of his $15 sneakers into the arms of the Derek Fisher. Sensing their window of opportunity closing, the Jazz set up hastily. Early in the shot clock, Okur beats David Lee to the outside and buries another three pointer (2:24 [UTA 90-89]). The Knick 10 point lead has evaporated, and Utah has a chance to win the game.

Those that watched the game might be tempted to blame the referees on the Knicks loss. Jamal Crawford was mauled on his last shot attempt in regulation, as was David Lee in overtime who was given a technical for complaining. Nonetheless, further inspection of these crucial minutes show the Knicks have no one to blame but themselves. Although Crawford and Marbury made their share of mistakes, Eddy Curry is undoubtedly the goat of the game. Utah scored 8 points on three different plays due to Curry. On the first he lacked speed to cover either of two opponents. On the second he committed a mental mistake by not being in the proper position. On the third he was too lazy to box out the man he was defending. Had New York kept their fourth quarter lead, no amount of poor officiating would have cost them the victory.

Hail, Hail The Gang’s All Here

Well, if not today, then certainly by Tuesday in Los Angeles.

That is when Steve Francis is due to rejoin the Knicks as the new backup point guard. Things should get interesting. Francis was quoted in the Daily News as saying, “What we’re doing right now, I don’t think it would be right for anybody to try to break the camaraderie and the way we’re playing as a team,” Francis said. “Even without me, we’re playing great basketball.”

I dunno about “great basketball,” but it certainly is nice to see Francis (at least publically) say all the right things about coming off the bench. Coach Isiah Thomas is not exactly forthcoming about what his rotation plans are, but I am beginning to get the impression that Thomas wants to create an official “second unit,” so while most of us thought that Francis was going to be receiving Nate Robinson’s minutes, it appears instead that Thomas may look to pair the two (Francis and Robinson) as a bench guard unit. Seems like an odd decision, and I really wonder what this means for Jared Jeffries.

Renaldo Balkman is already basically done for with this new rotation, but while Jeffries could be the small forward in a “second unit” team of Francis, Robinson, Frye, Lee and Jeffries, I don’t see that happening, do you?

Especially with how awesome Lee looks while playing with the starters. His talents seem to be wasted a bit being paired with the bench guys. In addition, I would think the biggest benefit of having Francis play off the bench would be that Thomas would have a point guard in the game to pound the ball down to Curry, even when Marbury is off the court.

As a side note, if the Knicks win one of their next three, they will enter the All-Star break with the same amount of wins that they achieved all of last year. I think that’s more a knock on Larry Brown’s job last year than it is is a sign of improvement, but, well, it’s an interesting factoid, at least.

Three tough road games, though, to think about.

Hollinger: Trade Frye… But for Whom?

In Hollinger’s latest piece at the NY Sun he lays out New York’s four major needs for at the deadline. They are (in order of appearance): 1. a true point guard (rather than four short wing players), 2. a decent long range shooter, 3. a (man-to-man) defensive stopper on the wing, and 4. a defensive-oriented power forward. To be fair, Hollinger is up front about the fact that he’s ignoring, for the sake of argument, some practical realities; namely that Dolan’s checkbook may now be locked in an Isiah-proof vault, and that Isiah himself may be unwilling to part with some of the big-$ players he’s acquired.

Disclosure: I should admit right away that, although I have great respect for his work, I often find myself on opposing sides of issues with Hollinger; having to do more with his rhetoric than his stats. I’m one who believes strongly that the data NEVER speak for themselves; someone must speak for them. Consequently, the spokesperson’s interpretation of the data can be debatable even when the data are, technically speaking, correct.

