Two Losses Exposes Two Knick Weaknesses

After starting off the season on the right foot with a win in Memphis, the Knicks have reverted back to their old ways. New York lost by 10 in Atlanta, and was embarrassed in their home opener with a 14 point loss against Indiana. Both times the Knicks had started off the 4th quarter within striking distance. Against the Hawks they were only down by 6, and against the Pacers Nate Robinson’s three pointer brought them within 1. Unfortunately the fourth quarter wasn’t kind to New York in either game, and now the Knicks are under .500 only 3 games into the season.

Just 3 days ago in my preseason preview I said:

The backcourt is undersized and the frontcourt doesn?t offer much help, which is a recipe for disaster.

And that’s exactly how the Hawks beat New York, by exposing their weak defense. Atlanta only made 4 of 14 from beyond the arc, but shot a dazzling 51% from 2 point range. The Hawks used their quickness to get past the Knick guards and there was no help from their teammates. Unlike the Memphis game, New York didn’t have a blocked shot from their big men. Only Jamal Crawford and Renaldo Balkman (in only 4 minutes) altered any Hawks shots. Not only did the Knick big men have problems with the Hawk’s guards and forwards, but center Zaza Pachulia used his speed in the paint to score 22 points.

A day later, the Pacers used another line from my preseason preview to defeat New York.

Between Marbury, Francis, and Jeffries the Knicks don?t have a reliable jump shooter to stretch defenses.

As I mentioned earlier, the Knicks started off the fourth quarter down by a single point. The Pacers went to a zone defense and the Knicks only managed 19 points in the final frame. Marbury & Crawford suffered the most, shooting a pathetic 3-18 (19% eFG). Indiana tried to funnel the Knick offense to Jermaine O’Neal who ended the game with 5 blocks. On the other hand when New York tried the same tactic on defense, Indiana moved the ball around until Harrington, Jackson, Armstrong, or Jasikevicius had a wide open shot. The Knicks allowed a healthy 8 of 19 from three point land to the Pacers, while only making 4 of 17.

So on consecutive nights, the Knicks lose in two different ways. The Hawks beat the Knicks’ defense on the inside, while the Pacers beat the Knicks’ offense from the outside. Isiah Thomas might be able to solve the Knicks defensive issues by giving more playing time to Kelvin Cato. Getting Jeffries back would certainly help as well, but until then Zeke might want to give Renaldo Balkman a closer look. Offense may be a tougher issue to solve. Getting Eddy Curry more touches could open up the offense, but ultimately Jamal Crawford has to stop shooting like Freddie Crawford.

Mr. Accentuate the Positive

I’m heading out to Seattle tomorrow to catch my beloved Seahawks versus the Ray-duhs on Monday night. [Dave sticks his fingers in his ears.] La la la la la la. I can’t hear anything about Super Bowl losers’ curse. La la la la la la la. So I figured I’d weigh in with the rare Friday afternoon post on the opening game of the 2006-2007 Knick season. Without having seen much more than about 5 minutes of said game I don’t know that I can offer much insight on the actual contest–certainly nothing beyond what KB has already posted. However, I do want to add a comment or two on what I have read so far in the papers.

Embattled Knick Czar, Isiah Thomas, managed to eek out a 3OT victory over the “Czar of Telestrator” in Memphis despite what was apparently a dizzying array of bumbles, fumbles, and stumbles. In his post game comments Thomas may have given us some real insight into what life will be like now that he is both Lord and Janitor of the Manor. It appears that Mr. Accentuate the Positive would rather light a candle than curse the darkness. Instead of declaring that the basketball apocalypse is nigh and chastising the team for its 20+ turnover near grasp of defeat from the jaws of victory, as Larry Brown would no doubt have done, he is voicing his pleasure with the team’s effort and–at times–execution of The Quick(TM). If you’ve seen the paper’s at all Thomas is apparently all but refusing to acknowledge that the Knicks frittered away a 19 point lead, instead crediting Memphis with a spirited comeback, and is making a point of stroking his guys for building the big lead and finding a way to win.

