Decision Right, Timing Wrong

Remember that Carmelo Anthony was the first player in the gym the second the NBA unlocked the doors in December. Remember that Melo arrived in great shape, with three percent less body fat than the season before and with a sense of ownership of the team after last season’s whirlwind.

And if none of that means anything to you, go with the simple fact that Melo has never ducked anyone in his career, especially LeBron James. His head-to-head career record against his 2003 draft classmate is 10-4.

I recall conversations I had with NBA executives and scouts who each told me of all the players in the NBA, Anthony may be the only NBA player that has the ability to intimidate LeBron. It is a terrific battle between these two friends — remember, they are good friends off the court as members of this NBA Rat Pack (LeBron, Wade, Melo and CP3) — every time they meet and star players look forward to these battles, they don’t retreat from them.

So, as we discussed at the top on Visa Knicks Game Night before the Knicks faced the Heat last night, let’s dispel any notion that Anthony simply didn’t want to play against LeBron. It was because he knew he couldn’t compete against LeBron and the Knicks couldn’t afford to have someone at half-speed going against one of the game’s most physically dominant players.

Fact is, Melo shouldn’t have been playing at all over the last week. And the truth is, he should have shut it down sooner.

“I think I was trying to be a superhero, trying to prove to my teammates that I can play hurt,” Anthony admitted before the game. “At the end of the day, looking at the games the last week-and-a-half, I just wasn’t myself physically. It was taking a toll on me mentally.”

Anthony started out the season as one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers, but slowly reverted to his isolation tendencies when the Knick offense started to falter. Melo’s issue isn’t selfishness (he leads the team with a career-high 4.3 assists per game this season), it is the simple fact that he trusts his game more than he trusts his teammates. And let’s be honest, considering the poor shooting this season, you can understand that perspective.

But what Mike D’Antoni (and Amar’e Stoudemire) are desperately trying to convince him to do is trust the system and stick to the gameplan. In other words, let the ball find you. Some games, if the opponent is focused on stopping you, the ball will go elsewhere. And that’s OK. That’s why you play on a team with another star, so you don’t have to carry the scoring burden.

Last night’s game in Miami provided the example, for most of three quarters, at least.

The Heat surrounded Stoudemire and gave him no room to work. It left the perimeter open for many shots and, for one night, the Knicks hit them. Amar’e had just 14 shots and was bottled up without a pick-and-roll point guard to help him get free, but afterward he was pleased with what he saw with the offense.

“The game was going well for a lot of other guys, so moving the ball was key for us,” Stoudemire said.

But let’s get back to Melo, who some wanted to see gut it out and play despite having no chance to keep pace running on a bad right ankle that has taken away his explosiveness to the rim and his elevation on his jumper.

Two games ago, he had just one point and was 0-for-7 from the field in Charlotte, but the Knicks got away with it because the Bobcats are awful. Then he went to Cleveland and made a few shots, but had nothing to offer physically against a young team that can run.

In a season with games that keep coming with little to no time off — next week brings the one (and only) back-to-back-to-back of the schedule — the only way to get rest is to take a game or two off. Dwyane Wade was out for the last six games before he returned last night. Dirk Nowitzki is in the midst of a four-game hiatus to allow his balky knee to heal and get his conditioning right.

And let’s not overlook Baron Davis, either. To his credit, he is not rushing back to the court despite the team’s desperate need for him. Davis, who is recovering from a herniated disk, does not want to come back until he is 100 percent strong and can help the team. For him to come back too soon could result in a setback that will only hurt the team more.

The East has nine teams under .500. The Knicks have to stay within range of the playoff bracket and hope they can go into the postseason hitting their stride and, most importantly, at full health.

So for Carmelo, the decision to sit is absolutely the right idea, but the argument can be made that it came a week too late. He was already hurting after rolling the ankle and jamming the wrist in the Memphis game on Jan. 12, which started this 1-8 tailspin — Coincidence? — and he sat out just one game (Jan. 14 in Oklahoma City) in that span, despite obvious physical limitations.

He finally accepted the fact that he can’t be like the inhuman Kobe Bryant, he can’t play through the pain and still be effective.

“I think he’s a gamer, he’s one of the toughest guys I know,” D’Antoni said of Melo. “And if that sets him out, that means he’s hurt. He’s played through a lot of pain and a lot of stuff, he’s always done that so obviously he’s hurt.”

TYSON WANTS ‘NEW YORK’ IDENTITY

Despite the loss, the Knicks were collectively encouraged — let’s not use the word satisfied here, it still was a loss — by a toughness that emerged throughout the game against a historical rival. After LeBron and D-Wade put on a dunk show for most of the first half, the Knicks got more physical around the rim to put an end to the jam session.

It started with rookie Iman Shumpert‘s hustle to catch up with Wade on a break and make a good play to stop his driving dunk attempt. Wade, who had just returned from missing six games with an ankle injury, took exception to the aggressive play and got in Shumpert’s face. Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler quickly stepped in to protect the young guard, who, to his credit, said nothing.

Then there was a hard foul by Bill Walker when LeBron was going strong to the basket. LeBron glared at Walker and said, “Don’t say nothing to me!” when the Knicks forward had a few words for him.

Overall, the Knicks showed great intensity in meeting a challenge against one of the NBA’s top teams. It is the type of effort that should be a given on every night, not just when you’re playing to not get embarrassed. It’s the type of effort that Chandler said should be a main characteristic of a team from New York.

“That’s the way you’ve got to play; that’s what this team has to be all about,” Chandler said. “We have to represent our city. That’s the way New York is, a grinding city, gutter, and we have to play that way with that type of personality.”

FIXINS

•Landry Fields had some moments in the game where he looked physically overwhelmed by the Heat, with five of his 12 shots blocked. But of the seven that got to the rim, he did make four of them. Fields’ stat-line looked good once again, with 14 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a steal in 34:03.

•Bill Walker’s career-high seven three-pointers was two shy of the franchise record for a game, which is shared byToney Douglas (vs. Memphis, March 17, 2011), Latrell Sprewell and John Starks.

•The 18 threes made by the Knicks were two shy of the franchise record (vs. Memphis, March 17, 2011) and the 43 attempts were four shy of the team record (vs. Chicago, Dec. 17, 2009).

Tweet yesterday from former Nuggets shooting guard J.R. Smith, who had been playing in China this season: “I wonder what it’s like to play on broadway? #hmmmmm!” Smith, of course, is an unrestricted free agent. Once his team’s season ends, he will be eligible to sign with any NBA team. The Knicks, who still have their “room exception,” are believed to be among teams interested.

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Coach D Says Offense is ‘Structurally Flawed’

*Join me for a live chat at KnicksNow.com on Friday, Jan. 27 at 12:30 p.m. ET. Then tune in to the Knicks-Heat game at 7:30 p.m. on MSG.

Mike D’Antoni is known around the NBA as one of the smartest offensive coaches in the game. But right now he is stumped.

After one game –against an obviously very weak opponent — where the Knicks had ball movement and flow in a win at Charlotte, the problems of spacing and tempo were back again in Wednesday’s maddening 91-81 loss at Cleveland.

Carmelo Anthony bounced back from a 1-point, 0-for-7 performance to score 15 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but what also returned were some moments when he fell into his isolation — read: Ball-stopping — tendencies. But Melo did post a team-high six assists, so it isn’t as if he’s hogging the ball, it’s just that there are times when he doesn’t work within the system.

And it’s not only on him, as the young point guard duo of Iman Shumpert and Toney Douglas struggled to keep the flow going (let’s face it, neither are quarterback-types) and take command of the offense when it started to lose its discipline.

An exasperated D’Antoni called his once vaunted offense “structurally flawed” and added, “We have to cure that.”

How?

