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Jeremy Lin: the oil that makes Mike D’Antoni’s engine run

For weeks, Knicks fans have been sold the idea that crocked point guard Baron Davis was the saviour, the facilitator who would grease the wheels of the stagnant New York offence.

The Madison Square Garden faithful clung to this belief more in hope than in expectation until two nights of Linsanity breathed genuine life into the world’s most famous arena for the first time in this truncated season.

When Jeremy Lin came off the bench against the Nets to make a game-winning 25-point contribution, the Garden crowd erupted for a career performance most thought would be an aberration.

But three nights later, making his first NBA start, Lin did it again with a 28-point, eight assist performance that prompted “MVP” chants as a severely depleted Knicks line-up put the Utah Jazz to the sword.

It turns out Mike D’Antoni was right after all. All he needed was a competent point guard, a facilitator, a provider for his much-vaunted offence to regain its flow. But it was the athletic, intelligent and daring Lin, not Davis, who made the Knicks look like a basketball team again.

Pick and roll

There’s a little Steve Nash in Jeremy Lin, particularly the mazy dribbles into the lane and the ludicrous but effective scoop shots. In terms of shooting, court vision and passing, Lin isn’t in the same league of course. But he’s quick and plays better defence than everyone’s favourite Canadian.

But the crucial thing is this: Lin is the only active member of this Knicks roster able to execute a competent pick and roll. And execute it he did. And lo and behold, the D’Antoni offence – where everything starts with the pick and roll – started to click.

Even better, with Lin attacking the hoop and the Jazz defence collapsing, kick out passes found open shooters. Shooters set to take proper three-point shots, the absolute antithesis of Melo jacking it up from downtown while his teammates stand around watching.

Suddenly, even the depths of the Knicks bench started to make sense. Who else would you prefer to have waiting in the corner to drain an open three than dead-eyed long range marksman Steve Novak? OK, Ray Allen would be better but you get the point.

Team ball > heroball

What do we make of the fact that the Knicks best performance of the season came with Amare Stoudemire absent and Carmelo Anthony limping off the court after five minutes of the game?

First up, no one in their right mind could seriously suggest the Knicks are better without their two biggest stars. But what the Jazz performance does do is challenge both players. If Lin, Tyson Chandler, Novak, Fields, Iman Shumpert and Billy Walker can make this offence work, why would you not buy into it?

In fairness to Amare, you’d guess he’d been crying out for the emergence of a point guard to get his game back on track. He needs the pick and roll in order to be at his devastating best.

But for Melo, the Lin-powered defeat of the Jazz is far more important. It screams at him: “Look how much better we are when the ball actually moves, teamball beats heroball, join us”.

Seriously, how refreshing was it to watch a Knicks game where the words ‘stagnant’ and ‘futile’ weren’t used by Clyde and Mike Breen?

Jared Jeffries

If you’ve read my musings on the Knicks before, you’ll know I am something of a Jeffries apologist. At times, his limitations are so obvious that he makes you feel genuine pity.

But he always plays with heart. He somehow ignores 15,000 people groaning ‘Oh no’ when he raises up for a jump shot. He’s never slow to put his body on the line. He’s the garbageman’s garbageman. For my sins, I can’t help but like the guy.

The key to liking Jeffries is accepting his limitations. He already has, so why can’t you? Once you’ve managed to do that, it becomes easier to like him. Against the Jazz, he not only hustled, played defence and took five – count ‘em – charges, he made some jumpers and hooked up on some nice plays with Fields.

But above all, on a night where two all stars were missing and Chandler was glued to the bench with foul trouble, he provided genuine leadership. The sight of JJ leading a huddle with the inexperienced Lin, Fields, Shump and Novak was funny at first until you realised he was helping to galvanise this team.

Jeffries performance was nothing short of heroic against the Jazz – playing through injury and taking responsibility for the hard yards that helped the Knicks claim the win. He fully deserved every high five he got from the New York Giants players at courtside.

All Lin the game

Despite Jeffries understated heroics and, when he eventually was able to stay off the bench for more than a couple of minutes, Chandler’s defensive plays that helped secure the win in the fourth quarter, there’s no doubt the real story is the emergence of Lin.

Can it continue? Until Davis is healthy enough to play, there’s no reason why not.

Lin’s game is perfectly suited to the offence D’Antoni wants the Knicks to run. For reasons only Knicks personnel managers will know, there are no other healthy guards able to run pick and roll. So Lin’s mistakes and turnovers will not see him benched..