After Larry Brown’s stint as the impossible-to-please father figure last season I suppose this is something of a welcome change. The part I have been most curious about since Isiah was named coach is to see how he would try to coax better play out of the same players. Anticipating that the roster would only change at the margins, I wondered about his approach. Isiah has been promiscuous–from an Xs and Os standpoint that is–at Indiana. So I kinda figured that whatever he ran it would be a hybrid. Philosophically though I didn’t know what to expect. If the opening game is a clear indication–always a dangerous assumption–then Isiah seems to be channeling Chuck Daley. Daley always maintained that the most important part of the job as coach by far is to get players to play.

For the little I’ve read and even less I’ve seen Isiah appears to be implementing two major changes:

1. On Xs and Os he’s upping the pace and keeping it high, which is interesting in that it is not an immediate concession to Marbury (or Frye), whose strength is the screen-roll.

2. He’s working hard to build trust with his players, at least in part by being clear with the media that he is not going to savage them in public after a poor showing.

In principle, these changes seem wise. However, the line between accentuating the positive and enabling dysfunctional behavior is a fine one. Isiah’s penchant for hiring coaches (prior to Brown) who enabled the worst in Marbury makes me cautious about his ability to straddle that line successfully. It’s easy to forget that along with accentuating the positive one must eliminate the negative. At the same time, all things considered, I thought Isiah played the aftermath of game one reasonably. In an 82 game season there’s absolutely no reason to be anything other than all smiles in public after going 1-0.

Knicks 118 Grizzlies 117, 3OT

First Quarter

Damon Stoudamire killed the Knicks by blowing past Stephon Marbury, and Curry offered no help. Meanwhile Mike Miller was lighting it up on the outside. Francis is forcing up shots. The Knicks are down by 5 at the end of the quarter

Second Quarter

The Knicks start off the quarter with their small lineup. David Lee is the center, accompanied by Balkman at PF, with a 3 guard lineup of Crawford, Marbury, and Robinson. It’s obvious the Knicks want to run against the slow paced Grizzlies, but to do so New York must force stops on the defensive ends. When they grab a defensive rebound, they are able to run the court well. Unfortunately they’re only able to prevent Memphis from scoring about half the time.

Nate Robinson earned a technical under the new league rules on outbursts. Unless Robinson is a quick learner, expect to see more of this as he’s the most demonstative Knick.

With Curry back in, the Grizzlies are still penetrating the lane with their smaller guys. Eddy is too slow to help out. To my astonishment, the Knick announcers Gus Johnson & Walt Frazier state that Eddy Curry isn’t in foul trouble because the Grizzlies aren’t an interior team to challenge Curry. True they don’t have a post presence, but they’ve created a lot of plays by getting past the Knick guards into the paint and Curry hasn’t been there to help out.

On a Memphis possession, the Knick announcers say “a Gay turnaround jumper.” Chuckles heard in the KnickerBlogger household.

Quentin Richardson is on fire. Forget what I said about his shooting yesterday, at least for tonight. At the end of the half, he has 13 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting. Counting the 3-3 from the field, and I have his eFG at a remarkable 130%. Curry has quiet 10 points at the half as well, but also has picked up his 3rd foul. The Knicks are up 51-46 at the half.

Third Quarter

One promising tidbit from the MSG announcers, they state that Isiah Thomas doesn’t care about how many points the Knicks give up per game. All he is concerned with is opponent FG% and the point differential. Although I would have been happier with eFG% and points/possesion, I’m satisfied that Isiah Thomas understands that pace can affect per game averages.

During this quarter he has two goaltending calls. Up until this point Eddy Curry is just about useless on defense, until now. His first block of the game is a vicious rejection of a Roberts attempted dunk. Curry’s big size allows him to land standing. Marbury lets 10 seconds run off the 24 second clock for Curry to make it up court. The replay shows Eddy just standing there after the block. Maybe Eddy is just as shocked with the block as the rest of us. It’s not all bad for Curry as he has grabbed a bunch of boards, and is the Knicks second leading scorer at this point. He has a double-double on the stat sheet. With a moderate defensive game, he’d be an All Star.

