NBA Commentary: The Knicks Face Their Crucial Stretch

The New York Knicks enter into the biggest week of the regular season starting tonight. The Knicks are 38-22, and a half-game up on the Indiana Pacers for the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. New York also starts a tough five-game road swing out west, most of which will be on national television. So for today’s NBA commentary, let’s break down the Knicks and see if this is a team that can fulfill the promise of its fast start to the regular season and at least reach the conference finals and a showdown with Miami.

New York has a reputation as a team that likes to gun it from three-point range and the numbers bear that out. They lead the league in three-point shot attempts. The Knicks are eighth in percentage, which for a volume of shots this high is very good. Carmelo Anthony, unsurprisingly, takes the most treys per game, somewhere between six and seven, and connects to the tune of 38 percent. Steve Novak comes off the bench and does little besides shoot the three-ball. He takes over four per game and hits 43 percent. Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd all get their looks and all shoot well enough to justify letting it fly.

The three-point game has made the Knicks the third-best team in the NBA in offensive efficiency, with Melo leading the way at 28 ppg. Felton is the floor leader and averages six assists per game. Smith is the X-factor. Officially, he comes off the bench, though in reality he plays starters’ minutes. A 36-point night against Oklahoma City earlier this week is the kind of game he’s capable of, and he averages 17 ppg. Then you mix in the veteran Kidd and the long-range shooting of Novak and it adds up to a nice combination on the perimeter.

It’s the post game that’s been the concern for New York all year. There’s nothing wrong with 30-year-old center Tyson Chandler, who averages 11 points/11 rebounds per game, but he doesn’t get enough help. The Knicks rank a poor 25th in rebounding and they’re only a little bit above the league average on defense. By comparison, Indiana is the best defensive team in the NBA and Miami is in the top ten, with further allowances that the Heat might find another level of intensity come playoff time. In short, if a playoff series comes down to defense—and since when does it not—New York is not playing at a level suitable to beating Indiana or giving Miami a real run for its money.

Amare Stoudamire will be out for at least the next six weeks, making it right around the playoffs the veteran forward could come back. Stoudamire could help on the offensive end and give New York another inside option, but it’s unlikely—to be kind—that he would make a big impact on the defensive end. In either case, New York played its best basketball of the year when he was injured early. In fairness to Stoudamire, the Knicks were too hot not to cool down back then. But in fairness to those of us who think he’s fool gold, nothing happened in the ensuing months to suggest he really makes the team better.

New York hit the low point of its season back on February 22. They had lost four straight games, two of them to Toronto, another one at home to the Clippers. Even a road loss at Indiana, understandable in of itself, came in the form of a less-than-understandable 125-91 blowout. The Pacers moved past the Knicks and its still Indiana that’s the first team on everyone’s mind when one asks if anyone in the East can make Miami sweat.

Since that low point, the Knicks have won four of six. It’s still tough to know how much to read into it because the wins came against Washington, Cleveland and Detroit and a Utah team that was playing without Paul Millsap. And the losses were to Miami and Oklahoma City, so it’s really a six-game stretch where the chalk held and we don’t learn a lot about New York’s playoff potential.

But if you want to read into the last six games, I think an optimistic lean would carry the day. New York was extremely competitive against the Heat and Thunder—it looked like they had Miami beat until a rally at the end. The loss to the Thunder came by a point. While both games were in MSG, if New York could replicate its play in those games in the postseason, they would certainly win two playoff rounds. And while the win at Cleveland was nothing special, it was twenty-four hours after the Miami game. Give credit to the Knicks for keeping their focus on the road.

Now is when it gets serious though. New York goes to Golden State tonight, the first of five in a row out West. On Wednesday they’re in Denver (10:30 PM ET, ESPN). On Thursday’s it’s Portland (10:30 PM ET, TNT) with the Trail Blazers within three games of the playoffs and catching the Knicks in a fatigue spot. After a couple days to rest, the Knicks visit the Clippers for a Sunday afternoon telecast on ABC at 3:30 PM ET. Then it’s on to Utah for a Monday night battle (10:30 PM ET, ESPN). New York is going to be the betting line underdog in at least three of these games.

I haven’t been sold on the Knicks all year. Look, I love Mike Woodson—he was one of the favorite players of Bob Knight back in 1980 at Indiana, and Knight is my favorite sports figure in my entire life as a fan. I have no doubt that Woodson tries to inculcate the value of defense, and at the very least, this Knicks’ team shows more toughness than it did under Mike D’Antoni. But at the end of the day they just do not have championship-level defensive talent. If the Knicks aren’t hitting the threes, they’re very ordinary. What are the odds of a team staying hot throughout a seven-game series against a good team?

Looking ahead, that’s why I think New York is going to be a beatable favorite in the first round, a decided underdog to presumably Indiana in the second and no match for Miami if it gets this far. But homecourt goes a long way in the NBA playoffs and if New York can win the race for the #2 seed, then they’ve at least earned respect for their chances. And the biggest stretch in the race for that seed position goes down over the next week out west.