Tell me if you’ve heard this before: Carmelo Anthony ends up as the leading scorer of a whole game, on a fairly efficient night (26 points on 17 shots) but the team he’s playing for loses the game badly; then you go and check the boxscore a bit more and notice that Melo has zero assists for the night, and you think back at the game and realize that Melo was pretty much a lone gunner that never helped set the tone on offense and got roasted more than a couple times on defense.
Well, for once we know how that feels from the other side. While I harbor no ill will toward Melo – we’re long past that, right now it’s like bumping into an ex three-four years after you went separate ways and politely say hello and wishing him/her all the best but ultimately not caring that much – I’ve always taken solace in schadenfreuding other teams that had the best player/scorer but ultimately couldn’t snatch the prize (I’m still overjoyed at the thought of the Mavs winning the title in 2011 after the villain-y LeBron decision to cornily bring his talents to South Beach, not to talk about the utter delight in seeing Bron’s stint in Miami end in shambles in 2014 against the joga bonito Spurs). Now, sure, Melo wasn’t even remotely the best player on the floor last night, but that would not stop me from living vicariously the experience of a fan who got his team pitted against the Knicks from 2014 to 2017. It drew a wide, if bitter, smile on my mouth.
But what about the game? Was this game a New Year’s proposition thing? Was it a sign of things to come? Or was it just a lucky game against an injury-plagued opponent with a discombobulated superstar?
If I had to guess, I’d say the latter. We’ve gotten better but there’s no way we’re already at the point where we comfortably hold opponents at arm’s length just because we’re good like that.
That said, all throughout the second half I never felt half an ounce of fear that we would relinquish the lead: things looked too smooth, too easy, too “right” in a certain way. Shots were falling because they were good shots; the ball moved (29 assists!) in a very concerted team effort; the defense kind of held its own – and was helped by one of the worst shooting games Lillard ever played. It was the show of a team asserting its superiority against an outmatched one, even if for one night (although this makes it two in the last seven, given the beating we reserved to Atlanta).
From a tactical standpoint, this game was another mild reassurance that Miller actually puts some thought into games: the insertion of Bullock into the rotation gave way to the spotty resurgence of the double handoff, but this time (instead of the half-assed version that was an absurd staple of Fiz’s offense) it happened occasionally and with full purpose, with the evident aim to give the ball handler an advantage at the top of the key and to free up shooters just above the break. It worked a bit. It was good to see a new basic wrinkle that was obviously not randomly thrown to the wall.
You know what else worked? The effing PnR with Mitch! Now, I wouldn’t advise to get too excited about it because it happened against Whiteside, one of the worst (at least to the eye test – but I have no doubt that Synergy numbers or Cleaning the Glass could confirm what I’m only inferring) PnR defending centers in the league, a possibly hungover Lillard and the worst rotation “wing” defender this side of Knox (yup, still Melo), but yet. You have a dominant offensive weapon, you ought to use it. Even better: you’re morally bound to use it. Pick and rolls featuring Mitch and an average passer/ball handler won’t always (ever?) result again in a perfect shooting night for Robinson, but if you can make teams fear a particular play that means they have to adjust, and with Morris and Bullock on the wings and the reborn Randle looking capable to hit the three at a decent clip, spacing could be wondrous out there. Now imagine if you also mix and match that with a few PnRs with Randle, who’s a good-to-great passer on the short roll, and voilà! It’s suddenly a modern offense inhabiting the neglected spoils of this franchise. Amazing, ain’t it?
On to single player analysis!
– Oh well, this one is super easy. Mitch Robinson (22 pts, 8 rebs, 1 blk, +22 +/-) just took the game and made it his bitch. It’s not about the simple fact that he tied the Knicks record for most field goals made without missing a shot or that he was amazing on defense, demonstrating for the umpteenth time that block numbers don’t always correlate with good defensive results (his BLK% this year is 8.0, still good for second in the whole League, to last year’s 10.0, but there’s no comparison between the overall great defender Mitch has been in the last few games and the Melbourne Shuffle dancing octopus that he was last year). It’s that he looked downright Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam, especially on the alley-oop connection with Randle in the first quarter. Randle threw a pass that was a foot too high and half a foot too wide, only for Mitch to catch it and throw it down like it was no thing, only with his back partially to the basket and momentum carrying him out of the court. That was a superhuman thing. But what I’m happiest about Mitch is that he’s definitely not plateaued. He’s still improving as a player, and that was the most important thing for the 2019-20 season. If the only thing Miller ever did with this team was to teach Mitch how to defend well 80% of the time, it would still be a gigantic win. As long as Pills recognize at last the immense value Mitch has. Oh, and after last night (only the 48th time in NBA’s history that someone’s hit at least 11 shots without missing one) Mitch’s sporting the best Offensive Rating in the whole League. Last 10 games for Robinson: 12.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 74.7 FG% in 25 MPG. And “only” 3.7 fouls per game. That’s elite production, guys.