Rookie Renaldo Balkman looks nervous. Off a steal, Balkman has a few steps on the rest of the Grizzly team, but attempts to pass the ball to a trailing teammate. The ball sails out of bounds.

By the end of the quarter, the Knicks are up by 11.

Fourth Quarter

The Knicks looking to keep their lead come out charging. Unfortunately charging is illegal in the NBA. New York’s offense is all charges and forced shots. Curry earns his fifth foul, which sends him to the bench. Before he does, one of the Memphis forwards spins around right past him and dunks. It happened so fast I wasn’t sure if it was Warrick or Gay.

Almost unbelievably, the Knicks blow the lead and the game is tied at 89. David Lee preserves the tie by blocking a shot with 20 seconds left to give New York one last possession. Crawford has the ball for the last shot. He lets the clock down to a couple of seconds before attempting a three point shot. Walt Clyde Frazier hits the nail on the head when he calls the play “stupid.” Let me count the reasons. First, why not move the ball around to find an easy shot? Second, why not give it to Curry who was back in the game for the final 20 seconds? Third why not drive to the hoop & hope a double team opens a teammate or draw a foul? Finally, why a three point shot when you only need 1 point to win?

Memphis outscores the Knicks 29-18 in this quarter.

Fifth Quarter

Curry is back in and helps turn the tides for New York with his defense. With 3 minutes left, Eddy blocks a Lowry drive with authority. The block leads to a Knick fast break that Marbury finishes up by spinning past a defender and draining an open jumper. If Eddy could just do that more often…

Francis fouls out, and the Knicks replace him with David Lee. Lee is obviously rewarded for his blocked shot in the fourth quarter. Lee has an up & down quarter, as most of the action surrounds him. He commits a charge on the offensive end, but then a rebound and a quick outlet pass leads to another Marbury fast break. Lee’s contrasting quarter continues when he gets his shot blocked by Rudy Gay, forcing a shot clock violation. However Lee tips in a Crawford miss to give New York a 1 point lead.

On Memphis’ last possession there is a Kelvin Cato sighting. Cato replaces Curry as a defensive specialist, but the Knicks still end up fouling Memphis. Miller proceeds to miss both free throws, however New York allows Warrick to get the rebound, and fouls him with a couple of ticks left on the clock. Warrick hits one of two, and the game goes into double overtime.

Sixth Quarter

Quentin Richardson is keeping the team afloat. Curry tips in a missed Nate Robinson shot. I’ve said some negative things about Curry, but it’s been about his defense not offense. Eddy Curry has been out there for over a quarter now with 5 fouls, but the Knicks are ignoring him on offense. And it’s a damn shame. Marbury & Francis are both relegated to the bench with 6 fouls. Instead of forcing the ball in to the Knicks best option, the guards are taking shot after shot from outside. A few times Curry has decent position in the post, but the Knick guards either ignore him, or swing the ball to the other side. Both Crawford and Nate ignore Curry time after time.

Everyone is tired, including bloggers following the game. KnickerBlogger puts his pen and notepad aside with his cramped hand, and instead of keeping notes he reserves his energy for yelling at the tv.

Despite having the lead for nearly 4 minutes in the quarter, Memphis ties the game with less than half a minute. The game goes into triple overtime.

Seventh Quarter

Good news for New York, the Grizzlies start off the 7th quarter by missing their first three shots. The bad news is that the Grizzlies start off with 3 offensive boards, and end the possession by having Eddy Curry foul out. Channing Frye, the prodigal son, re-enters the game. Crawford finally hits a shot to make him 4 of 21. Maybe John Starks needed 3 more shots in 1994?

Unlike the last quarter, the Knicks spend most of the 7th trailing the Grizzlies. Crawford begins to redeem himself for a poor shooting night and blocks a shot. In a wild series, Frye nervously passes the ball off a referee & in the confusion David Lee is left free under the hoop. The Knicks retain the ball, and find Lee for an easy bucket.

