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“Linsanity” has become an international phenomenon, dominating headlines from Brooklyn to Beijing.
However, as remarkable and incredible as the Jeremy Lin story has been, it isn’t the sole reason the Knicks are surging and climbing up the Eastern Conference standings. With Lin getting unprecedented coverage and heaps of credit, the other ingredients that have played a part in the recent success enjoyed by the Knicks seemed to have received short shrift. In particular, New York’s markedly improved defense has been essential to their recent run.
Long a sore spot for Mike D’Antoni, his team’s defensive consistency (or lack thereof) had previously been an impediment to their success. But recently, New York’s stingy defense has been essential to their winning ways.
When the Knicks knocked off the Kings at Madison Square Garden last Wednesday night, beating Sacramento100-85 for their seventh straight victory, it was also the seventh straight game New York had held their opponent to below 100 points. This tied the organization’s longest streak of that kind over the past 18 seasons. The last time New York had matched that feat was back in 2001, which, coincidentally, was the last time the Knicks won a playoff game.
And despite losing to New Orleans on Friday, the Knicks defense kept an opponent under 90 points for the 10th time (they are 9-1 in such games). Prior to this season, the Knicks held their opponents under 90 points five times in their previous 95 games.
Coming into the 2011-2012 campaign, the Knicks had allowed over 110 points per 100 possessions in each of their previous four seasons, including all three under D’Antoni. This season, New York is allowing just 99.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranks sixth-best in the entire league. This is the first time New York has allowed under 100 per 100 possessions since… yes, 2001.
New York is currently holding its opponents to 93.9 points per game on 44.5% shooting after allowing 105.7 points on 47.2% shooting last season. This type of terrific turnaround is rarely seen in the NBA from one year to the next.
In early January, the Knicks actually held three straight opponents under 90 points. Prior to that stretch, the last time New York had held even two straight opponents under 90 points was all the way back in December of 2005. In fact, during that streak, the Knicks kept those teams under 88 points. As a point of comparison, in NY’s three previous seasons with D’Antoni at the helm, they held an opponent under 88 a TOTAL of nine times. That’s three games in a row, versus nine times total over the span of three complete seasons (246 games).
As these numbers illustrate, New York’s team defense hasn’t just been adequate, it’s been very good. And by just reading the headlines you might not know it, but there have actually been other players sharing the court with Jeremy Lin. The most important of these players has been big man Tyson Chandler.
Rarely is one player credited with turning around a team’s defensive aptitude, but Chandler is not your common defender.
Chandler finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, and is actually having a statistically better year in 2011-2012 – averaging more blocks, more steals and more rebounds. In fact, Chandler is one of just three players in the NBA averaging over 9 rebounds, at least 1 steal, and 1.4 blocks (the other two are Marc Gasol and Dwight Howard).
Prior to the Knicks thrilling win over the defending champion Mavericks on Sunday afternoon, Mavs owner Mark Cuban talked about how much his team missed Tyson (Dallas couldn’t afford to re-sign him due to the newly modified CBA), and how one player can absolutely impact the “culture” of a team, especially on the defensive end of the floor. It is impossible to watch the Knicks play this year and not recognize Tyson Chandler has done exactly that.
Mike D’Antoni echoed similar sentiments last week as well. “Tyson is probably the best teammate and the best player a coach could have on his team. You can’t measure what he gives just off the floor, which is off the charts,” said D’Antoni. “Now if you are talking about his play, I think he is improving and giving us more of what we want on the floor. He’s improving and understands where we want him on the floor… and of course his leadership is just always there.”
D’Antoni continued: “I can easily see what he won a championship. There are very good reasons why he won it.”
While Chandler has been the lynchpin and the engine that drives the Knicks defensively, he has certainly gotten significant help from his friends. Rookie Iman Shumpert has struggled to contribute consistently on offense, but his on-ball defense has been remarkable. Some pundits have already hailed him as one of the league’s better young perimeter defenders. When New York selected him with their first-round selection last June, they praised his defensive versatility. Well, just last week, he keyed the Knicks victory over the Raptors in Toronto by locking down a hot Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter, and was then assigned to cover Dirk Nowitzki to start the game on Sunday.