“We’ve just got to keep the spacing and and keep the ball moving and keep cutting,” D’Antoni said.

“That’s what we have to do and we’re not doing it all the time. And then because we can’t score points, every little thing is magnified . . . We have to open our offense up, we gotta run, we gotta move the ball and we gotta go. We gotta go. It’s gotta move, it’s gotta flow. And right now we can’t get the flow.”

Amar’e Stoudemire, who led the team with 19 shots (and six turnovers) continues to express his frustration with spacing and ball-movement (or lack thereof), which seems to be a nod toward Carmelo’s ball-stopping tendencies and also the hesitation of Shumpert and Douglas.

“When we get to the point where we don’t move the ball and don’t have spacing, the offense gets stagnant,” Stoudemire said. “It’s harder to score . . . When there’s no spacing, it’s hard to penetrate in the lane, it’s hard to find guys on the outside when the paint is so clogged up. It’s tough for us right now. We’ve just got to keep chiming at it.”

This only intensifies the anticipation for Baron Davis to take the court. But the veteran point guard is not rushing back to be a conquering hero. At least not until he feels he is ready to be effective.

THREE-BAWL

Sometimes, despite our need to come up with some radical formula to prove why a team like the Knicks are struggling with offense and winning, it’s as simple as makes and misses. We’ve outlined the issues with the lack of an experienced point guard and those problems show up time and again, especially when the team needs a hoop to stop a drought. It’s also compounded by the fact that Anthony has injuries to every appendage, including his nose for the basket.

But at the heart of the issue is a critical element in the system: Three point shooting.

Take last night’s game for example. Both teams attempted 20 threes. The Cavs hit nine for a solid 45 percent clip. The Knicks made just 3 for an anemic 15 percent. That’s a difference of 18 points in a game that was lost by 10.

In other words, if the Knicks only matched Cleveland’s effort from downtown, they would have won by eight.

Now of course we can play that game all over the court, pointing to the effort rebounds that Anderson Varejao made to get the Cavs extra shots, but the Knicks step onto every court knowing how important the three-ball is to what they do on offense. It’s a means of getting spacing, pulling the defense out and opening up the middle so Amar’e Stoudemire can work and Tyson Chandler can get lobs.

But this season, what must be a strength for this system to work has been an Achilles Heel for the Knicks, who are among the league leaders in three-point attempts (22.6 per game) and yet among the league’s worst in achievement (30.2 percent from downtown).

The old adage says you live and die by the three. Right now the Knicks are on life support because of the three. Consider that against the Cavs, the Knicks shot 51.7 percent from two-point range (29 for 56), which should be more than enough to win a game. The Cavs were 43 percent from two-pointers (25/58). Both teams made 14 free throws.

So there’s your ballgame, folks.

It’s an alarming issue that must be acknowledged. It’s one thing to believe that your perimeter shooters will eventually find the touch, but once you reach the first quarter of the season, poor shooting is no longer an event, it’s a trend. Douglas is tied with Melo for the most attempts on the team (78) and he’s plummeted to a 23.7 percent clip. He went 2-for-8 from downtown against the Cavs, including three misses in an 0-for-5 fourth quarter for the Knicks from behind the arc.

If we were at a Churrascaria, this would be when one of Toney’s friends flips his card to red and tells his friend,“No mas.”

Landry Fields has found just about every other element of his game from his All-Rookie performance last season aside from the touch from three-point range. Fields has dropped to 20.9 percent, which is the worst among the rotation players. To his credit, Fields has put much more of a focus on driving to the rim rather than settling for spot-up threes, which is just not his strength.

The numbers tell the story: The three-point shot was 26.3 percent of the team’s offense last season (27.8 points per game) and this year it is providing only 21.7 percent (20.5 points per game). That alone is a major reason why the team is struggling to just get into the 90s most nights this season.

And so many of these threes — not all, but so many — are wide-open looks that come within the flow of the offense. These aren’t chuck-and-ducks.

So now for the inevitable question: How much of this is the Melo Effect? He is tied with Douglas for the most three-point attempts this season and is also shooting a low percentage (30.3 percent). Carmelo has never been a great three-point shooter, but he did shoot 42.4 percent from three in 27 games as a Knick after the trade last season. This season he’s taking the same amount per game (4.5) as he did last season, but he’s just not knocking them down. That could be a result of his myriad injuries, of course.

No question Melo is still struggling with the ball-stopping issue and he has put up his share of questionable pull-up threes that appear to be an attempt at a quick release to surprise the defense. But on a bum ankle and with a sore wrist?

Even after the trade, which lost three quality three-point shooters in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton, the Knicks still were a good three-point shooting team. But they lost two more important perimeter threats with the departures of Chauncey Billups (32.8 percent) and Shawne Williams (40.1 percent), who both drew out defenses to the arc. And you can’t overlook the major drop-off of two players who shot the ball relatively well from downtown lasts season in Douglas (37.3 percent) and Fields (39.3 percent).

So now, as the team searches for a solution, the question is why isn’t one of the team’s purest shooters, Steve Novak, getting some burn to help the problem with the three-ball? Novak was picked up on waivers from the Spurs and added because of his three-point prowess. In spot duty so far this season, he’s 8 for 16 from downtown. For his career, he’s shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc.

The issue, of course, is at the other end of the floor, where he’d have to guard 3’s and 4’s (small and power forwards) and he struggles — mostly athletically and physically — with that if he plays major minutes. Throughout his NBA career, Novak has averaged under 10 minutes per game for a reason.

Still, there has to be a way to utilize his unquestionable skill as a three-point specialist while hiding him on the defensive end, right?

 

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Melo No-Show…No Big Deal

As he walked into the tunnel toward the Knicks locker room after Tuesday’s 111-78 win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Mike D’Antoni should have imitated Joe Namath and run with his finger in the air.

No. 1, indeed. Carmelo Anthony‘s career-low one-point performance was a thing of beauty.

“Trust me,” Anthony said after the game, “I needed a night like this.”

More than even he may have ever known.

Melo is banged up and his wrist — and now thumb — are aching and it has affected his shooting touch lately. If healthy, maybe he doesn’t stop at seven shots last night. But this was a perfect opportunity to stick to the gameplan and see how it works. And what did we notice? Not one play resulted in an isolation. And on almost every single possession, at least three players touched the ball before a shot went up.

“It was a little step forward,” Mike D’Antoni said with cautious optimism. “We’ll see.”

Before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s first acknowledge that the Bobcats right now are just a very bad team, so they didn’t put up much resistance. But if this was nothing more than a glorified practice scrimmage, it still was important in the effort to work on the offense and find timing and spacing.

And, perhaps, to prove how it can work when you forget about “your” numbers and just play within the flow of the system.

“Our whole philosophy is that everybody should play with the same amount of energy and the ball flows,” D’Antoni said. “Some nights it finds Tyson [Chandler], some nights it finds Melo and some nights it finds Amar’e [Stoudemire]. And once that ball moves around and we do the right things and follow the script  … we should never plan on something, we just need good ball movement.”

This follows the doctrine of the franchise’s most successful coach, Red Holzman, who implored his players to “find the open man.” On a given night, the open man would just emerge as a result of the opponent’s defense or matchups.

That was why, at first, no one believed Earl Monroe, one of the game’s great improvisational players who thrived in the one-on-one game, could fit within the share-first mentality that was standardized by Walt FrazierWillis Reed,Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. But Monroe wanted to prove people he could play within a team concept. In accepting the trade to the Knicks, he sacrificed statistics — his career averages dropped significantly once he came to New York — in exchange for winning a championship.

If Melo can accept not being among the NBA’s top scorers — and dismiss those needling journalists who will see this and suggest he’s lost his status as an elite scorer — the Knicks could thrive.

