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.
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.
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.