After the Knicks lost Game 4 to the Pacers, putting New York in a 3 game to 1 deficit, one player has decided to publicly take responsibility. J.R. Smith told the press “I take the blame for this whole series… I haven’t been playing my part. I’ve been letting my teammates down. I’ve been letting my coaches down.” It’s a certainty that Smith hurt his team. Thus far in the first four games, the Knicks guard has hit only 18 of 64 shots, amounting to a pitiful 28.1% field goal percentage.
However Smith isn’t the only person to blame. During the regular season, the Pacers were the best defensive team in the league, measured by defensive efficiency. They boast a goonish front court in Hibbert, West, Hansbrough, and Mahinimi. Meanwhile the Knicks had the league’s third best offense, fueled by excellent three point shooting. However in this series, New York has gone away from their team’s strengths to disastrous results. And that can only by the fault of the coach.
Normally the Knicks are able to keep defenders away from the rim by forcing them to defend players that can shoot on the perimeter. Putting marksmen on the outside allows for inside penetration via the pick and roll (Felton/Chandler) or by a drive to the hoop (‘Melo). If defenders leave their man to assist in the paint, the outside shooters will usually find an open shot. If they stay at home, the middle becomes a soft and friendly target. It’s a two pronged attack that requires both aspects to be present. The yin and yang of floor spacing.
In Tuesday’s pivotal game, Mike Woodson inserted forward/center Kenyon Martin into the starting lineup alongside center Tyson Chandler. It was an attempt to match Indiana’s size, but it took away from New York’s potent offense. By placing a defender who doesn’t shoot well in Martin on the floor, Indiana was able to have one defender cheat towards the paint making it more difficult for the offense to operate. And lo’ & behold, the Pacers got off to a quick 11-3 start.
Even though the pairing didn’t seem to help the team, they played together for 20 of the game’s first 30 minutes. Martin ended up with 29 minutes, 8 more than he averaged over the first 3 games.
But giving Martin extra time wasn’t Woodson’s only mistake. The Knicks were first in three pointers made (897) during the regular season, but three of their top shooters were marginalized. Steve Novak who led the team with a 42.5% three point percentage, saw only 8 minutes total in this series. Chris Copeland (42.1% three point percentage) averaged less than 8 minutes per contest, And Pablo Prigioni (39.6% three point percent) was only given 3 minutes in Game 4. A case could be made that Novak’s slender frame would have been a liability against the bruising Pacer big men. However Copeland’s listed weight is 235 pounds, and he could have given the Knicks some needed outside shooting without submitting to Indiana’s muscle.
Finally it’s hard to comprehend why Woodson chose to give Jason Kidd playing time in lieu of Prigioni. Kidd hasn’t scored a single point since April 23, spanning 8 playoff games. Meanwhile Prigioni posted positive plus-minus scores (+/-) in the first two games, and led the team in assists in games one through three despite playing limited minutes. One of Prigioni’s strengths is forcing turnovers, which aligns with one of Indiana’s top flaws. The Pacers ranked 28th in turnover percentage.
Yes if Smith hits half his shots, this series is tied at 2. But a coach’s job is to give his team the best chance to win. Mike Woodson blundered badly by placing the wrong personnel on the floor, and deserves his share of the blame for the Knicks collapse. It’ll be interesting to see how he approaches Game 5, especially with regards to his lineups. Although any change would be too little too late, it’d be good to know if Woodson recognizes this deficiency, or rides his “let’s split 5s with the dealer showing a 9″ into the ground.