“Even if he doesn’t take a shot in an entire game, the other team has to respect him,” Chandler said of what we’d call The Melo Effect. “They’re never going to leave him … A lot of the shots we got tonight came off his effort.”

It wasn’t as if Melo was completely invisible. He matched Landry Fields‘ team-high of five assists and grabbed 11 rebounds. He also looked intent on firing long outlets to get the Knicks out on the break. So he may not have made a shot from the field — and he would have been shut out had it not been for a senseless technical by Tyrus Thomas — but Melo had an undeniable impact on the game.

“If I’m just out there I can do other stuff, like rebound the ball, get 11 boards and five assists,” he said. “That’s big-time for me.”

Of course when a game comes down to final possessions, he still would be one of the most dangerous weapons in the game.

Trust is a big part of this, too. Melo can let the game flow when the Knicks aren’t bricking shots and losing by 10. But the competitor inside him emerges when no one else can score and, lately, that’s been a serious issue. For instance, he’ll kick it out to Fields in the corner for missed three-pointer only so many times. That’s a page out of the Kobe Mentality.

So much of what we said here is all so nice and idealistic. And this is why D’Antoni wasn’t about to get too excited after just one game.

AMAR’E A LATE ARRIVAL?

Stoudemire’s 18 points on 7 of 12 shooting was as close to his form from last season as we’ve seen so far in 2011-12. He moved very well and showed great explosion toward the rim on a pair of vicious dunks and made a few rhythm mid-range jumpers. We’ve all been wondering what happened to his trademark explosion and athleticism in the early season and he broached that subject with MSG Network’s Tina Cervasio after the game.

“The lockout and not being able to train because of my back this offseason, so I’m slow to get back into a rhythm,” he said. “I’m glad my fans are being patient with me, but it’s getting better.”

BARON’S IMPENDING RETURN

Baron Davis wasn’t happy with his performance in a three-on-three scrimmage after the team’s morning shoot-around in Charlotte. But the most important news that remains consistent after his first workouts with the Knicks is that he has not experienced any physical issues with his back injury.

What remains to be seen is if he dresses for tonight’s game in Cleveland, where he could get some spot minutes just to begin the process of acclimating to game conditions. It is believed Davis will get into a game sometime during this four game road trip. What needs to be accepted is that he will have some rust to shake off along the way, so fans — and certain pundits — need to view this accordingly and not as some instant solution. With very little practice time during this compressed season, finding Davis minutes during games may be the only way to get him ready.

On a side note, while Davis’ tenure with the Clippers tainted his career — he never got along with contentious coach Mike Dunleavy and lost his fire while focusing on a film career in LA — those who dealt with him in Cleveland said he was an outstanding part of the team. Several insiders say Davis provided great leadership in the locker room for a young team in transition after LeBron James’ departure and he showed he still had plenty of game left. He was, however, much heavier than he is now.

TYSON SETS THE STANDARD

Chandler has been one of the most vocal leaders in the locker room. As the only one with a championship ring, he does have the cachet to do it. But he also has led by example, with his intensity on defense and holding teammates accountable at that end of the floor. And against the Bobcats, he saw the obvious size advantage the Knicks had over Charlotte and made sure to get the most of it. Chandler’s 17-rebound performance, which included eight offensive boards, was as dominant as he’s had this season.

And, yes, he had 20 points, which promotes some to think that he was somehow more involved in the offense than before. Truth be told, there weren’t many plays run for Tyson because he’s not that kind of player. Instead, he made most of his offense off misses by his teammates (how many bunnies did Iman Shumpert miss?). That’s where his impact is best felt.

But this is another example of what we discussed above, how on a given night, depending on the matchup, one or two players can provide the scoring. The Bobcats had no one to match up with Chandler on the boards (remember, he had 20 points and 13 rebounds in his previous game against the ‘Cats). Another night, he might be tied up in a box-out battle with Dwight Howard or Joakim Noah or, as tonight in Cleveland, Anderson Varejao. It all depends on the opponent.

Last night was his night to dominate.

FIXINS

Landry Fields (18 points) did a terrific job staying aggressive on offense for a fourth straight game and he thrives when the Knicks push the tempo. He’s averaging 15.7 points per game over that stretch and yet still is struggling from downtown. If he can ever get that three-point stroke going, Fields will be back to his form from last season . . .

Steve Novak came in during garbage time and drilled three from beyond the arc. If only his defense was just slightly more reliable — slow feet and lack of athleticism are a major issue at the forward position in the NBA — he could earn more minutes. The Knicks could certainly use his shooting . . .

Even after a great game, trade rumors always seem to take precedence in a postgame interview. Chandler last night was asked about a report that the Orlando Magic have inquired about a scenario that involved he and Stoudemire going to Orlando in a deal for Dwight Howard. He just grinned and said, “That comes along with the territory. There’s always stuff that comes up. It is what it is.” Chandler, who signed in the preseason, can’t be traded until March 1, kids. So, like Guy sang, let’s chill.

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Baron: ‘It’s Just a Matter of Time’

The scrimmage was sloppy and the players weren’t in synch, but it was still the most optimistic the Knicks have felt in almost two weeks.

It was all due to the presence of Baron Davis, who was finally cleared to practice on Monday. The veteran point guard, who is recovering from a herniated disk, took a major step toward being in uniform and, the team hopes, providing the stewardship of the offense that the team so desperately needs.

“I know I can definitely help, I know I can definitely do things out there that can help,” Davis said after the practice at MSG Training Center.

“We all need each other at this point as a team. We need to just figure out how to play off of each other and play with a style that suits everybody and works to everybody’s strengths and talents.”

Mike D’Antoni has been confounded by his team’s nightly struggle just to get to 90 points, despite the presence of two of the NBA’s top five scorers from last season in Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. It was a duo that proved could coexist successfully late last season, when the team found its stride with a seven-game winning streak. But the lack of an experienced point guard, along with the absence of reliable three-point shooting, has caused the offense to sputter and players such as Anthony, with a sprained wrist, to try to take on too much responsibility to handle the scoring.

Davis is expected to help put everyone in place and distribute the ball evenly and accordingly. Eventually. After just one practice, it’s not going to happen overnight.

“The good is he’s back on the floor and starting to get better,” D’Antoni said of Davis’ practice debut. “What wasn’t good was the execution, but that’s to be expected.”

Davis admitted to making “a lot of mistakes” and being “very, very rusty,” but also spoke excitedly about a system he’s always wanted to play. There were flashes during the scrimmage portion of practice when Davis made dazzling passes to Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler around the rim. Both big men were surprised by the passes and fumbled them.

That didn’t stop Stoudemire, who was engaged in a long chat after practice with Davis, to call his new point guard’s debut “phenomenal.” Perhaps Davis’ presence and quick passing will finally get Stoudemire’s noticeably heavy legs popping again.

What is equally encouraging is that Davis said he saw several other openings a split-second too late, but after repetition, the timing is sure to get there.

“It just takes time and timing and pace in order to really get that rhythm,” he said.

With the compressed schedule, the Knicks don’t have much time, at least not on the practice court. So D’Antoni said he might look to find minutes for Davis during games to help him assimilate quicker.

“I think the best workout he can get is in a game,” D’Antoni said.

The plan, for now, is to see how he feels on Tuesday morning and if all goes well, have him participate in the shoot-around in Charlotte and perhaps play some three-on-three afterward.

D’Antoni wouldn’t rule out getting him in for some minutes Tuesday night against the Bobcats or sometime during this four-game road trip, which continues to Cleveland on Wednesday.

The most important step is that Davis is back on the court. With that hurdle cleared, he said, “It’s just a matter of time.”

