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.