With less than a minute left, Nate Robinson forces shot with 3 guys on him. It’s blocked, but Robinsons ends up with the ball and calls a time out. Again Nate drive to the hoop with 3 defenders trailing. However he’s fouled, but only hits one of two to leave the Knicks down by one.

Again Crawford comes up with a defensive play by stealing the ball. Crawford hits Richardson on the ensuing break, and Richardson is fouled. Despite the positive results, I’m not happy with the play. Crawford gave the ball up way too early, causing Richardson to leave his feet further from the hoop. Every basketball player learns not to give up the ball too early when you have a 2 on 1 advantage.

Richardson sinks both, and the Knicks have to make a big defensive stand to keep their one point lead. Like Cato three quarters ago, there is a Mardy Collins sighting. New York plays smart on the last possession, and it saves them the game. First they used up half the clock before committing their last team foul. Second was the fabulous defensive effort by Richardson on Mike Miller. The Grizzlies inbounded the ball to Miller on the extended elbow. Miller dribbled towards the paint, and Richardson stayed right with him, even when Miller showed an elbow on a turn around dribble. When the Grizzlies forward attempted the final shot of the game Richardson held his ground, never leaving his feet. It was a textbook defensive play, and gave the Knicks the game.

Post Game Thoughts

New York’s problem was going away from the offense. It served them well for 3 quarters, but they abandoned it shortly afterwards. Instead of moving the ball, the last 4 quarters consisted of one guard either settling for a jumper or driving madly to the basket. I’ll say it again, it was a serious mistake for the Knicks to ignore Curry in the extra quarters.

Channing Frye was the forgotten man. He didn’t look comfortable, only shot 2 of 10, and almost fumbled away the ball in the second overtime. Fortunately Lee looked fabulous. His rebounding was sorely needed, and while he had his bad moments, he made a lot of plays that led to the Knicks’ win. He’d be the player of the game, if it wasn’t for Quentin Richardson.

Richardson played phenomenally well. I won’t expect him to hit 10 of 13 every night, including a perfect 5 of 5 from downtown. However if tonight is any indication, it’s possible that Richardson is back to his productive self. Quentin also played tough defense and hit those clutch free throws to give the Knicks the game for good.

Knicks 2007 Season Preview

For the most part, the Knicks are starting off the 2007 season with the same roster that they ended the 2006 season. So instead on dwelling on each player or position, I’d like to concentrate on how the Knicks are going to be different in 2007.

The New Guys

Although the same lovable group that lost a whopping 59 games will be back, there are a few new cast members. Isiah Thomas sought to revamp the small forward position in the offseason. Thomas signed Jeffries from the Washington Wizards and grabbed Renaldo Balkman with his first pick in the draft. Both players are lanky perimeter defenders that can play a variety of positions. Neither are a threat on offense, although Balkman can move without the ball and finish close to the hoop. In case you’ve been in a coma since June and have never seen Renaldo Balkman, you can identify him by looking for the skinny version of Brian Grant. Jeffries will start the season on the IR, which means that the rookie will see a little more playing time early on.

The Knicks also drafted Mardy Collins. With the depth they have at guard and Collins’ lukewarm preseason, he’ll have first row seats to all 82 Knick games. Just last week the Knicks signed Kelvin Cato. The 6-11 big man will attempt to push Jerome James to the bench which should be easier than actually pushing Jerome James to the bench.

The Class of 06

The Knicks only improvement won’t just come from their new acquirees. The Knicks trio of Frye, Lee, and Robinson look to improve in their sophomore season. In the future, if any of the three are going to the mid-winter classic, it will be Frye. Last year Frye started off hot, but lost confidence on his jumper mid-season, passing on wide-open shots. He looked healthy this preseason, physically bulking up and adding a post up game to complement his outside touch. But Frye also added a mental aspect to his game, taking a bigger role in the on the court leadership of the Knicks.