ALLEVIATING ANTHONY

Davis’ presence certainly takes the pressure off Melo from having the offense run through him. It was impossible not to notice how much Davis dominated the ball during the scrimmage as a point guard generally should, but how much Melo appreciates it remains to be seen.

From the outside, Davis’ presence and ball handling ability will allow Anthony to move within the offense as a key option rather than fall into the habit of isolation games and feel the pressure to get others involved when his strength is in creating for himself.

Anthony talked about this very issue after Saturday’s loss to the Nuggets, in which he wondered aloud if he “maybe” needed to “not take so many shots” and that it was on him to get Stoudemire more involved.

After practice, however, Anthony seemed to backtrack from his introspective thoughts, saying it was “just me beating myself up.” D’Antoni said Anthony “can’t take all the blame on himself” and that the issues with the offense is “a whole team thing.”

D’Antoni added, “You can’t completely change radically what you’re doing. You’ve got to be yourself and you’ve got to have your ego intact and go forward.”

That kind of advice could be given to several players in orange-and-blue right now … and, quite frankly, the head coach, too.

THE DYNAMIC DUO

People have short memories around here as the assessments fly from all angles that the Melo/Amar’e tandem can’t work. Thought it took a few weeks to find the chemistry, the duo actually did work — with great results — late in the regular season when the team won seven straight games in dominating fashion and averaged over 115 points per game in that stretch.

The Knicks offense wasn’t an issue at all going into the Boston Celtics series and Game 1 was a battle to the final minute, when Chauncey Billups was lost for the series with a knee injury.

Then Stoudemire injured his back before Game 2, which left the Knicks without two major pieces. That means the series should be thrown out as evidence of success or failure of the trade.

Billups, the veteran point guard, missed six games after the trade because of a thigh injury and then tweaked his knee in the second-to-last game of the season against the Bulls. His absence was felt and continues to be felt this season. This is why Davis’ arrival is viewed to be so critical. You can’t overlook the importance of a veteran point guard to run the offense and get (and keep) the stars in place.

But the decision was made to fill another critical need, a defensive center, with Chandler, which led to the departure of Billups via the amnesty provision. A major reason why the Knicks believed they could make this move was because of how Toney Douglas emerged late in the season when Billups was out with injury. But Douglas was unable to build off of that and the result is a troubled offense without a true floor leader to run it.

JORTS WILL BE MISSED

If Josh Harrellson proved anything, aside from the fact that he has a very good touch from three-point range, is that he’s country strong. The 6-foot-10 forward from Kentucky earned a surprising role in D’Antoni’s rotation similar to what Shawne Williams was last season: A reliable stretch-4 who had the strength and toughness to defend bigs.

D’Antoni lamented the loss of the rookie, who broke his wrist during Saturday’s game and will miss six weeks. “You hate to lose him because I thought he was playing real well,” D’Antoni said. Harrellson is expected back in early March, when there will be two months left in the season.

It’s a testament to Harrellson that we’re even talking about looking forward to his return. That’s consecutive years that the Knicks have found a very useful rotation player in the second round of the draft.

REPLACING HARRELSON

The team recalled Jerome Jordan and Jeremy Lin from their D-League assignments with the team’s affiliate in Erie. It was only supposed to be a two-game stint for both players, but it’s not expected they will see immediate playing time. In Harrellson’s absence, it appears Jared Jeffries and sharpshooter Steve Novak will get the bulk of those leftover minutes.

This is a great opportunity for Novak, a three-point shooter, to carve a niche for himself in the rotation.

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Team in ‘Crisis’

Mike D’Antoni used the word ‘crisis’ after his team dropped its fourth straight loss in a 91-88 defeat to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night at The Garden. To use a phrase from former President Jimmy Carter, it is mainly a crisis in confidence.

This is a team that plays very hard, but not always very smart. There have been a few moments this season where effort has been questioned, but lately there is a noticeable effort that is just not getting rewarded with wins — mainly because the team is shooting so epically poor — and that is the true crisis. How much longer can this go before shoulders slump and negativity creeps into the locker room?

Here is where the leadership of the team, comprised of co-captains Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemireand also the strongest voice in the room, Tyson Chandler, will be tested.

“The coaches are giving us every opportunity in the world to succeed,” Chandler said after the game. “I think it’s important that we recognize what we have to accomplish out there as players and understand what we’re going to bring to the table, we’ve got to be committed to it.”

As Kelly Tripucka and I discussed in the Ford Knicks PostGame show, that commitment wanes when there is a lack of trust in the players around you. This issue of the ball “sticking” and the lack of offensive flow late in games isn’t about an intended lack of respect, but more of a subliminal breakdown in trusting the system and, more importantly, the teammates around you to make it happen.

You can understand, however, why the ball stops moving when the option is to pass it to the guy who is 0-for-4 from three-point range in the game and shooting 21 percent from downtown all season. Would you want to make that pass in the fourth quarter of a winnable game?

D’Antoni admitted that mentality “is killing us right now” and added that it’s “kind of human nature. We’ve got to fight against that.”

But, again, if you’re Anthony, one of the premier scorers in the league, your instinct nine times out of 10 when your team is one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA is to take the shot over passing it.

We’ve shined the white hot spotlight on the point guard position since the start of the season because the issues with the offense begin there, but you cannot completely ignore the fact that the role players on this team just have not done enough to punish defenses that collapse on Anthony and Stoudemire. Watch back the games from just this week alone, close defeats to the Magic and Suns, and count how many open looks — meaning, without a hand in their face — the Knicks role players just simply missed.

“We’re making it tough on our two scorers,” rookie Iman Shumpert concluded.

He’s right, though some of that has to do with his passing instincts, which are just slightly behind the speed of an NBA point guard. Shumpert does see the openings, he just doesn’t anticipate them. It’s not that he never will, but it’s not there yet. And this is why D’Antoni is anxiously awaiting the news from the medical staff that Baron Davis is cleared to practice, which could come by Monday.

What needs to be done for now, and we saw it a little in the second half against the Suns, is to push the pace and get into more of a fast-break game, which would utilize Shumpert’s athleticism and, perhaps, get more players involved.

“As a result, Landry (Fields) played well,” Stoudemire said, making note of Fields’ 17 points, 10 of which came in the third quarter. “That type of offense really gets guys we need going, going.”

D’Antoni agreed.

“That might be a key we’ll be working on,” he said. “We’ll definitely try to look at that and try to look at somehow getting more spacing and better rhythm and a better tempo game.”

Perhaps by finishing on the break and getting into more of a Seven Seconds or Less mentality, with quicker outlets off makes and misses, a rhythm can be found. And shots will start to fall.

Right now the Knicks are the third-worst shooting team in the NBA at 41.3 percent. Only the Wizards (40.8 percent) and Kings (39 percent) are worse. And they’ve dropped to 18th in the league in scoring — 18th! — at 93.5 points per game, which is a stunning statistic for a D’Antoni team.

“I know that we’re 6-8 and I know we’re in a little bit of a crisis here, but the good thing about it is they’re playing hard, they’re playing good defense, they’re rebounding . . . So there’s some good things we can build on. We’ve just got to figure out the one part and that’s the one part that should be the easiest.”

BARON’S BACK?

As we discussed in the pregame Knicks Fix segment, Davis could be cleared for full contact practice by Monday. D’Antoni said it wouldn’t take too much practice time — not that they have any with this compressed schedule — before Davis would be in uniform for a game.

There is a great deal of anxiousness to get Davis into the mix with the hope he can solve the team’s offensive issues at the point guard position, but there will also be great caution at the start to ensure he does not have any setbacks with the herniated disk issue. It can’t be expected that he will jump into the rotation and play 35-40 minutes a night. This will have to be a steady progression, but the encouraging news is he’s slightly ahead of the original 8-to-10 week schedule.