– Julius Randle (22 pts, 13 rebs, 3 ast, +11 +/-) is looking like the guy we thought we signed for. Miller’s Sound if Basic Elixir’s doing its job, huh? Under Miller, Randle’s posting these numbers: 22.6 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.9 APG (to 2.2 TPG) on 48.3/37.7/77.4 splits. Is it sustainable? It certainly looks like it is (save for the three point shooting, which is bound to come down). At the very least, this kind of production will up Randle’s trade value. Given Randle’s weird fit with Mitch, trading him might still be the best case long term scenario; still, if it doesn’t happen you can already see some shades of Randle doing his best Draymond impression on offense to make space for Robinson’s preternatural diving talent.
– Honorable mention for Frank Ntilikina (9 pts, 3 rebs, 10 ast, +23 +/-) who quite improbably was at the helm during the decisive stretch between the third and fourth quarter. While a few of his assists came on bush-league six-foot passes to a shooter on the perimeter, his PnRs with Mitch were the apple of my eye. Frank’s very deliberate (or you can say slow) in his pick and roll enterprises, but it’s the play where his passing acumen shines through. And no turnovers for the game! His defense was nothing special, at least for his standards, but his team command was borderline impressive this time. I won’t say anything too positive about Frank until he proves he can string together three such performances in a row, but I can’t help feeling the warmth in my heart watching those outing by my beautiful French prince. Also, what a nasty dunk in the second half. The game was already half-baked, but we need more of that Frank. Sitting “comfortably” at .043 WP/48 and 0.0 VORP for the season.
– Oh come on, it’s the first day of the year!
– Ok. Well, RJ Barrett (7 pts, 4 rebs, 25% FG, -6 +/-) is due for a rest. I’m starting to worry a bit about him. Let’s see what happens when we look at him through Miller’s special glasses (that is, the .500 stint of the last 12 games): 12 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 APG (to 1.7 TPG, ouch), 0.4 SPG on shooting splits of 36.4/33.3/60 and 30.5 MPG. The assists and steals numbers are very worrisome. They scream “useless player”. The eye test is even worse. That said, I say: give the kid the full road trip off. Let Bullock, Trier and Dotson get his minutes for that time. Let’s ease him back into the rotation from the bench waiting for Morris to get traded. Keeping him on the court as the third/fourth wheel on offense makes no sense to me.
– Great debut by Reggie Bullock. 15 minutes, 11 points on 9 shots (3/5 from three), good effort and positioning on defense. As soon as he gets his legs under him, give him the starting nod over RJ or Dotson. If someone enquiries about him, trade him. See? It’s easy.
– A propos of Morris, he was nowhere to be found in the first half (2 points, 0/8 from the field). Then he erupted in the third and ended the game with 18/7/3. He’s trending down, but he’s still quite good. Taking a bit of a backseat to Randle these days.
– Payton shot like shit (2/9) but still grabbed 4 boards, dished 8 assists and blocked two shots. I feel quite safe in his hands.
– Then again, he’s the fourth player I’ve invested with the “passable floor general” title in the last three years. I’m like those people who just can’t wait to fall in love and design the next person who shows a bit of interest in them as “the right one”. Save me from my PG hunger.
– Clyde was strangely snarky talking about Melo’s days with the Knicks and his egotistical ways. A bit bitter, even. It hurts my feeling to hear angry Clyde. Even when he’s totally right. Give Clyde access to a ruruland news feed.
– As a last note, David Stern passed away last night. On multiple accounts, he was a prick and there were a few instances of weird underhanded race things here and there during his reign (dress code anyone?). At the same time, there’s no NBA without him. I wouldn’t have grown as a die-hard NBA fan in Italy. I wouldn’t be writing here. I mean, without David Stern I wouldn’t be what I am (yeah, I consider the passion for the NBA an integral part of me). So, I salute you, Emeritus Commissioner, Architect of the global NBA.
Ready for a likely 0-4 Western road trip? It’s very easy to fall back on earth before January, 15th.
For now, let my eyes get dreamy!