Shumpert ranks fourth in the NBA in steals, with 2.1 swipes per game. As a team, the Knicks rank second in the league in steals.
Jared Jefferies’ defensive contributions have also been integral to New York’s defensive turnaround. Jefferies filled in admirably at power forward with Amar’e out of the lineup last week. Jared currently ranks fifth in the NBA in charges drawn per game (0.75).
Now, with eight wins in their last 10 games, it will be interesting to see how the team transitions with a full complement of players – including the return of Carmelo Anthony and the additions of J.R. Smith and Baron Davis.
With Amar’e and Melo playing heavy minutes at the forward spots, the offense will be that much more explosive. Those suggesting that the Knicks will struggle to find balance offensively, and that Lin will somehow be handcuffed and less effective with Melo back on the floor, are off base. A few of the NYC tabloids have been drooling for weeks at a manufactured controversy, sharpening their swords even before Melo set foot back on the court.
The fact of the matter is Coach D’Antoni was forced to start Bill Walker in Melo’s absence, and had to play Mike Bibby important fourth quarter minutes due to a thin bench during the two weeks Melo missed with a groin injury. Thus, the idea that Anthony returning will somehow hurt the Knicks seems preposterous. Carmelo is one of the game’s greatest scorers. With Carmelo waiting on the wing, defenses will be hesitant to blitz Lin’s whenever he runs a pick-and-roll up top. The mere threat of Carmelo will open up the floor significantly for Lin, Amar’e and the rest of Melo’s teammates.
Some pundits claim Melo selfishly forced too many shots out of isolation situations over the first few weeks this season. However, that’s not looking at the complete picture; Melo having the ball in his hands, isolated outside, with the shot clock running down wasn’t a “Carmelo Anthony” problem. Rather, the stagnated offense was symptom of the real problem. Namely, the Knicks did not have a point guard. During his NBA career, Melo has played his best basketball when paired with a legit point guard. The Nuggets advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals when he and Chauncey Billups teamed up in Denver. And over the final two weeks of the 2010-2011 regular season in New York (again playing alongside Billups), under this same Mike D’Antoni offense, Anthony averaged 31.5 points (while shooting 49.7% from the floor, 44.8% from three-point territory, and 85.7% from the free-throw stripe), 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists (versus just 1.8 turnovers), 1.0 steals, and 1.1 blocks.
Carmelo was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week in each of the final two weeks of the regular season as the Knicks reeled off seven straight wins.
That said, on the defensive end of the floor, problems could arise.
Amar’e Stoudemire was a below-average defender even when he was fully healthy. Watching STAT this season, it is clear that he has not bounced back completely from the back injury that limited him last season. The spring in his step and the athleticism simply hasn’t returned. This has made his defensive shortcomings even more noticeable.
Melo has been a labeled a lazy defender since he entered the NBA and hasn’t done much to disprove that reputation. Yet, during his short stint in New York, he’s made some small strides. Melo exerts energy on the defensive end, but his has poor technique and he often over-pursues leaving him out of position. He’ll need to improve. That’s on the coaching staff, as well as himself.
Although both Melo and Amar’e will have the Tyson Chandler security blanket behind them, erasing many of their mistakes, they’ll need to do a better job preventing penetration and open looks.
The biggest and most important question facing the Knicks going forward becomes this: Will New York be able to defend and rebound well enough to be considered legit contenders this season?
Last night, in an ugly loss to the Nets, Deron Williams torched the Knicks for 38 points. D-Will poured in a career-high eight three-pointers as New York allowed an opponent to reach the 100-point plateau for the first time since February 2nd, 12 games ago.
It was just one game, so obviously we don’t want to read too much into a small sample size, but it was not encouraging. However, Iman Shumpert missed the game (knee tendonitis) and Chandler was limited to just 24 minutes after getting into early foul trouble. It was obvious that Shumpert was sorely missed watching D-Will carve up New York’s perimeter defense.
Some folks will get worked up worrying about scoring the ball after last night’s loss, but again, patience is required on that front. D’Antoni’s offense, now that an ideal PG has been unearthed to run the show, will be firing at optimum efficiency sooner rather than later. However, will New York’s defense be able to continue keeping them in every game, even when their offense sputters?
We shall see. Stay tuned…