ON POINT

Steve Nash gave us all enough evidence to believe he still has plenty left in the tank and should be a player to pursue in free agency next summer to fill the need at the point guard position (should, of course Davis not prove otherwise). The Knicks will be armed with their $5 million Mid-Level Exception and the $2 million Bi-Annual Exception come July 1 and there will be plenty of talented guards to consider with that money.

Nash, even at 38, will likely be out of that price range (unless he would come for a discount … don’t hold your breath). The same goes for Raymond Felton, who is having a strong season with the Portland Trail Blazers.

But what about Jason Kidd? If the Mavericks do as expected and make an aggressive play for Deron Williams, Kidd could look to finish his career with one last push in New York. Another name to strongly consider is Andre Miller, who is playing a backup role in Denver right now behind the electric Ty Lawson. And then there is Kirk Hinrich, who is coming off yet another injury (torn labrum, which followed a hamstring tear last spring), but when healthy is a solid floor general and shooter.

And then there is, of course, Chauncey Billups, who will be a free agent, as well. The Knicks amnestied Billups to land Chandler and Billups left New York bitter. But I had a recent chat with someone close to him who said Chauncey has no hard feelings about the decision the team made and would never rule out a return to the Knicks if the opportunity arose. Of course his preference this season was to go to Miami, which didn’t work out, so that may remain a priority for him. For now, he landed in a good place with the rejuvenated Clippers.

 

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Offensive Shake-Up Needed

Let’s not throw too many roses at the feet of Stan Van Gundy, who employed the Lack-a-Howard 2-3 defensive scheme in the fourth quarter to protect his foul-plagued shot-blocker and to do what every NBA team will be doing from henceforth. All one needs to do is review the quantitative analysis to divulge that the Knicks, as Carmelo Anthony said, “can’t shoot it in the ocean” right now.

If only they could, because this offense definitely needs to see the bottom of the East River in a pair of cement wingtips.

The zone worked because the Knicks missed perimeter shots that were open looks. Three consecutive trips down the stretch, with the Knicks trailing by four, they missed open three-pointers. They didn’t necessarily need to take threes there, but they did. And they missed. That’s basically it.

A game which saw the Knicks play solid defense — and get burned by a record-tying three-point performance by the Magic — once again came down to an offense that continues to struggle for an identity aside from the “give it to Melo” play. A lot of this has to do with the fact that, aside from Melo, there really isn’t anyone else who can score right now.

“We just have guys who aren’t being aggressive and not looking,” Mike D’Antoni said after the game. “We’re just in a quandary offensively. We don’t have a lot of confidence out there.”

As we discussed in the well-timed middle segment of the Knicks Fix in Monday’s Knicks Game Night show, the three-point shot, which is such a critical element in D’Antoni’s offense, has been failing the team this season. Little did we know it would be a harbinger for their third straight loss, in a 102-93 final to the Orlando Magic in the annual MLK Day matinee.

Let’s set aside the fact that the Magic, who came in as the NBA’s second-best three-point shooting team with the fourth-highest volume of attempts, drilled an incredible 17 treys in 35 attempts and that Ryan Anderson hit an unconscious 7 -of-13 from downtown. Or that Hedo Turkoglu hit 4-of-7, one off the glass, off one foot, from about three feet off the arc and several others with a hand in his face. Or that J.J. Redick, a noted three-point shooter, was left several times by Landry Fields, or had an open look because Bill Walker went under the screen.

Let’s focus on the fact that the Knicks, who are second in the league in three-point attempts, took 20 and made just five. So right there you lost 12 extra points in a game you lost by nine.

Anthony, who played through a sprained right ankle and a sprained left wrist, put up the most threes of any Knick and was 1-for-8. The issue there is in this system, he’s not supposed to be the high-volume three-point shooter. The three-pointer is supposed to help open the middle for him to work where he is most effective, in the post or mid-range.

But right now the Knicks don’t have true zone-busting three-point threats like they had in the past, with Danilo Gallinari and Shawne Williams and Chauncey Billups. D’Antoni, right now, has Toney Douglas (13-for-55, 23.6 percent) in a terrible slump, taking the second-most threes on the team. And Fields spent the offseason working on his long-range touch, but the fruits of his labor have yet to be realized, as he is 6-for-28 (21.4 percent) from three-point range so far this season. That’s an extremely low number for a starting shooting guard in the NBA. Keep in mind that Fields shot a solid 39.3 percent from downtown last season as a rookie and he attempted more last season (2.6 per game) than he has this season (2.1 per game).

Douglas and Fields may prove to be anomalies. Scouts always tend to warn their teams about players like this, who get off to cold starts but then suddenly heat up. One scout this weekend told me the fear with the Knicks is that typically good three-point shooters tend to eventually levitate to their career average.

Obviously the Knicks are hoping Douglas, who hit 38.9 percent in his rookie season in 2009-10 and 37.3 percent last season (with a bum shoulder), will regain the touch.

Rookie Iman Shumpert has been a revelation on defense with hustle, quickness and tenacity, but one thing that teams have learned quickly is that you can play off of him to slow down his athletic moves to the rim. Shumpert has taken 32 three-pointers so far and has hit nine (28.1 percent).

So right there that’s three guards with prominent roles in the rotation each shooting under 30 percent from three-point range. That’s troubling for an offense that needs the three-ball to open the middle so an athletic big man such as Amar’e Stoudemire can do what he does best. And people wonder why Stoudemire has struggled this season. (More on this shortly).

So who are the stretch-the-floor players right now? Rookie Josh Harrellson has actually emerged as one reliable three-point shooter (14-for-38, 36.8 percent) and as his defense continues to improve, his minutes will continue to rise.

Speaking of defense, with much more of an emphasis on that side of the ball this season, a long-range specialist like Steve Novak (5-for-13, 38.5 percent) just isn’t going to see as much regular burn. And Mike Bibby (10-for-25, 40 percent) may be the team’s best three-point shooter, but after 13 hard years in the NBA, he simply can’t log a heavy dose of minutes and stay healthy.

So there’s a reason why the Knicks are 24th in the NBA at 30.9 percent from downtown. And there’s a reason why it is completely obvious to play a zone against this team and its talented frontline. There is clearly a need to find better shooting, some legitimate zone-busting shooting, and the team has until the March 15 trade deadline to do it.

As for the arrival of Baron Davis: While his playmaking skills are certainly expected to put a jolt into the offense and create more movement and flow, he isn’t going to pull defenses out of the paint. Davis is a career 31.5 percent shooter from three-point range. He did shoot 41.4 from downtown in 15 games last season with the Cavs, but that’s much too small of a sampling to consider a trend.

FORGOT AMAR’E?

The look on Stoudemire’s face after his driving dunk over Glen Davis in the fourth quarter was so wonderfully familiar. It was a rare glimpse of the Amar’e who dominated so impressively in the first half of last season, scowl and all.

After dealing with foul trouble yet again early in the game, Stoudemire started to get into a rhythm against Davis with a hook, a pair of free throws and the dunk, which gave the Knicks an 85-83 lead with 7:42 left. Van Gundy then sent Dwight Howard back into the game and D’Antoni followed with Tyson Chandler, who did a terrific job limiting Howard all game.

Van Gundy then employed the zone and that took away Stoudemire’s opportunity to continue to work off his momentum. The rest of the game saw 11 jumpers by the Knicks, only one went in, and one layup. Stoudemire didn’t take a shot the rest of the game.

As reporters asked if Stoudemire was wrongly ignored down the stretch, D’Antoni said “can make a case like that.” But it was Orlando’s strategy to pack it in and leave the perimeter to the weak Knicks shooting. Was Stoudemire supposed to force the ball into the heart of a zone defense?

