Knicks Own Flaws, Not Referees, Doom Them
The time on the clock read 6:15 in the 4th quarter when David Lee scored on a beautiful cross court alley-oop pass from Jamal Crawford. The Utah Jazz didn’t account for the Knick forward in transition and Lee signaled for the ball by waiving both arms. It was fitting that Lee scored on this play, seeing that it was his work on the defensive end that started the break. The play prior, Harpring lost control of the ball in the paint and Lee tipped it to Francis to begin the possession.
There’s no official significance of this play, but it has a special meaning to me. When I watched this game yesterday, it was after this play that I said to myself “the Knicks won’t lose this game – they’re up 10 points with just over 6 minutes to go.” Unfortunately my prognostication was incorrect as the Knicks would end up losing 104-102 in overtime. So one day later I decided to revisit the game to figure out how New York managed to blow that robust 10 point margin.
After Lee’s basket, the Jazz called a timeout to run a set play. Harpring used Okur for a quick screen and nailed a jump shot from the free throw line (5:59 [UTA 79-87]). It’s hard to fault any particular Knick on defense here. Okur used his hands on the pick to keep Richardson from staying with Harpring, and rehearsed plays after timeouts are usually more successful than regular ones.
On the Knicks following possession Jamal Crawford drove to the hoop, but lost control of the ball along the way and crashed into Harpring. The referees rightfully called a charge, and Jamal picked up his 4th turnover of the game. However, Utah was unable to take advantage of this free opportunity by missing 2 free throws, and New York proceeded to score on a Marbury layup (5:03 [NYK 89-79]).
Down by 10 points, Utah looked to exploit one of the matchups that was in their favor. Eddy Curry was responsible for guarding Okur, and Curry isn’t mobile enough to follow him on the outside. Hence, Utah looked to free up Okur on the perimeter. Williams set up Okur on the left side behind the three point line with Curry too far away to defend him. However before the pass arrived, Jamal Crawford decided to assist Eddy Curry and switched to Okur. Crawford was as close to Okur as possible, which prevented the Jazz center from shooting. However Okur’s height advantage allowed him to safely hold the ball over his head and survey the field.
While Okur waits with the ball, Harpring positions himself on the top of the key, and Crawford’s man Fisher is on the right sideline. To compensate Curry has to back away from Okur and cover Fisher on the far side of the court, but the Knick center can’t get too close to Fisher, because the Utah guard will be able to beat him off the dribble. Therefore Quentin Richardson tries to assist Curry by dropping back off of Harpring a few feet to play the passing lane between Okur and Fisher. Seeing the opportunity, Okur passes to Harpring with Richardson too far back to prevent a jump shot. Harpring gives Richardson a step fake then nails a three pointer (4:41 [UTA 82-89]).
The Knicks’ defensive breakdown on this play wasn’t the fault of Crawford or Richardson. When Okur sets up to get the ball, Curry is on the left block at least 15 feet away. Had Crawford not taken the initiative, the Jazz center would have had an open look at the basket anyway. Similarly Richardson left his defensive assignment to assist Curry who was mismatched with Fisher. Curry’s lack of speed to either cover Okur or Fisher on the perimeter gave the Jazz this opportunity to score.
With the Utah crowd energized, Marbury brought up the ball deliberately and delivered it to Crawford with 14 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Curry set a pick for Crawford, but Millsap stepped up to slow the Knick guard. Crawford was surprised by this tactic and lowers his shoulder into Millsap, dribbling the ball far behind the arc. With time counting down on the shot clock, Crawford is forced to take a long three point shot. Not surprisingly he missed.
This possession had two problems: the design and the execution. The Knicks had their slowest and worst outside shooter set a pick on the perimeter with about half of the shot clock to go. New York wasted a lot of time to set this play up, as it took Curry 4 seconds to get across court to set the pick. With little time on the clock in a high pressure situation, they could have chosen something that developed quicker.
Of course the execution was poor as well. When Millsap hedges the pick, Crawford commits the cardinal sin of dribbling while keeping his head down. Had he looked up, he would have seen Eddy Curry traveling towards the hoop alone, since both defenders followed Crawford on the pick. The rest of the Jazz defense had abandoned the two Knicks on the weak side to compensate for Curry. Not only could Crawford have passed to Curry, but he likely had Lee or Richardson on the weak side as well.
After collecting the rebound the Jazz looked to exploit Curry’s lack of speed again. Ironically the Jazz call a similar play to the one the Knicks had just run. This time the Jazz’s center Okur set the high pick for their guard Williams. Curry began the play at the free throw line, badly out of position. When Okur set the pick Curry was neither in place to slow down Williams so Marbury can recover, nor was he able to guard Okur. Instead he stepped back towards the hoop to defend against a possible drive by the mercurial Williams. Okur drifted out behind the three point line and Williams spun and hit him with a pass. At the point when Okur receives the pass Curry is nearly in middle of the paint. Okur has time to set himself, take a good look at the basket, and drain the three pointer (4:05 [UTA 85-89]). Curry’s poor positioning gave Okur an unguarded shot.
The Knicks would call a timeout to try to put the end to Utah’s run. However they were unsuccessful with their planned play, and neither team would be able to score for the next 3 possessions. Marbury would have his shot blocked on a layup attempt, Richardson would steal the ball from Harpring, and Curry would miss a jump shot from 10 feet.
With 3 minutes remaining, the Jazz would bring the ball across the court in hopes of cutting into their 4 point deficit. Again Utah would run a high screen, but with a poor shooter in Millsap. Curry is defending Millsap, but this time he doesn’t have to worry about Millsap on the perimeter. Curry stays at home on the foul line, as Williams kicks the ball out to Harpring. Millsap drifts into the lane, and at the time of Harpring’s release he is directly behind the Knicks’ center. Curry fails to put a body on Millsap and watches idly as Millsap catches the missed shot and lays it in (2:49 [UTA 87-89]). To prevent this Jazz score, all Curry needed to do was box out Millsap, something that Curry’s physique is amply suited for.
Attempting to keep their dwindling lead, the Knicks would race up court. Unfortunately Marbury would dribble the ball off of his $15 sneakers into the arms of the Derek Fisher. Sensing their window of opportunity closing, the Jazz set up hastily. Early in the shot clock, Okur beats David Lee to the outside and buries another three pointer (2:24 [UTA 90-89]). The Knick 10 point lead has evaporated, and Utah has a chance to win the game.
Those that watched the game might be tempted to blame the referees on the Knicks loss. Jamal Crawford was mauled on his last shot attempt in regulation, as was David Lee in overtime who was given a technical for complaining. Nonetheless, further inspection of these crucial minutes show the Knicks have no one to blame but themselves. Although Crawford and Marbury made their share of mistakes, Eddy Curry is undoubtedly the goat of the game. Utah scored 8 points on three different plays due to Curry. On the first he lacked speed to cover either of two opponents. On the second he committed a mental mistake by not being in the proper position. On the third he was too lazy to box out the man he was defending. Had New York kept their fourth quarter lead, no amount of poor officiating would have cost them the victory.