Hey, in his first game back against the San Antonio Spurs, J.R. picked up right where he left off in the Knicks' playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers! Let's avert our eyes!
It is, of course, to be expected that a player seeing his first game action of the season after several months on the shelf would be a bit rusty. That said, "rusty" seems like an awfully kind word for Smith's five-point, 1-for-9 shooting, four-turnover, defensively lackadaisical 20 1/2-minute outing — a performance that looks even worse coming in the context of a massive 120-89 home-court beatdown that dropped the Knicks to 2-4 on the season.
For his part, Smith swore rust wasn't an issue: "I didn't feel rusty at all. I just missed a lot of shots, didn't get to the basket like I wanted to and overall I didn't have a good game." But when this was the nicest thing anyone had to say about you in the throes of your comeback game:
"He's been practicing, folks." -- Clyde reassuring us all about J.R., which, great — Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 10, 2013
... then you clearly weren't the sharpest dude on the block, rust or no.
That any excitement about the Sixth Man of the Year's return was almost immediately snuffed out by a massive early deficit and a litany of missed shots was par for the course of the early 2013-14 Knicks. The Spurs scored Sunday's first 10 points, led 21-4 halfway through the first quarter and held an 18-point lead after shooting 72.2 percent from the floor in the game's opening 12 minutes — it was the fifth 30-point quarter the Knicks had allowed in 21 stanzas this season. They'd give up another in the fourth on Sunday, bringing the total to six in 24; they also allowed more than 60 points in the first half for the third time in six games this season. (Perhaps the Knicks' switch-heavy, double-heavy, open-shot-creating defensive scheme ought to be simplified, as Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal suggests.)
San Antonio got everything they wanted offensively in building out their insurmountable early lead — New York trailed by double-digits for the final 44 minutes of this game — and the Knicks seemed incapable of mounting consistent offense, with the Spurs' defense utterly unconcerned with any Knick not named Carmelo Anthony. When Smith's misfiring as he was on Sunday, and as he did after clipping Jason Terry's chin back in April, the Knicks have no individual scorer that scares an opposing defense; when the ball's not moving and the long balls aren't falling (New York shot 6 for 22 from 3-point range on Sunday), the offense becomes an easily solvable equation.
Part of the reason stems from the presence of Andrea Bargnani, which might seem counterintuitive, considering he followed up a strong Friday night performance with 16 points on 5 for 10 shooting to share the team lead in scoring with Anthony. As has been the case throughout this young season, though, the raw box-score numbers don't tell the story; the Spurs essentially left him alone on offense, preferring to pack the paint, load up against Anthony's isolations and allow Bargnani's man, Tim Duncan, to play off and double on 'Melo when he began to attack. As a result, Anthony finds less and less space to operate when sharing the floor with Bargnani, and the doubles that 'Melo draws tend to lead to midrange looks for Bargnani as opposed to kickouts, ball-swings and open 3-pointers, as they did last year.
Combine that with the fact that the Spurs routinely attacked Bargnani on defense, either on pick-and-rolls or with drives to the basket — they clearly believed, correctly, that he does not present the same sort of rim-protecting threat as injured Tyson Chandler — and you have a recipe for full-court disaster of the kind that leads to the Knicks' worst home loss in nearly four years. The Knicks have been outscored by 50 points in the 144 minutes Bargnani has played this season; they have outscored opponents by 21 points in the 144 minutes he hasn't. They are allowing nearly 24 more points per 100 possessions with him on the court than off it; this is bad, bad news, and it doesn't seem likely to get much better any time soon, no matter how well Bargnani shoots from the field.
The same may be true for the Knicks' sputtering offense, although if Smith can find his rhythm and improve his game fitness, his ability to create his own shot and serve as a secondary ball-handler could help unlock it a bit. That, for sure, would offer some reason to dance. (Someone should get to, anyway.) In its absence, though, New York fans seem more likely to have reasons to chant.
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