What has hampered Stoudemire so far this season is not a lack of opportunity, but a lack of time and space to do what he does best: Finish in the pick-and-roll and on catch-and-curls at the elbow extended.

What perhaps needs to be seen more is a two-man game between Carmelo and Amar’e in pick-and-roll situations. But many times Carmelo has either waved off the pick or not used it. Since Carmelo’s scoring zone is generally on the wing, there is less opportunity for Amar’e, who is more effective in high screen-and-roll plays from the top of the key, generally with a quick guard who can beat defenders off the dribble. This is where Davis’ value will be gauged.

Here’s a crazy idea: What if D’Antoni went with Stoudemire off the bench as a Sixth Man, similarly to how Jeff Van Gundy used Latrell Sprewell for most of the 1999 lockout season? Harrellson could play the role of a “stretch-4” next to Chandler with the first five and Stoudemire would get work against most team’s second units with Shumpert and, as a primary target, perhaps he can develop some much-needed rhythm and maybe that will help give the offense better balance.

PRODIGAL SUN

Speaking of Amar’e and his pick-and-roll success, his former partner in that devastating offensive tandem with the Suns, Steve Nash, comes to The Garden on Wednesday night. Will it be the last time we see Nash at MSG in a Suns uniform?

The 37-year-old is still putting up solid numbers (13.2 points, 10.1 assists) and, by the way, is still shooting it well from beyond the arc (35.3 percent), though it is a career-low for him. He is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and there is great speculation that he will strongly consider a move to New York, where he lives in the offseason, to be reunited with D’Antoni and Stoudemire. The trio could give it one more try for an NBA championship, which they couldn’t do in Phoenix despite being one of the best teams in the league for a four year span.

The Knicks will have the full Mid-Level Exception ($5 million annually) to spend next summer and it is almost a given they will use it on a play-making point guard. Davis, of course, would likely be the strongest candidate if he comes in this season and has a dramatic impact on the team. But the Knicks will have several options to upgrade that critical position, with Nash, veteran Andre Miller and also former Knick Raymond Felton all expected to be free agents. Let’s also not forget that Billups will be a free agent, as well.

Nash will be 38 on Feb. 7 and while he has kept himself in terrific shape, there are signs that he is starting to break down some from the physical wear-and-tear of a 15-year career. But there’s no question he can run this offense and, with the forward talent already here, perhaps the former two-time MVP could be rejuvenated the way Jason Kidd was when he arrived in Dallas.

What remains to be seen is what the Suns plan to do with their star after this season. It is believed the franchise would prefer he retire with the team, but Nash may not want to endure a rebuilding situation while he still has gas left in the tank.

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Shump Stumped

Iman Shumpert finally looked like a rookie.

It was bound to happen and not surprising it came against the Memphis Grizzlies, who put a lot of pressure on the ball and, as Kelly Tripuka and I noted in the postgame after Wednesday’s game, are very aggressive in passing lanes. You have to take care of the ball against that team and play with poise and patience.

Shumpert fell right into the trap. And no one knows it better than him.

“I wasn’t a PG at all tonight,” he wrote on Twitter after the game.

It only gets tougher Saturday night in Oklahoma City, where Russell Westbook awaits as Shumpert’s next challenge. This is, physically, a good matchup for Shumpert, who is similarly built and similarly athletic. But this isn’t an AAU game, where he can just go head-to-head with the opposing point guard, as he attempted to do with Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo on Thursday night in Memphis.

TNT studio analyst — and noted Knick critic — Charles Barkley blamed the coaching staff for Shumpert’s gunner mentality. The 20 FGAs for Shumpert, which included 15 in the first half, was the most by a Knicks rookie since — get this — Mardy Collins in the 2006-07 season. [More on this later. Right now, back to Shumpert…]

“A rookie should never feel that comfortable to take 15 shots in a half,” Barkley said, “unless they’re hitting them.”

On this occasion, Shumpert wasn’t hitting them. He finished 6-for-20 from the field, including 1-for-4 from downtown.

Mike D’Antoni was careful with his criticism of Shumpert and after the game told reporters that the rookie “just got a little loose.” Truth be told, he tried too hard, way too hard, to do it himself rather than get the rest of the offense — especially Amar’e Stoudemire — going.

“I made some bad decisions,” Shumpert told reporters after the game. “Didn’t knock down shots.”

He also made the Grizzlies gameplan easy: Pack it in, stifle the scorers and see if the young buck can beat you. Shumpert came into the NBA with a defensive reputation and with the noted ability to get to the rim. But no one saw him as a perimeter threat. Seven games into his career, that assessment is correct, as he’s shooting 38 percent from the field and 25.9 percent from three-point range.

At his best, Shumpert’s game could be paralleled with Westbrook: Strong dribble penetration and either finish at the rim or drive-and-kick. He has shown the ability to see the floor, see the passing lanes, better than expected. But he’s not a floor general; he’s not the type that can organize an offense. That often takes time to develop.

Really, he’s supposed to be developing as a reserve, but third-year guard Toney Douglas‘ struggle has been a major issue. Douglas, like Shumpert, fell into the same mentality against the Grizzlies as he put up 13 shots, second most on the team, and hit just three.

So two Knicks guards combined to shoot 8-for-33 from the field and 2-for-9 from downtown, while Stoudemire attempted just seven shots. That’s a serious problem that once again reveals the main issue with the team right now: The lack of a true point guard who can run the offense.

This was the risk the team knew they were making with the decision to amnesty Chauncey Billups to clear enough salary cap space to sign Tyson Chandler. In essence, they created a major hole in the offense when they plugged a major hole on defense at the center position. And now there is greater emphasis on Baron Davis and what type of impact he can make once he is ready to play.

MELO IS ‘BEAT UP’

Anthony already looked like he was struggling to conjure up some energy early in the game, but then endured sprains to his left wrist and right ankle before his night ended after just 19:47.

“I’ve had worse ankle sprains before,” Anthony told reporters after the game.

He did not practice with the team Friday in Oklahoma City and his status for Saturday’s game against the Thunder is questionable.

Though the struggling Knicks offense will be desperate without him, with the compressed schedule, it may be best for Melo to rest the ankle and get himself 100 percent rather than risk further injury. The Knicks play next on Monday afternoon against the Orlando Magic in their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee.

THE SEARCH FOR STAT

Amar’e Stoudemire has put up some impressive numbers this season and what’s even more impressive about the 23.1 points and nine rebounds he was averaging before the Memphis game is that he really hasn’t seemed himself yet. Stoudemire still recorded four 20-10 efforts in the last five games (and missed the fifth by two rebounds) going into the Grizzlies game, but two quick fouls in the first 1:47 sent him to the bench.

It didn’t seem like he ever came back. Or that anyone on his team was aware he was back.

Stoudemire’s six points on 1-for-7 shooting in 19:36 was his lowest offensive production as a Knick during the regular season (recall he had four and seven points, respectively, in limited action in Games 2 and 3 of the playoffs after he suffered a pulled muscle in his back).

It also snapped a streak of 137 straight regular season games in which he had scored in double figures, going back, obviously, to his days with the Phoenix Suns.

The last time Stoudemire failed to score at least 10 points in a regular season game was Dec. 26, 2009 in a loss at Golden State. He had nine points in 28 foul-plagued minutes. And you have to go back to the 2008-09 season to find a game in which he recorded less than the six points he had in Memphis. That came Jan. 19, 2009, when Stoudemire was 0-for-7 for three points in 30:17 in a loss at Boston.

ROOKIE RIFLEMEN

Mardy Collins, a rookie guard, hoisted up 20 shots for the Knicks in the home finale of the 2006-07 season, which was a 104-95 loss to Jason Kidd and the Nets on April 16, 2007. Collins started in place of injured Stephon Marbury and almost had a triple-double, with 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in 45:43. But he hit just six of those 20 FGAs to get there, one being a flying dunk down the lane.

