The sky isn’t falling just yet, and unfortunately neither are the fourth-quarter shots.
The Knicks blew a 15-point second-half lead to the Boston Celtics on Monday night, but lately it seems more like a trend than an anomaly. They’ve lost six of seven, including three straight, and the ironic thing is that the offense has been a bigger culprit than the defense. Coach Mike D’Antoni points to many factors for the malaise but seems to be having a hard time finding a remedy.
“Right now it’s not a clear understanding [of the offense]. In the fourth quarter you get fatigued and there’s a lot of pressure, so you revert back to holding the ball because you’re not sure what to do. It’s sort of like paralysis by analysis,” D’Antoni said. “We’re not panicking but we’re tense in how we play.”
As the losses mount, so do the excuses. Besides the in-season mega trade, many players and even D’Antoni have used a lack of cohesion of a gutted roster and the tough March schedule of 18 games as justification for their uneven play.
“Everybody is still figuring it out. We’re trying to figure out the timing of the offense, the timing on the court, and getting used to everybody’s tendencies,” said Carmelo Anthony, who is just 2-of-12 shooting in the final quarter in the last three games. “Defensively, you can get away with just hustling and energy but offensively it takes time. But I’m not worried about that because offense comes easier.”
The offense hasn’t come easy lately and ironically one of the reasons is Anthony. One of the purest scorers in the league, Anthony is also a renowned isolation player, which makes for awkward possessions when guys are standing around and ball movement ceases. D’Antoni’s offense preaches quick passes and decisions, so there have been times when the Knicks’ offense has looked stagnant.
Anthony is second in the league in points scored off isolation plays, while Amar’e Stoudemire is fourth, which has led to many possessions in which crisp offense in the first three quarters turns into shot clock-sucking possessions in the fourth. D’Antoni thinks some of those bad habits creep in when the game is on the line and guys just fall back to what’s familiar to them – sometimes at the sake of offensive continuity.
“Where the adjustment is not being made is in the fourth quarter when guys may be tired and guys get a little nervous and say, ‘Let me do it’. And that’s understandable,” said D’Antoni. “It didn’t happen in the first three games [after the trade] but it’s kind of cropped up now because maybe guys don’t have enough energy and confidence [in the system].”
Team president Donnie Walsh said he’s not surprised with the struggles and has seemingly given D’Antoni and the team a grace period, knowing that it was his trade that drastically shifted the roster.
“I somewhat expected that we wouldn’t be collectively [jelling] together after that trade. I also looked at the month of March and saw we had a lot of games against good opposition and we’re trying to quickly find ourselves,” Walsh admitted. “I was hoping we’d get it together as quickly as possible. But I know they’re working to do that and that’s all I can ask of them.”
For once the defense has been admirable in tight moments, while the offense has failed the Knicks. D’Antoni said it’s a weird feeling seeing his vaunted offensive scheme come up short down the stretch.
“You still suffer the same but I’m banking that it’s easier,” D’Antoni said when asked if fixing the sudden offensive woes is harder than shoring up the defense. “The defense has been better the last few games – better but not good. [Defensive] intensity has been good but our offense has slowed down to where our pace has not been good. The ball isn’t moving and the ball is sticking. I don’t know if that’s because we’ve played a lot of games this month but I don’t want to make excuses…but at the same time [the Boston game] was the fourth game in five nights.”
Excuses aside, Stoudemire concluded that the team needs to go back to what was working, specifically the pick-and-roll, which in turns opens things up for the role players spotting up along the perimeter. Stoudemire added that the superstars will get theirs regardless but it’s the contribution of the Landry Fields and Shawne Williamses of the team that really make the offense go.
“The key is get guys open threes and get their confidence going. And once we do that we’ll be hard to guard because we have the talent for sure,” Stoudemire said. “All we can do is study, watch film, communicate, and talk to one another out there about the schemes so we can understand each other…[and] get back to what we do. Once we do that we should be fine.”
Coach not as worried as fans
Mike D’Antoni admitted to a bit of panic yesterday as his Knicks slip closer to the edge of the playoffs.
“I’m panicking but not in that sense,” D’Antoni said when asked if he’s pushed the panic button the way the tortured fanbase has. “Panicking doesn’t really help anything, though. We just need to keep our focus on getting into the playoffs. We’ll get there.”
D’Antoni knows more practice time is needed for his offense to jell, but with 18 games this month, rest may be more important.
D’Antoni said the Knicks need to get to the point where they can almost will a win – a la what Boston did to them. The Celtics were shooting 38 percent for most of the game but found a way to gut out a win with ratcheted-up defensive intensity and timely shots. While realizing his Knicks aren’t there yet, D’Antoni said they’ve showed promise that they’re capable doing the same.
He added that perhaps the team is running on fumes down the stretch and he’s balancing that fine line of scheduling what little practice time they have this month with much needed rest.
“I’m hoping that a lot of this is fatigue,” D’Antoni said. “But there are times when guys are running into each other and as a coach you get antsy and hope it gets resolved.”
Anthony, who started hot on Monday and finished extremely cold, said people shouldn’t jump off the bandwagon just yet. The Knicks [35-35] are just 7-9 since the trade but Anthony said he knew all along the jelling of the team would take time. His main message was keep the faith and if people are losing it, he has enough of it to go around.
“Everything happened so fast but that’s something I try not to think about,” Anthony said when asked if he’s had to time to reflect on the team’s recent struggles. “It’s a long process and something I try to tell myself and tell my guys. At the end of the day it’s going to get where we need it to be. I’m positive about that [because] everyone is positive and not feeling sad. Right now we’re just figuring it out on the go…I have faith. I believe.”
Team president Donnie Walsh is also a believer. He said so much of the Knicks’ ills reside with him because he was the trigger man on the Anthony trade and has put D’Antoni in precarious situations during his tenure. Walsh felt that the overhaul of the roster, coupled with the post-trade deadline scheduling quirk, has attributed mightily to the teams’ struggles. He said if the late-game dysfunction needs a goat then pick him because he was rarely put in the position of in-season overhauls when he ran the Indiana Pacers.
“I never did it very often because I always had teams that I thought would go very deep into the playoffs. But I wasn’t sure about us getting very far into the playoffs, so we had an opportunity to get two really good players. And so I did it and knew it would be good for the franchise’s future,” admitted Walsh. “But I knew it would disrupt what we did from the trade deadline on. It takes time but I also think the players are committed by getting as far as they can this year.”
Walsh then defended D’Antoni.
“I think that’s been tough on him. The first two years he put up with trading guys for cap reasons,” said Walsh. “Then to make a major trade and ask him to put it all back together, that’s asking a lot of him.”
Amar’e Stoudemire concluded that despite all the excuses that have suddenly arisen during this tough stretch that the Knicks need to just man-up, circle the wagons, and play ball. No one is going to feel sorry for them, he said.
“We’re still trying to get a feel of things. We know we can do it [but] it’s a matter of us getting together and wanting it and knowing how to win,” Stoudemire said. “We don’t have a choice. You just have to leave your heart out on the court.”