And now a reading from the Book of Knickerbocker here on the commencement of the season’s nominal second half and its lesson is so timely that it speaks to the night’s 98-93 defeat in Memphis and the season as a whole in equal parts. And the lesson is this: sometimes a first half can be butchered so thoroughly that even an impressive second half — one where the coach makes adjustments that had long been wanting, one where the players’ intensity and skill both reach a new plane — proves futile. In a year that’s already bore its way down a couple miles below ground, the Knicks dug a bit deeper tonight before a desperate attempt to scramble up the side ended the way you knew it would: with their faces full of dirt and a shovel-shaped welt on their butts.
Some thoughts, because we’re all adults here and that’s what we’re supposed to do at times like this:
- There aren’t a whole lot of nice things to say about the first half of tonight’s game but credit to Mike Woodson for going small against the famously super-sized Grizzlies and staying small despite the early deficit. The Knicks (obviously) don’t have the manpower to go match up with Memphis on the interior and Woody didn’t pretend they did — of the 46 possessions that Tyson Chandler played last night, only 3 of them featured another Knick taller than Carmelo Anthony. Melo’s 42 (!) minutes almost all came at the four and it was precisely the quickness and perimeter spacing of the smaller lineup that keyed the Knicks rally back from a 13 point halftime hole.
- Speaking of Melo, he chipped in 11 boards tonight as the Knicks (shockingly) outrebounded Memphis, 39-38. The Knicks grabbed 33% of their own misses (an excellent percentage) while allowing Memphis second chances off of 28% of their misses. One thing that sometimes goes unsaid in the big vs. small debate is that Carmelo is actually a better rebounder than Bargnani or Stoudemire, rendering any argument in favor of the big lineup as superficial as it is absurd.
- Sporadic excellence from Tyson Chandler tonight. He exploded out of the gate with an impressive early display on the glass and defending the rim before settling in (for the rest of the first half) to something closer to the workmanlike rut in which he’s been mired for much of this season (he finished with just 6 rebounds which is legitimately shocking since I’m pretty sure he had 4 on his first shift). He did have another nice stretch in the second half that included a vintage dive to the rim and finish off the pick-and-roll but otherwise it was low-usage, high-efficiency stuff which has value but is a far cry from the franchise-altering impact that his first 18 months or so in New York seemed to promise. The question is whether this is the result of an effort issue related to discontentment with the coach and his schemes or whether he’s physically limited and can only dial it up to eleven for a few minutes a night anymore. The first one would be disappointing but ultimately curable (Hint!). The second one would probably mean that the Tyson Chandler who was the most versatile and disruptive defensive force I’ve ever seen in a Knicks jersey is a thing of the past. Which would suck.
- STAT really had very little place in a game like this, his nominal size is fools gold against Memphis since he doesn’t have a prayer of checking either Gasol or Randolph on defense or on the glass. Offensively, unless the Knicks planned on playing him at the five and using him in the pick-and-roll (which they basically never do anymore) he doesn’t have much value either — Memphis will happily concede a few mid-range spot-ups in the name of being able to load up the lane with big bodies. I think it’s likely that if his minute count (23) had been inverted with Jeremy Tyler’s (9) the Knicks get a couple more stops, lose basically nothing on offense (STAT was 4/12) and very possibly win the game.
- Tyler gets his own bullet point. He’s not perfect but he’s our second-best big. Criticizing Amar’e had always been something of an academic exercise because the Knicks lack of athletic bigs who could hold their own on defense meant that, as obvious as the flaws in STAT’s game might have been, there were always going to be significant minutes for him. That’s no longer really true. There’s no (basketball) reason not to give Tyler 15-20 minutes a night and use STAT for basically one shift per half as the center in a small-ball lineup. The real worry is that when Bargnani comes back, Tyler’s minutes disappear entirely in which case the Knicks will almost certainly get noticeably worse.
- Pablo Prigioni was fantastic tonight (with a suitably weird 7/10/5 line to show for it) and in a world that made sense would have officially taken Raymond Felton’s role as New York’s primary point guard option away from him. I struggle to think of even one thing that Felton does better than Prigs at this point and the quickness and decisiveness of Prigioni’s piloting of the New York offense was the singularly notable development of the Knicks’ second-half comeback. 30 minutes is about as much as Prigs can give us in a night but he should be spending more and more of that time with the ball in his hands and should start to take some of the minutes Felton gets as the only PG on the floor.
- Nobody was willing to tell Tim Hardaway, Jr. that he’s our second offensive option so he’s basically just decided it for himself and grabbed hold of that mantle. He’s coupled his ability to get open for threes with an increasingly impressive slasher skillset in recent weeks. He’s become J.R. without the headache and a more reliable jumper to boot; if he ever becomes an even slightly-below-average defender he’s going to be a long-term NBA starter. I hope he’s still on the team in three days.
- J.R. looks spooked and I hate it. It’s one thing for him to pass more (and the criticism of him for passing off on the Knicks final meaningful possession are misplaced; the Grizzlies were HEAVILY overadjusting to him and in making the extra pass he gave Prigioni a clean look against a totally disorganized defense) but quite another for him to look like the reason he’s passing is that he doesn’t WANT to shoot anymore. His brashness gets him in trouble but he also needs to be able to call it up at times or else he’s just another dime-a-dozen NBA wing who can’t defend and isn’t a particularly special jump-shooter.
- I don’t know how much is on Shumpert and how much is on Woodson but you aren’t a top-flight NBA defender if you consistently help away from good shooters to double the high post no matter who the post player is. My inclination is to think that this is mostly a scheme issue (JR Smith,* for example, left Mike Miller to double Zach Randolph, resulting in a kick-out and the game’s decisive three-pointer) but Shumpert is by far the most frequent culprit. I’m growing concerned that Shumpert’s had a defensive scheme that is a horrid mismatch with his natural skillset so thoroughly hammered into his head by now that it’s become a part of his game. Which would be bad news for everybody.
Knicks are 2 for 25 on game-tying/go-ahead field goals in the final 24 seconds of the 4th quarter/overtime this season
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 19, 2014
*I originally and incorrectly attributed this mental lapse to Pablo Prigioni. Thanks to Nick C. for the correction.