Either the Knicks are supremely confident or they’re just plain delusional, because despite their early offensive struggles, they all believe the biggest deterrents are the injuries and not a lack of talent at key positions.
Since their thrilling last-second win over the Celtics on opening day, the Knicks (2-3) have dropped three of their last four, averaging 82 points per game in those losses. Amar’e Stoudemire missed the last two with an ankle sprain and rookie first-round pick Iman Shumpert has missed all, but three quarters of the opener with a knee sprain. Both are listed as day-to-day and will be gametime decisions in Wednesday night’s home game against Charlotte.
And according to head coach Mike D’Antoni, all will be right in the world once those two return to full strength.
“Once we get our full roster back then we’ll see where we have to pick up areas, but after watching tapes I’m encouraged,” D’Antoni said. “I know we played bad [Monday night versus Toronto], but all we have to do is hang in there, get through this period, get guys healthy and then see what holes we have and where we have to fix them.”
D’Antoni continued, adding that the Knicks’ atrocious 11-point second quarter was a mere byproduct of not having their franchise big man and their ascending rookie to ease the scoring load.
“I think we have to get better, no doubt, but a lot of it has been compromised into being asked to do things that they’re not ready to do yet. We had an 11-point quarter and when Amar’e comes back that’ll be taken care of,” said D’Antoni. “Again, we scored 85 points or whatever it was and without that quarter we’d have been on track to score 100 points [even without Stoudemire and Shumpert].”
The feeling around the facilities is that most problems are corrective. There may be a hole at the point guard position, but D’Antoni feels that wart can be covered up via his system, the surrounding superstar talent and a defense that’s suddenly respectable.
“Our defense has been really good, is really good and will be really good. And we’ll continue to get better,” D’Antoni said.
“With Tyson [Chandler] here we’re making a more conscience effort defensively and getting after it,” said Stoudemire of the Knicks’ biggest off-season acquisition. “It started with his approach to the game and him keeping that type of mindset. If we can keep that going we’ll be in good shape.”
Shumpert’s return will also help on the defensive end, as the 6-foot-5 wing can defend every non-post position. Shumpert, who had a nice impact in the opener, scoring 11 points, said he can’t wait to help this rising team and also thinks the current problems are born from the lack of healthy bodies.
While he’ll still be forced to wear a knee brace for “at least two, three weeks,” Shumpert said once a cornerstone like Stoudemire returns and shots start falling everything else will fall into place.
“I think we’re playing really well. We just didn’t make shots to show for it. I think if we make shots, good things will happen like the Sacramento game,” said Shumpert. “When we don’t I think we lose energy and that causes teams to make runs on us. I think if we just keep our energy up we’ll be fine.”
The injuries don’t just affect the suffering, said D’Antoni, but they also have a ripple effect on the guys who have to pick up the slack. And when you ask guys to play out of their comfort level, that’s when the problems occur. He cited his rookies, specifically big man Josh Harrellson, and second-year shooting guard Landry Fields as probably the most affected.
“We can’t expect a guy with no rookie camp and no training camp to come right in and play at an all-star level all year. Expectations get a little higher [because of spurts], but there are some growing pains with rookies and young players. And with some veterans being hurt right now, we’re going to have to suffer some of that,” D’Antoni said, adding he has to figure out how to get Fields back into the mix more. “We are encouraged by his play, [but] on his shot he’s thinking too much. A lot of guys have been thrust into roles because of injuries, that it’s probably not fair to be overly critical about them. We’re asking Landry to be a 20-point scorer and maybe he’s not a 20-point scorer.”
»Shumpert said he wasn’t surprised at all that his return timetable of two-to-four weeks was basically slashed in half: “I’m young. I’m pretty healthy all the time, so I knew I’d bounce back pretty quick. I was leaning on my youth to get me back quick.” He added he can’t wait to infuse some energy into the older vets: “A couple of the older guys will probably feel it [the season dragging on] more than the younger guys, so that’s up to us to keep the energy up. We have to come out there more energetic early [because] those guys will pick us up down the stretch.”
»D’Antoni said he’s not at all concerned with the number of threes being jacked up: “I think we’re the No. 1 team to get to the foul line, but it’s hard to tell a player don’t take that [wide open 3-pointer] and instead just drive it into a 7-footer and see what happens. … We’ll get more twos at the rim once Amar’e gets back. But when we play more Josh and Steve [Novak] you’re going to get a lot more threes [attempted]. That’s just how it goes.”
D’Antoni also said he’s not worried about the early malaise because of the condensed schedule: “They [games] just keep coming at you but you just try to do the best you can. There’s going to be some balancing out in this league. You’re going to go on three-game winning streaks and you’re going to lose a while. You’re going to win by 20 and get beat by 20. That’s just the way it goes this year.
The coach then said he’s not backing down from statements that the Knicks are an elite team: “We’re not backing down. We think we can be one of the best. But there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. We’re going to try to win them all. We know that’s lofty, but we think we should be one of the better teams in the league.”
»Besides health, Stoudemire also thinks tempo will help get the offense on track: “We still need to get the ball out uptempo because what that does is it creates easy baskets for guys who are not one-on-one players. Carmelo and myself can score the ball regardless but for the rest of the guys, with that uptempo style, will get the ball rolling for them. … We have to make sure they have the confidence in their shots early because come the fourth quarter they’ll be able to provide for us down the stretch.”
»Since opening day, when they allowed the Paul Pierce-less Celtics to score 104 points, the Knicks have done a better job of clamping down defensively, allowing just 93 points per game, with no team reaching the 100-point mark. Stoudemire said that’s all attributed to Chandler’s no-nonsense presence and his desire to play defense: “You have always keep confident in what you do. And Tyson has brought that defensive culture here. When you step on the floor treat it with all seriousness, all business and attack the game as such.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.