While Lee & Robinson will likely be role players this year, both have shown improvement over the summer. The Knicks have found a good use for Lee’s strong rebounding skills, even letting him man the center spot in the small & quick lineups when possible. With Frye’s ability to shift to center, expect to see David Lee as the Knicks primary big man off the bench. Meanwhile Robinson’s lessons over the summer (pass the ball more) seem to have finally sunk in. For Nate to succeed at this level, he has to learn that he can’t take the ball to the hoop with two (or more) guys on him. In the preseason Robinson passed out of double teams more, and his assist/minute ratio showed improvement.

The Quick

Setting aside the tabloid stories surrounding Madison Square Garden, the most frequent topic about the Knicks new season is Isiah Thomas’ offense. Isiah is going to institute his own invention called “The Quick”, which is a combination of Tex Winters Triangle Offense, Bob Knight’s Indiana Offense, John Wooden UCLA Offense, Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, Jacques Lemaire’s Neutral Zone Trap, George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, General Patton’s Operation Fortitute and every successful strategy ever used.

Zeke’s offense does has some advantages with this roster. Taking the ball out of the point guard’s hands will mean that Marbury & Francis won’t be fighting over point guard duties. Additionally it’ll mean that the two shooting happy PGs won’t be able to dominate the ball. Unfortunately, it can’t hide all of New York’s roster flaws, especially when looking at the starting 5. Between Marbury, Francis, and Jeffries the Knicks don’t have a reliable jump shooter to stretch defenses. While Crawford and Robinson can provide that role, Isiah will have a tough decision to make in the fourth quarter of tight games. Will he sit Francis (or Marbury) in order to keep a sharp shooter on the court? Richardson will start the season at SF, but he still isn’t the shooter he was on the West Coast. Quentin shot a paltry 40.4% eFG this preseason with a cheek slapping 13% from beyond the arc. If Richardson can find his stroke he’d be an integral part of the Knicks’ offense, but if he’s going to shoot like that, the Knicks would be better off with Balkman getting the major minutes in Jeffries’ stead.

The Defense

At one point this was the core of the franchise, but you haven’t heard much regarding how the Knicks are going to improve on defense in 2007. Due to Jeffries’ injury, the Knicks starting 5 on opening night will be Marbury, Francis, Richardson, Frye, and Curry. Not exactly the 1994 Knicks. The backcourt is undersized and the frontcourt doesn’t offer much help, which is a recipe for disaster. On defense, the small forward spot should see an improvement with the additions of Balkman and Jeffries. Should Cato make his way into the rotation, he’ll add a defensive presence as well. Unfortunately those three won’t be enough to make up for a lack of defense from the rest of the roster.

The Outlook

Knick fans are looking forward to this season, because it couldn’t possibly be worse than last year’s fiasco. With a promising core of young players in Frye, Lee, Robinson, and Balkman, New York should generate some excitement on the court this year. The results are mixed on Isiah’s coaching tenure in Indiana, so it’s hard to judge how much of an effect he’ll have on the team. On offense the Knicks lack a true superstar, but they do have a few guys that can contribute in a positive fashion. While most pundits are keying on the development of Eddy Curry, the key might be on the improvement of the Knicks other young big man, Channing Frye. If Marbury can return to his pre-Brown form (very likely), Frye can improve on his first season (likely), Francis can give the production somewhere between his 2005 & 2006 season (possible), and Curry can cut down on his fouls and turnovers (not outside the realm of possibility) then the Knicks should have a good offense. Throw in the continuing development of the bench (Crawford, Robinson, and Lee) and they’ll overcome the lacking of a scoring superpower.

But before Knick fans start readying their tents for an outdoor overnight playoff ticket sale party, there is still the matter of the weak Knicks defense. New York is going to have to outscore their opponents every night, because I don’t see this team shutting down their opponents for extended periods of time. With just about the same roster, the Knicks only won 23 games last year. I don’t care if Larry Brown had a pin filled voodoo doll of each of his players, ultimately it’s the players that earned that record. History shows that teams don’t just all of a sudden win 15-20 more games without a massive talent overhaul.

A realistic estimate for New York’s win total is in the 30-something range, which is still a large improvement. While there will be a lot of talk surrounding the Knicks offense and how the different players mesh with each other, pay attention to the Knicks’ defense. That’ll be the key for their 2007 season.