What’s even more shocking than the Knicks’ putrid defense is their reaction toward the mounting criticism.
Following Monday’s 119-117 loss to the Indiana Pacers where Tyler Hansbrough went for a career-high 30 points — coming off a 29-point effort at the Garden two nights earlier — and Danny Granger knocking down the last-second, game-winning jumper, the Knicks are suddenly forced to look in the mirror. And no one likes what they see.
The Knicks have lost three straight and are conceding a conference-worst 106 points.
“I think we’re all frustrated, but again the thing we have to do is get better defensively,” said head coach Mike D’Antoni. “That’s the hurdle we have to get over. The question is can we get better defensively and eliminate those key turnovers?”
True, there are many holes that need plugging on a team that reconstructed its roster on the fly following the trade, but the biggest omission is on the defensive end. Offense will most likely never be the problem under a D’Antoni-coached team but it’ll only take a team so far in the playoffs where each possession is treated with the utmost importance and the halfcourt game figuratively shrinks the court.
Chauncey Billups, one of the better on-the-ball defenders in his day and front man on the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons team, said the Knicks don’t have to be the new-era “Bad Boys” but they at least need to get stops when it matters most.
“We’re not going to hold teams to 80-85 points a game. That’s tough to do, nobody really does that,” said Billups. “We feel like if we can keep guys around that 100-point mark we’re going to score more than that [and] we’re going to win those games.”
Knowing each other’s tendencies takes time, according to Billups, but unfortunately for the Knicks that’s an asset they don’t really have on their side.
“We’re still trying to get familiar with each other. I don’t know guys’ strengths and weaknesses and they don’t know mine,” Billups said. “It feels like we’re trying to practice within the games, so it gets frustrating at times.”
D’Antoni, never known to be a defensive-oriented coach, said the Knicks as a whole need to get a little more physical to better prepare for the physical grind that is the playoffs. He noted that if lesser teams’ physical players like Hansbrough and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ JJ Hickson can bully his team, he dreads what guys like the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah and the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett will do to them.
“A little bit of toughness in that we have to get into people,” D’Antoni offered when asked what needs to improve most on the defensive end. “We’re a little soft on the ball but it’s not one thing. It’s a lot of little things.”
Billups said that the little things like knowing what to do on a pick-and-roll and knowing how to contain speedier guards is something that the Knicks will have to learn on the fly. He said unlike in Denver where the schemes were clockwork and everyone knew what the other was doing, D’Antoni’s varying philosophies on defense will take some getting used to.
“We did things a couple of different ways in Denver than here like on pick-and-rolls we sent him [ball handler] left every time,” said Billups. “Here we tried to send him to the screen and then a hard show [by a Knicks big man] in our first seven or eight games but now we’ll do more soft show and go under screens. We’re tinkering with things a bit to see what works and try to keep our big men out of foul trouble.”
Another common ailment for the Knicks on the defensive end is not taking lesser opponents as serious as the superpowers. The veteran point guard said that’s on him.
“It’s easy to get up for Boston, Miami, and Chicago because if you’re guard isn’t up you’re going to get knocked out. But when you play against a team that’s an equal or maybe you feel is lower then you, you feel you have more of a margin of error but in actuality we don’t,” Billups allowed. “We have to know going into those types of games that we have to deliver that first blow…that’s one of the responsibilities of a leader, a captain, and a veteran to get guys ready.”
As frustrated as Billups and Co. are right now, there is no rest for the weary because the Memphis Grizzlies [37-31] are a sneaky-good team that can also put up points in a hurry, led by former Knick Zach Randolph.
Billups said everyone’s confidence is still high and knows the importance of slowing down a high-powered team like the Grizz [100 ppg] if they are to take the next step. The veteran added that if New York racks up 100-plus points tonight they should win – providing everyone is finally on the same page.
“We’re not losing confidence at all. It’s been a tough couple of games [because] our focus hasn’t been on defense. But when you score 117 points that should be enough to win,” Billups said. “There are a few things on defense that all the guys need to key on, not just one or two guys but all 10 guys who get in. They all need to be locked in.”
Billups then concluded that when the Knicks get to that level of defensive consciousness where guys just know what to do on the fly, they’re going to be a tough out.
“The key is we want to get to the point where we all know which coverages work the most,” he said. “And when a guy gets hot we can make that quick adjustment and not lose a step. That will be the key to being the team we want to be.”