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.”
“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.”
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.
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.