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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.”
“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.
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?