Remember Mardy Collins? He was one of two first round picks in the 2006 NBA Draft, which included the selection of Renaldo Balkman, who is now back for his second stint with the team. Collins, meanwhile, is currently in the D-League.

Nate Robinson also jacked up 20 shots as a rookie in the 2005-06 season. Nate the Great, starting for Marbury, made 11 of 20 for 32 points in 45:33 in a 91-87 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 13, 2006. That was a game in which coach Larry Brown got sick during the third quarter and was taken to a nearby hospital.

LeBron James did not play in that game as he was resting a sprained ankle as he prepared for his first playoff experience.

Willis Reed
 led the way with 33 games in which he took at least 20 FGAs in a game and Patrick Ewing did it 19 times. Mark Jackson had seven games during his rookie season with 20 shots andGerald Wilkins had five.

CLYDE ON TWITTER

Efforts are being made to get Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier a Twitter account, so he can broadcast his various trademarks: Linguistic flair, basketball acumen and, of course, unique fashion sense, across the World Wide Web. We hope to have him Greetin’ and Tweetin’ in 140 characters or less in no time.

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The Beauty of Winning Ugly

The lamentations are easier to present after a win and they certainly came out of the Knicks locker room at Madison Square Garden following the 85-79 victory over the streaking Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

Let’s start with rookie Iman Shumpert, who fits one of the all-time great Clydeisms, “precocious neophyte.” After the game, Shumpert took the 11 fourth quarter turnovers and offensive struggles down the stretch upon his shoulders. In his words, Shumpert said, “I made it real tough on our stars” and vowed to have a better game Thursday in Memphis.

The Knicks seemed to have the game put away on one of Shumpert’s great plays in the game: When he stripped Jrue Holiday in the backcourt and then fed Amar’e Stoudemire for a dunk to give the Knicks a 78-61 lead with 9:02 to go.

But that would be the last field goal recorded by the Knicks, who would miss their final 11 shots of the game and turn the ball over eight times in the final 8:35. A great deal of the problem was the lack of pace. Basically, the Knicks have turned Mike D’Antoni‘s Seven Seconds or Less — which generally was about shooting the ball within the first seven seconds of a possession — to not even getting into a set until 10 Seconds or Less.

On many possessions, which were supposed to go through Carmelo Anthony on the wing, the passes into him on the extended post were poor or delivered with too much hesitation. That pulled Melo away from the basket and left little time for him to break down his defender and make a pass. Almost every time he put up shots. And several times, he forced them.

When he gets the ball late in the shot clock, he generally waves off the pick-and-roll and just goes at it himself. Credit some of that to the 76ers defense, which has been among the best in the NBA this season. But this team is still obviously in need of a floor general to really keep the gears turning and get everyone the ball where they should get it.

“A lot of that reflects on me,” Shumpert said of the struggles on offense late in the game. “Myself, Toney (Douglas)and Landry (Fields), we’ve got to get our guys into something. Like I said, tomorrow’s got to be a better day.”

D’Antoni is winning with defense right now, which is not a typo. But we’ve said it a few times on the air and we’ll say it here: D’Antoni should not have to apologize for being an offense-minded coach, but he knew he and assistant coach Mike Woodson had to start off training camp by focusing on defense. And that’s what they’ve been doing pretty much since training camp opened. They haven’t spent much time at all on offense and it shows.

“Our offense right now is real stagnant,” D’Antoni said. “Weve got to get through a few days to talk about it and try to iron it out a little bit.”

One can easily see how much the predictable offense and the slow pace — the Knicks (95.3 points per game) are averaging 10 points per game less than last season’s pace — are frustrating him.

“We can’t keep the game in the 70s,” he said, “We’ve got to get our offense better and we will. We’ll get a lot better … We’ll take it. It’s not pretty right now but it’s important to get the wins and get to the next game.”

The confidence in the locker room — and among the coaching staff — is in the potential of the offense. When coupled with the improved defense, it could be very good.

“Once our offense starts to click and we start moving the ball,” Stoudemire said, “we will be a pretty dangerous team.”

This was going to have to come in stages, with the defense being the first mission to accomplish. The offense will come along, and will evolve more once Baron Davis is healthy. If D’Antoni has proven anything in his previous three years in New York, it’s that he can create high-scoring offense with just about any players on the court (remember, Chris Duhon once had the Knicks scoring well over 100 points per game).

“I’m just excited with the way the defense is playing,” Tyson Chandler said, “because I know under Coach D’Antoni, our offense is going to get going.”

DE-FENSE

Great note by ESPN-New York’s Ian Begley, who pointed out that the Knicks haven’t held opponents under 90 points in back-to-back games in six years. And the last time the Knicks did it in three straight games? You’d have to go back to the 2003-04 season:

March 19: 79-65 W vs Nets
March 20: 87-81 L to Bulls
March 22: 96-84 W vs Hawks

Of historical note, the next game after that streak came against the Memphis Grizzlies, who beat the Knicks, 111-97. Knicks play the Grizz tonight in Memphis on TNT.

Over the last three games, the Knicks are holding opponents to 82 points per game, which is second-best to the Bulls (77.3 point per game against, which includes a 64 point lockdown of the Atlanta Hawks). Teams have shot a combined 39.4 percent against the Knicks in those games.

Overall, the Knicks are allowing 93.7 points per game this season, which ranks 12th in the NBA. Last season, they were 27th in the league in allowing 105.4 points per game.
Scoring is down considerably so far this season, so that should be taken into account. But the fact that the Knicks are in the top half in the NBA in scoring defense is a notable difference.

Since giving up that 118 spot to the Bobcats on Jan. 4, the Knicks haven’t allowed a team over 100 points in four straight games (all wins). Also, the Bobcats are one of just two teams (the Celtics on opening day) to score over 100 points on the Knicks this season.

That is a sign of improved defense and, yes, also a nod to what we mentioned in the first segment, which is the much slower pace of the offense.

TYSON, LIKE IRON MIKE

Chandler didn’t score much — just three points — but he did grab 13 rebounds and record a blocked shot in 35:09 and endured a physical battle all night long in the paint against rugged veterans Elton Brand and Tony Battie. Chandler wound up with a bloody nose at one point. Welcome back to the Eastern Conference.

“It was a good game down there,” he said afterward. “Definitely physical. That’s how it’s going to be when yo’re playing one of the top teams in the conference and a divisional game.”

The Sixers did a good job stopping those lob plays that Chandler has fed off of in recent games and he finished the game with just one field goal attempt and no makes from the floor. He was the first Knick since Mark Jackson to record at least 12 rebounds without a made field goal in a game.

RETURN OF THE JORTS 

Josh Harrellson was frustrated with his long-range touch, which needed to be recalibrated after a 1-for-10 stretch from three-point range over the past five games. Against the 76ers, he drilled 3 of 5 and put up 13 points (one shy of his career-high so far) to spark a much-needed response from the bench, which produced just three points in the previous game.

“I’m always open with Carmelo and Amar’e getting double-teamed and Tyson getting a lot of attention when he rolls,” Harrellson said. “I’m always open in the corner.”

The 6-foot-10 forward/center has the range and the touch to take those shots and make them. More importantly, he has the confidence from the stars on the team, such as Melo, who found Harrellson for a key corner three in the fourth quarter off a terrific cross-court pass.

“We want him to shoot the ball,” Carmelo said.

D’Antoni loves the burly rookie, who may not look the part, but is a smart defensive player and has proven to be physically strong enough to bag with NBA big men on the post and under the rim. His minutes, however, will depend on his ability to provide long-range support on the offensive end.