In his latest piece, Hollinger commits an interesting (bordering on bizarre) act of rhetoric. My purpose in writing is less to criticize Hollinger than to register my head-scratching bewilderment with the way he argues his conclusion. At the end of the article he writes that the Knicks need to pair Curry with a more defense-oriented PF–a point I agree with in principle. He goes on to suggest that Isiah should look to move Channing Frye for such a player. Hollinger does not suggest this lightly. It’s clear from this and previous writings that Hollinger is a fan of Frye’s. I too am a fan, having followed Frye since his freshman season at Arizona. Nonetheless, I generally accept Hollinger’s conclusion that if the Knicks are serious about making Curry the centerpiece they must seriously contemplate moving Frye to obtain players that better fit a low-post offense.

Here’s where I thought Hollinger displays a rhetorical sleight of hand that is quizzical, for lack of a better word. Throughout the article, he makes insightful suggestions for low-cost moves the Knicks might make to address each of the first three needs. He suggests that deals for imminently acquirable players, like Tyron Lue, Travis Deiner, or Keith Bogans, could be an inexpensive means to address the needs for a stop-gap point guard, deep shooter, or man-to-man wing defender. These are all players who could replace someone in the rotation without throwing everything out of whack. Yet Hollinger is oddly silent on suggestions for a defense-first power forward, which he identifies as “clearly the greatest” team need. He offers only that a package of Rose (essentially Rose’s contract) and Frye could bring back “something good.”

I beg your pardon, but, something good like what?

I am not adamantly opposed to moving Frye. David Lee’s own defensive shortcomings notwithstanding, Frye doesn’t defend well and he may never. He also seems better suited to a screen-roll oriented offense like Utah’s. So a reasonable, even compelling case could be made to move Frye for a defensive PF that helps long-term. So why not make that case, especially if it is the team’s greatest need by far? Good defensive power-forwards, let alone those who can also hit a 15-18 foot jumper, are the NBA’s version of lefty starting pitchers that can throw 200+ innings. Everybody needs one; there simply aren’t enough to go around; and nobody’s giving them away. So if he had something in mind about how to get one I’d have loved to have read about it. Instead he spends a good chunk of the column making a reasonable argument for acquiring Tyron Lue.

Rotation Rotating

The Knicks’ bizarre mixture of talent will be taking on an even more bizarre turn over the next couple of weeks, as Isiah Thomas announced yesterday that he will not only be keeping Jerome James (who appeared as though he was starting to specifically counter against Dwight Howard and Tony Battie) in the starting lineup, but that he is also planning on Steve Francis returning to the Knicks’ rotation as the backup point guard.

Neither move fills me with much enthusiasm, as James’ minutes, while designed to turn Channing Frye into a scorer off the bench and take Frye away with Curry (which I have no problem with), seem to also serve to lower David Lee’s minutes. Folks have been clammoring for Lee to get MORE minutes, and not only has Isiah managed to avoid putting him into the starting lineup, but now he’s going to be receiving LESS minutes!! Saturday, Lee played his fewest minutes in two weeks. I don’t mind going to the defensive-minded James for certain matchups, but less minutes for Lee is annoying.

And Balkman is just completely buried now.

Meanwhile, the return of Francis is frightening to me. As a backup guard, Francis is clearly a significant upgrade, talent-wise, then Nate Robinson, but how can Francis possibly be okay with only playing 15 minutes a game? However, if he is willing to swallow his pride, then I suppose it is good news. He’s extremely useful if Marbury were to be unable to play.

Thanks to Jon Abbey for reminding me to check today’s Post (I only picked up the Daily News, and it was awful – why do I keep reading it each Sunday? Lupica always just aggravates me).

Curry No All-Star

Newsday is citing sources “with knowledge of the situation” that say Knick center Eddy Curry will not be among those named to the All-Star team.

Curry, currently averaging 19ppg and 7rpg, is enjoying his best season. Orlando center Dwight Howard, averaging 17 and 12, appears a more likely candidate to back up starter Shaquille O’Neal.

Personally, I think Curry makes a decent case for All-Star consideration but the team’s poor record and his own notoriously poor defense are factors likely to count against him.
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Newsday and the Post are reporting that David Lee has been named to the sophomore team in the matchup pitting NBA rookies versus second year players.