The Knicks had a rare practice session on Tuesday in preparation for the final two games of the regular season — home against the Clippers on Wednesday and at Charlotte on Thursday.
As the start of the playoffs officially kicks off this weekend, the Knicks (34-30) have little time to prepare, which is why interim head coach Mike Woodson felt this session was needed — especially when the Knicks, winners in seven of their last 10 games, are trying to get their rotation set.
Despite being on an upward swing and clinching a playoff spot last week, most likely the No. 7 seed of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Knicks still have question marks. Woodson put the team through an arduous workout as he’s trying to finalize a playoff rotation, while also stressing the importance of team defense and the need for the intensity to pick up in anticipation of the postseason.
Under Woodson, the Knicks have turned into one of the elite defensive squads, but there still remain questions on the other end of the floor, specifically how to get Amar'e Stoudemire re-integrated into the offense. The star power forward missed considerable time with a bulging disc in his back, but returned to action last week to solid reviews. The coach, however, now has the unenviable task of trying to balance Stoudemire's workload, the new rotation and an offense that's suddenly become Carmelo Anthony-centric.
“It’s not just about Carmelo,” said Woodson when asked how he’d refocus the offense. “Our main concern is what we do on the defensive end [because] teams that get after it on defense will be teams that have a better chance to win.”
Woodson also allowed the rotation is still being tinkered with and is a work I progress, but said he has full confidence that guys will figure out their roles and jell properly.
Anthony, who’s thrived under Woodson this month, averaging 31 points and 50 percent shooting in April, agreed with Woodson, saying he’s happy Stoudemire is back to share some of the load and is looking forward to seeing how teams try to defend the Knicks’ two superstars. Anthony is well-versed on single-handedly trying to carry a playoff team, so he knows that he needs Stoudemire at full strength. While he’s a world-class player, Anthony has never had much postseason success.
The star small forward added the Knicks will need to be a fully-functioning unit to upset either the Heat or Bulls in the first round.
“It’s a tough situation, but you have to be ready to go, whatever [the scenario] is, but it’s good to have [Stoudemire] back,” said Anthony. “We know it’s going to be a grind. But we all know what we have to do, though, because we all only have one thing on our minds, to win games.”
Stoudemire acknowledged he’s not all the way back yet, but stated he’s feeling “great” and added he’s confident he’ll return to his old ways once the playoffs commence. Stoudemire has averaged 18.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in the two games since his return, including a 22-point, 12-rebound performance in a last-second win over the Hawks on Sunday.
Such a nice start is cause for optimism, which has allowed Stoudemire to feel it’s a sign of things to come.
“We feel like we’re gaining momentum and playing well. I feel it’s going to pan out great for us because we had a great run before I went down with the injury and I’m looking forward to having a great run into the playoffs,” Stoudemire said. “Defense is the key [because] we’re playing defense and winning games that way, aggressively. … And offensively, we’re playing harder too, so I’m looking forward to getting back to those ways.”
»Point guard Jeremy Lin said he’s starting to jog now, as he’s still recovering from knee surgery. While it’s a start, Lin is likely out for the first round of the playoffs. Woodson said he’s happy to hear about Lin’s recovery and hopes to insert him back into the lineup soon but added the Knicks can’t pin their hopes on Lin and must keep it moving: “We can’t wait on him [so] we have to push forward. But when he comes back we’ll have to find a way to fit him back in. … But there’s no rush [because] his health comes first.”
»Stoudemire said there shouldn’t be any problems meshing with Tyson Chandler again, despite the two having an affinity for the high screen-and-rolls: “We’ll mix it up because Tyson can play the pick-and-roll so well, too. Coach Woodson will figure out the best way to use us both out there. He’s good at that [adjustments] so we’ll see how that turns out.”
»Anthony gave his stamp of approval for Woodson and hopes the veteran coach returns next year as their official head coach: “I hope he’s back. He's a hard-nosed coach and makes everyone responsible for their actions.”
»Woodson said he appreciates Anthony’s vouch and wants to return, but added it’s not up to the star player or the coach: “I’d love to come back but that’s not my call. Hopefully it works in my favor, but right now my main concern is these next two games and then the playoffs. When the time comes I’ll probably have the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Dolan.”
»The Knicks refuse to look ahead to playoff matchups because so much can change between now and Thursday night’s finale. They’re currently sitting at the No. 7 seed, but they can finish as high as No. 6 and a matchup with the No. 3 Pacers or as low as No. 8 and a first-round matchup with the top-seeded Bulls. If they stay at seven, they’ll face the Heat. But Woodson said it doesn’t matter right now because things are so fluid and everyone pretty much knows what each team does: “We know all those teams well. When the time comes, we’ll know everything about those three teams and they’ll know us, too. … Soon we’ll be in the process of putting things together for either Miami, Chicago or Indy. But it’ll be tough because there’s not much time to rest [between Thursday’s finale and Saturday’s playoffs].”
»Chandler said he’s not particularly worried about matchups right now either and is more focused on what the team can do to get better: “Right now we’re not preparing for a team, but rather just preparing for yourself. We pretty much know every team’s offense. We know teams are going to run pick-and-rolls, we know they’ll run ISOs [isolation plays] and we know the teams who run through the low post.”
»Tuesday’s session was particularly grueling, according to several players. But Woodson said it was “much needed” as they have to fine-tune some things: “We haven’t had this day for a long time so we did more conditioning than usual and we used this time as a way to teach, especially on defense. … It was nice to have a day like this.”
Chandler agreed it was needed, even though he admitted the lengthy practice came as a surprise to all: “Today’s practice was a little bit different than most practices as we got after it a little bit. It was definitely more intense, even for guys who thought it was going to be a rest day.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8 as the playoffs get ready to begin.