“All he has to do,” D’Antoni said, “is make shots.”

HEALTH CLUB

It will be interesting to see how Harrellson’s minutes are impacted by the return of Jared Jeffries, who is expected to be back in the lineup for Saturday’s game in Oklahoma City. Jeffries has been out with a calf strain since the Christmas Day season opener against the Celtics…

There was no official word on the reasoning for Mike Bibby‘s DNP-CD (Coach’s Decision), though D’Antoni did say Bibby’s limited minutes on Monday night was the result of some knee soreness. Bibby had a lights-out shooting performance last weekend, with 7-for-8 from downtown against the Wizards and Pistons…

Baron Davis’ progress remains steady and D’Antoni said earlier this week that the likely timetable for his return could be by the end of the month. The greatest concern for Davis is to get his conditioning up as much as possible. They will take caution with the back early on and not push it if it starts to tighten up.

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Knicks Channeling Their Inner Zeppelin

Perhaps you heard me paraphrase the title of a famous Led Zeppelin song in the segment above on the Ford Knicks Post Game highlights from the 91-87 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday night. There was a Whole Lotta Lob for the Knicks.

What stuck in my head for the rest of the show, aside from Jimmy Page’s repetitive power chord (which anyone who had their hands on a guitar in high school learned how to play), was Robert Plant’s echoing lyric: Waaaay down inside…

The Knicks are putting a much greater emphasis on the inside game, which has been the most encouraging sign of all over this three-game winning streak. Sure, two of the wins were the result of missed three-pointers by the opponent in the final seconds and the offense is still having issues with consistency, but let’s agree that the game against the Bobcats should have been easily put away had it not been for suddenly ice cold shooting (4-for-19 in the fourth quarter).

And now let’s examine the progress being made:

The Knicks recorded 44 Points in the Paint in the win over Charlotte. They had 50 Points in the Paint against the Pistons. For the season, the Knicks are among the lowest scoring teams in Points in the Paint, with 38.7 per game. But over their last four games, the average has grown to 46.7, which would rank among the top in the NBA.

That’s more like it. I mean, if you’re a team that boasts one of the best collections of frontcourt talent in the league, your emphasis should be in the paint.

So since the maddening three-for-all in the Jan. 2 loss to the Raptors, which resulted in 35 attempts from downtown and just 28 Points in the Paint (on 30 attempts), the Knicks have put much more of a concerted effort into getting, as Plant sings, way down inside.

The offense has developed with more backscreens, backdoors and alley-oop plays to get the bigs involved with better movement so to take advantage of this great three-headed frontcourt monster the Knicks have. Tyson Chandler has been the beneficiary of this New Lob City mentality, especially in the Charlotte win with 7-for-8 shooting, all on very high-percentage shots: dunks and oops.

By the way, can the great MSG video production people get Guy to remake their theme song for New Jack City? Or maybe Ice-T can remake “Hustler” (Iman’s theme), which is another great song off that soundtrack? H-U-S-T-L-E-R, hustluhhh

Even with Chandler’s rim shots, there is no one Knick who has been more emblematic of the focus on working the inside job than Amar’e Stoudemire. We’ve been critical of his perimeter predilection early this season, but since he returned from the ankle injury, Stoudemire has reintroduced himself with the painted area.

According to HoopData.com, Stoudemire took a season-high 12 shots “at the rim” against the Bobcats and is now attempting 8.5 shots at the time per game. In his first three games, he attempted just 3.6. As we outlined in theKnicks Fix segment on Knicks Game Night, he averaged  6.2 “at the rim” attempts per game last season.

Earlier in the year, Stoudemire was spending an inordinate amount of time outside of 16 feet — 6.3 attempts per game — and that has decreased slightly to 5.2 attempts per game outside of 16 feet since he returned from the injury. It’s not that he should stop shooting perimeter shots — on the contrary, he’s developed a nice mid-range touch — but early in the season he wasn’t attacking the basket, which has always been his strongest attribute.

Perhaps guard play had something to do with it, too. The emergence of rookie Iman Shumpert has made a noticeable difference in the offense, just on his dribble penetration and impressive court vision alone. Shumpert makes quick decisions and finds cutters, which is how Stoudemire generates offense. He is not a scorer like Carmelo Anthony, who can create for himself off the dribble or the post-up. Stoudemire is devastating as a finisher in pick-and-rolls and cuts and that’s what is starting to come back again.

Perhaps he needed the break when he went down with an ankle injury. Since his return, Stoudemire is averaging 23.7 points and 11 rebounds per game. He’s also attempting 8 free throws per game, which is another sign that he’s working inside more. The one issue that remains for Amar’e is his shooting. He’s at 41.8 percent on the season and 42 percent in his last four games, but that part will come.

The good news is he’s back to being Amar’e Stoudemire.

KNICKS NOTES

• How much better is Landry Fields with Shumpert on the floor? You see signs of his All-Rookie season starting to return when he runs hard down the court to fill the lane on the break with Shumpert. Fields said over the weekend that he feeds off of the rookie’s energy and intensity. We know Landry is not the standard shooting guard in this league who can create for himself in the halfcourt and run off screens for jumpers, but with Carmelo and Amar’e on the floor, he doesn’t have to be a scorer in the traditional sense. He can be very effective as an intangibles player who finishes on the break and makes smart, hustle plays.

• And I saw some of you on Twitter and Facebook criticize Fields on the Bobcats’ final shot, which came from an open look by D.J. Augustin. What you need to realize is that Boris Diaw, who had been lighting it up all night, had an open look and with Stoudemire getting back late, Fields made the right play by getting a hand up on a potential shooter. He forced a pass with seconds ticking down, which led to Augustin somewhat rushing his look.

On that play, Amar’e doubled Augustin on the inbounds, but then lost Diaw in transition. Fields, in my opinion, made the right play.

• Shumpert’s knee is fine, he informed everyone after the game. The issue is his muscles in the right leg cramped up yet again late in the game, which has led his veteran teammates to inform him of such technology a, you know, water. Maybe Amar’e can slide the rookie some of his ZICO Coconut Water, which is one of the many products he sponsors.

•  Mike Bibby played just 6:16 in the game because of an issue he was having with his knee. The absence of Bibby’s hot three-point shooting over the previous two games (7-for-8 from downtown) could explain some of the team’s paltry 1-for-10 effort from three-land against the Bobcats.

• Tough times for Toney Douglas, who, as the Post‘s George Willis wrote today, doesn’t deserve the boos. “If I’m on the court, I don’t make excuses,” he said, regarding hints that perhaps his surgically-repaired shoulder is a bigger issue than we know. “It is what it is.”

• The question, of course, is what happens to Toney’s minutes when Baron Davis is ready to play? Bibby’s three-point shooting is valuable off the bench and if you move Shumpert to a third guard role, there aren’t a lot of minutes to go around in the rotation.

• Speaking of which, as reported by ESPNNewYork.comMike D’Antoni gave an update on the Baron Davis Watch, saying the veteran guard could be ready to play “the end of January, more or less.” He has been doing some light shooting and is slowly increasing the intensity of his workouts. The main focus, along with keeping the back strong, is to get him in the best condition possible so he doesn’t have any setbacks.

• And finally, we have to note that D’Antoni said after the Bobcats win that his team is not very confident “especially at home.” That points to the pressure that some players — I don’t believe he’s referring to the stars — feel as The Garden faithful gets easily frustrated by mistakes and poor play (the boos were loud when Charlotte took a 10-0 lead).

•  Melo spoke Monday morning about returning The Garden to an atmosphere where teams didn’t come in excited to play there, but instead intimidated. But home court advantage develops with success on the home court. It’s definitely time to take back the stage and the defensive intensity the team has played with over the last few games will go a long way in getting there.

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