The New York Knicks take Boston on Monday night, and though the Celtics have had their fair share of injury and ennui-related troubles recently, New York will be the clear underdog. And should things go according to script, the Knicks will then finish Monday with a 7-9 record since the trade that landed the team Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. And though we should expect some orthodoxy on Monday night, that sort of record goes way, way against script.
And despite coach Mike D'Antoni's insistence on some of the more dour Knicks fans needing to "take some Prozac or something," and regardless of whether or not Carmelo Anthony thinks it will take until 2011-12 (if there is a 2011-12 season) for the team to be at full strength, the Knicks have to figure out a way to right this ship. Right now.
That's a result of the problems you create when you go "right now" instead of "whenever it's best." The Knicks did well to acquire a star scorer in Carmelo Anthony while retaining a sound point man in Chauncey Billups, but the immediate fear following the trade was that the team may have given too much up on dumping Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov. The fear heightened when you toss in the first-round picks. And the contract extension for Anthony, one that will far outweigh the sort of maximum contracts we'll see handed to players following the looming NBA lockout.
Toss in the realization that the deal didn't really address what New York was lacking most (a defensive presence, at any position), and you have worry, worry, worry. But at least the Knicks were going to win now, right?
Nup. And it's hard not to draw comparisons between New York's initial struggles and the struggles that face (and, let's face it, continue to face) the Miami Heat.
One month into 2010-11, the Heat were at 9-8, and there were a million different nightly reasons why. Such is the problem when you deal with such small sample sizes, because the Knicks are like those Heat in the differing ways they put together those losses. One night Billups might have eight turnovers or shoot poorly. Another night the helpers like Toney Douglas may have a tough game from the floor. Anthony could miss 10-of-12 shots. Or Amar'e Stoudemire might decide to take over, end up missing the mark and miss 17-of-28 shots of his own.
Then, before you know it, eight losses. Perhaps nine, after the Celtics game.
The overriding issue here is still defense. The Knicks gave up an average of 115 points per 100 possessions to an Indiana team that ranks 24th in offense in averaging just 104 points per 100 possessions. And 107 points per 100 to a 30th-ranked Bucks team that routinely turns in games of 90 or even 80 points per 100 possessions.
Replacing starting "center" Jared Jeffries with Shelden Williams against the Bucks on Sunday didn't help, as D'Antoni played the bruiser for only six minutes (and, thanks to New York's terrible offensive start, he managed a plus/minus of -12 in that turn). Ronny Turiaf managed a so-so six rebounds and a block in playing 24 minutes, but we're still curious to hear why D'Antoni doesn't play the shot-blocker (despite his 6-7ish frame, Turiaf has long ranked amongst the league's top per-minute shot blockers) more minutes. Douglas' inconsistent shooting (9 of 12 from long range in a win on Thursday, 3 of 13 in the loss on Sunday) isn't helping either.
We can't stray too far from defense, though. It's an easy pot-shot to take, but both Anthony and Stoudemire often appear as if they want that on-paper roster to win the games by itself, and they often can't be bothered to follow shooters to the corner or step in to help after Billups or rookie Landry Fields gets beaten off the dribble. Both players can lean on their offensive gifts to help the Knicks pull away from lesser lights, but unless both men are getting to the line that sort of offense-first game is a tough sell once you factor in the amount of mid-range jumpers they take.
However, the Knicks might be backing themselves into an appearance in the second round of the playoffs. The team has fallen behind the ever-improving Philadelphia 76ers, taking to the seventh seed in the Eastern playoff bracket. Though the Chicago Bulls are currently duking it out for the top spot in the East, there is a good chance Chicago will finish with the second seed, especially as the currently top-seeded Celtics get healthier and deeper between now and the third week of April.
This pits New York against Chicago in the first round in what would be a dream matchup for the NBA. And though the Bulls feature a team-based defensive-first attitude that New York can only dream of, the Knicks have knocked off the Bulls twice this season by eight points each time, in games that weren't as close as the final score would suggest.
There is a good chance that the new-look Knicks (Anthony didn't play in either of those games) might make life easier on Chicago this time around, but matchups are matchups, and the Bulls didn't appear to match up well with New York either time out. The Bulls are obviously the better team, but as we've seen in the playoffs all too often (say, 2007, when Golden State downed the superior Dallas Mavericks), this often doesn't matter in the face of matchups that work overwhelmingly well for one side.
An upset win over Chicago only takes place if the Knicks are spreading the floor, which has become increasingly harder since the Anthony trade, despite his way-better-than-his-career-average New York mark of 42 percent from long range. And the Knicks don't have a hope in this world should they come through with the sort of defensive effort that we saw against the Bucks on Sunday. No team, even considering its offense-always reputation, should play that way.
There is always the chance that this could be the low point. Or Anthony could be right -- it may take a full training camp before we see the best of what this rotation has to offer. Internal development better happen, because the team is capped out and first-round picks are few and far between.
Such is the uneasiness when you go "win now," and the team doesn't.