Last night’s game was something of a Rorschach test for Knicks fans — what do you see? Do you see a team, after a very rough six games, competing gamely on a back-to-back against a potentially title-contending Rockets team? Or do you see a team that has now lost four straight at home and has some serious defensive issues?
Several hours later, I can’t totally commit to either narrative (and you can’t make me!) So, I’ve decided to make some old-fashioned Things I Liked and Things I Didn’t Like lists to express my aforementioned ambivalence and my apparent proclivity to structure a column like a 2nd grader would. Onward!
Things I Liked:
1. Melo reminding us there are very few players with the size and speed to guard him. Nice to see you again, Carmelo Anthony: Efficient Superstar. It’s been a somewhat rocky start to the year for #7, with efficiency and volume numbers down from his phenomenal season last year. But last night, particularly in the first half, he was sublime, reminding us just how tough and unique a matchup he is for defenders. Long, physical and fast 4s (e.g. Brandon Bass) can sometimes give him trouble, but how many teams have guys like that? The Rockets threw Terrence Jones, Greg Smith, Chandler Parsons and even James Harden (!) at him at times, and every one of them had a bad matchup. His shot got away from him a bit towards the end (more on that in a bit), but Melo again showed us just how great a scorer he is.
Oh, and while we are here: Look, I totally get that Melo sometimes seems too focused on money and I agree his comments about wanting to explore free agency were uncalled for. But if you want to call him selfish, or question his leadership, or call him a spoiled, one-dimensional scorer, re-watch his work on the offensive glass in the fourth quarter. That was a guy clawing for every rebound, drawing fouls, grabbing one particularly massive offensive board on a crucial possession while competing with four Rockets. This guy is a worker. And he cares. Oh boy, we’re at 350 words and we’re only through one.
2. Attack-Mode JR. I have written in my game notes, “ATTACKING JR IS THE BEST JR,” which came after he employed a very nice first-quarter crossover to get to the rim and draw a foul. Everyone knows Attack-Mode JR is the best JR. Everyone except JR.
3. Andrea Bargnani, stout post defender. Dwight Howard went 1-5 last night. He shot the ball five times. Bargnani, with tough, physical, balanced and all-around brilliant defense, was so good that he didn’t just force the Howard into turnovers and missed shots. He forced the Rockets away from their very capable center the entire second half.
4. Andrea Bargnani, midrange shooter (and no, that’s not a backhanded compliment.) A look at his shot chart (and 61% TS and 44 3p%) confirms Bargnani has been scorching from most places, including 3-point land. But Bargs has also been great from midrange, which contrary to popular belief, remains an important skill, because opposing teams also know that shots at the rim and beyond the arc are the most efficient. And they have to run sprints in practice when they give them up. So midrange shooting — despite all its unsexiness and all the derision it receives — remains an extremely important skill. Because in the modern NBA, with nearly everyone prioritizing efficiency, it’s not all that easy to always get your favorite two types of shots on the court. Bargnani has basically been automatic with midrange jumpers, and that’s been a major boost to the offense.
Also, who wins in a pump-fake contest between Bargnani and Parsons? I almost jumped off my couch during several fakes from both players.
5. Melo starting his offense at the elbow and low block. Something the Knicks did quite well at points throughout the game. When Melo catches the ball low enough, great things happen —double-teams to open up 3-pointers, Melo getting to the rim on one dribble, and defensive wings unsure whether to double or not. When teams force him to catch it too high (i.e. both the Celtics and Pacers in last year’s playoffs), that’s when the offense gets stagnant. More on this later.
6. The Jeremy Lin rainbow arc. Oh, Jeremy Lin now has a jumper? And it is beautiful and high-arcing? Weird, as The Knicks Wall’s Dan Litvin said on Twitter last night, “It’s almost as if young players improve.”
(I know, I know, I’m only (half) kidding and it’s only been 10 games and his true shooting percentage will regress from an insane 67 percent and he turns it over and caveat caveat caveat that jumper looks beautiful with way better mechanics and I miss you Jeremy I really do.)
7. THJ’s breathtaking finger-roll. Did he take off from the free throw line? What remarkable body control. Tim Hardaway Jr. is a tremendous athlete and plays with great confidence. I couldn’t find the gif, but do yourself a favor and re-watch that play.
8. Lin-Harden-Casspi-Parsons-Howard. A 19.7 net rating in an admittedly tiny sample size of 54 minutes this year. But it passes the common-sense test: A small-ball lineup with four shooters and Dwight, and one that doesn’t give up very much size. This was an effective lineup that Rockets coach Kevin McHale thankfully only used for a few minutes in the first quarter.
Things I Didn’t Like:
1. Melo with (yet another) 40+ MPG game. 44 minutes last night. On a back-to-back. Carmelo leads the league with 40.8 minutes-per-game. The rest of the top ten on the minutes-per-game list features players all 25 and younger. Melo is 29. This may or may not be a ticking time bomb, but it is certainly a problem, and it is extremely irresponsible for Mike Woodson to be playing Melo 41 minutes per night in November. Can’t believe this has to be said.
2. Transition defense. A truly reprehensible lack of effort from the Knicks in this regard. Bargnani was great last night, but without Tyson Chandler, the Knicks still struggle with interior defense. So jogging back on defense and not stopping ball in transition, when the team is already behind the 8-ball on rim protection, can’t happen. And yet the Rockets, led by Harden, were running at every opportunity — not just on turnovers and blocks, but on missed shots. Without Chandler, this team will have natural limitations on defense, and that’s fine. But not hustling back and giving up cheap transition points is self-inflicted. (For an example, check out the last play of the first half, which resulted in a wide-open corner three for Francisco Garcia.) The Knicks rank 21st in defensive efficiency, and effort is one of the reasons.
3. Passive JR. It’s not just the long, contested 2s that largely resulted in a 4-16 shooting night. It’s that those shots bail the defense out from guarding a player with dynamic first step, great body control around the rim and excellent passing instincts off the dribble (e.g. the 47-second mark here).
4. 3-point defense. Don’t let the Rockets’ 9-28 from 3-point range fool you. This team had tons open looks, particularly in the first half. The Knicks did a bad job closing out and had serious issues with basic rotations. Simply put, it isn’t hard to see why this team is struggling on the defensive end — right now, the Knicks are struggling with transition, interior and 3-point defense.
5. Raymond Felton’s foul on James Harden. Though Melo’s foul is (deservedly) getting the headlines, this was the underrated killer of the evening. With less than three minutes to go, JR cut the Rockets lead to two with a 3-pointer. On the ensuing possession, with the shot clock winding down, Harden had a fairly open look at a three at the top of the key. He missed, but a rotating Felton contested too hard and knocked the shooter down, giving Harden three free throws (he made two).
6. FREE OMER ASIK! Honestly, this guy is far too good a rim protector and rebounder to see at the end of the bench. Can’t the Rockets, as many have already said, just trade him for Ryan Anderson already? The Rockets get a stretch 4 to pair with Dwight and lethal shooters, and the Pelicans get a strong defensive center they could use to pair with Anthony Davis. I can’t deal much longer with Asik staring off into the abyss, pondering the meaninglessness of the universe.
7. Amar’e Stoudemire, past the point of no return. Sigh. Sad to watch.
8. No two-point guard lineups the whole night. Whatever, it’s not worth launching a criminal investigation every game. Just know that Patrick Beverley is a master thief and the Knicks, in a first half stretch, suffered two pickpockets and often had to start their offense way too high because of on-ball pressure.
In related news, playing a struggling-at-both-ends Raymond Felton 41 minutes while not even giving Beno Udrih a look is questionable.