At the risk of over-selling this road victory I was most impressed by two things the Knicks did well.
1. The Knicks limited their turnovers.
I recently remarked to a friend, “if the Knicks aren’t going to play any defense the least they can do is force the opposition to play some.” On the season the Knicks manage to fritter away almost 19% of their possessions. We saw the clearest implications of this team’s “butterfingers complex” at Utah. Twenty-two turnovers allowed a team that NY had otherwise outplayed most of the night to hang around until their most explosive scorer exploded. Last night against LA the Knicks turned the ball over a more reasonable 11 times. In fact two players, Marbury (6) and Richardson (5), were responsible for all of them and both had an uncharacteristically poor games in that regard. In the first half NY consistently found themselves down by 5 and 8 points–the Lakers shot a sizzling 40.7% from 3 point range for the game. In the past, the Knicks would compound a team’s hot shooting by turning it over, allowing the opposition to push a 5 or 8 point lead to 15 or 20. Last night NY never allowed LA to run away and hide. An 11 turnover night is probably a somewhat unrealistic expectation for this team going forward, but there is no reason the Knicks cannot be in the middle-of-the pack on turnovers at 14 or 15/game. For all the discussion that has come out of the Utah loss, the Knicks have generally performed well in games where they have a late lead and in close games. When the Knicks keep the game close they are a tough, tough cover.
2. The Knicks defended well in the last five minutes.
Although the Knicks are not blessed with very good defensive players, the Knicks are certainly exerting more effort on defense since the beginning of the season (and more than at any point last season). Stephon Marbury has been impressive in his efforts on defense recently, definitely since the start of the new year. Keeping in mind John Wooden’s adage not to mistake activity for outcome, Marbury’s efforts last night on Kobe Bryant were noteworthy. He consistently fought through screens, and did a relatively decent job of keeping Bryant from getting into the lane at will. Of course, Bryant spent much of the night at the free throw line (11 FTAs), so let’s not start the petition drive to get Marbury onto the All-NBA first team defense just yet. Nonetheless, I have been very critical of Marbury’s defensive effort in the past. So I would be remiss to ignore the most sustained defensive effort of his career and its deeper meaning. Thomas, for all the slick PR spin on his team’s shortcomings and assorted shenanigans, has managed to get Stephon Marbury of all players to recognize the value of defense and pay it more than lip service. Helping players confront their weaknesses and then improve on them (rather than merely exposing them in the press) is a trait I find to be much undervalued in coaches. As a friend once said to me, “getting a gunner to play defense is a sign he respects his coach.”
The next hill to climb for any coach trying to turn a poor defense into a respectable one is to get players to defend well in the last five minutes. (Then of course you try to get them to defend the whole game, but baby steps people, baby steps.) The Knicks did a poor job against the Jazz on Saturday but appeared to have learned some things from that loss. Below is the play-by-play for the Lakers only from the 5:04 mark in the 4th quarter.
5:04 [LAL 96-95] Bryant Free Throw 1 of 2 (26 PTS)
5:04 [LAL 97-95] Bryant Free Throw 2 of 2 (27 PTS)
4:30 [LAL 98-95] Evans Free Throw 1 of 2 (14 PTS)
4:30 [LAL 99-95] Evans Free Throw 2 of 2 (15 PTS)
3:53 Bryant Jump Shot: Missed
3:51 Odom Rebound (Off:3 Def:6)
3:50 Odom Turnover:Foul (5 TO)
3:24 Parker Jump Shot: Missed
Team Timeout:Regular 2:41
2:41 [LAL 100-101] Evans Free Throw 1 of 2 (16 PTS)
2:41 Evans Free Throw 2 of 2 missed
Frye Rebound (Off:2 Def:5) 2:40
2:00 Parker 3pt Shot: Missed
1:58 Odom Rebound (Off:4 Def:6)
1:58 [LAL 102-103] Odom Layup Shot: Made (12 PTS)
0:59 [LAL 103-103] Bryant Free Throw 1 of 2 (28 PTS)
Team Timeout:Regular 0:59
0:59 [LAL 104-103] Bryant Free Throw 2 of 2 (29 PTS)
[LAL 106-105] Bryant Running Jump Shot: Made (31 PTS)
Team Timeout:Regular 0:07
0:00 Odom Jump Shot: Missed Block: Lee (1 BLK)
By my count that’s 2 for 6 from the field, including a drawn charge and an excellent defensive stand on the last play. The Knicks gave up 8 FTAs and some untimely offensive rebounds over that span but played quite well from the field defensively.
It was perhaps the season’s most satisfying victory. It reminded me of last season’s quip from Antonio Davis about how the team’s 7-game post-holiday winning streak was “fool’s gold” because the defensive effort wasn’t there. Let’s hope last night’s victory leads to real gold this time around.