As Chandler noted after the win, Lin’s presence on court puts everyone else in their correct positions. With Lin on the court, none of the other players are being asked to do things they aren’t accustomed to doing.

Best of all, Lin’s two performances have made the Garden the raucous, amplified and intimidating arena that it’s supposed to be. The toxic environment, created by the turgid offensive displays that were becoming depressingly standard, is gone.

In Jeremy Lin, Mike D’Antoni may just have found the oil the makes the engine run.

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Filed under amare stoudemire, Basketball, carmelo anthony, jeremy lin, landry fields, nba, New York Knicks

A December to remember: Knicks season on the sofa week seven review

Things at Madison Square Garden have been so bad over recent seasons that, if you’d said the phrase “streaking Knicks” to me, I would have immediately thought that Stephon Marbury had been making more lurid advances to club interns. But now, after a truly woeful start to the season, the New York Knicks, with four successive wins under their belt, are indeed streaking and, happily, in a wholly appropriate, wholly positive sense.

Cynics will point to the fact that there were mitigating circumstances surrounding New York’s victories over Atlanta (Josh Smith’s second quarter ejection), New Jersey (the one team in the league that, on form, the Knicks should regularly beat), Portland (a team absolutely ravaged by injury) and New Orleans (a fourth quarter salvo of six straight three-pointers that will only happen once in a blue moon). But closer inspection of all four of these games suggests the Knicks may have turned a corner. Whether by design or by chance, Mike D’Antoni appears to have finally settled on a suitable rotation to execute his schemes, his team are playing with coherence, greater effort and fewer errors and the results are starting to come.

Since starting 1-9, the Knicks have won seven of their last 13 games. Aside from one awful performance in Sacramento, the losses have only come against the league’s finest squads: Orlando (twice), Denver, Los Angeles and Boston.

So, how have the Knicks started to shake off the stink of being one of the league’s poorest teams?

Shortening the rotation
As coach of the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni was famous for seldomly using more than eight players in his rotation. After ploughing through numerous starting fives and incoherent 10 and 11 man rotations in season’s opening weeks, the Cliff Claven of the NBA has finally settled on the men able to run his system most effectively. He has been able to do this primarily because Chris Duhon has shaken off his funk. While he will never trouble the upper echelon of NBA guards, Duhon’s re-emergence as a facilitator (and, against New Orleans, a scorer) has given the Knicks a solid base on which to build.

D’Antoni’s eight man rotation has also provided offensive focus. As Bill Simmons always notes, every team needs an alpha dog, the go-to scorer who always gets the most shots. Once that player is in place, the rest of the team understands their place place in the scheme of things. Al Harrington is the Knicks’ most potent offensive force and, in the last four victories, has taken the most shots in each game. David Lee and Larry Hughes slot in behind him, then come Gallo, Duhon and Wilson Chandler with Jared Jeffries and Toney Douglas chipping in around the fringes. Everyone has started to understand their role. Contrasting this with the opening 10 games of the season where the offensive focus switched on a nightly basis from Harrington, to Lee, to Hughes, to Nate Robinson and back to Al shows the new coherence in the Knicks’ play.

Benching Nate Robinson
Whether D’Antoni got sick and tired of Nate’s showboating antics or worked out that his lack of discipline and defence was continually outweighing his scoring punch off the bench, it can’t be coincidence that the Knicks’ overall play has drastically improved with the Slam Dunk champion rooted to the pine. Nate scores buckets in bunches but is constantly abused on the defensive end. Maybe Nate is one of the few players for whom plus/minus is a relevant stat. Regardless, the reliable defence Douglas provides makes him, in D’Antoni’s eyes, a more useful first guard option off the bench. To Robinson’s credit, he hasn’t sulked over his demotion and, in all four Knicks victories, has reached 1980s ML Carr levels of bench support for his teammates.

The redemption of Mr Fumbles
A limited offensive game has made Jared Jeffries a target for derision at MSG. Jeffries’ game is all about hard work and intangibles and, over the course of the last few games, the New York crowd has started to see things his way. When he took to the court against Portland, he was positively serenaded from the second he left the bench. Jeffries may have been the biggest victim of D’Antoni’s continual line-up changes early in the season. He rarely played more than 20 minutes a game and regularly found himself in spots almost guaranteed to make him look bad.

Now Jeffries has found some form, possibly his best spell since coming to New York, and he’s providing the things that New York crowds always loved: blocks, steals, hustle and solid defence. Against Portland, he drew three charges, blocked two shots and led the defensive effort that laid the foundations for a comfortable win. Jeffries has played 20+ minutes in the Knicks’ past six games, five of which have ended in victory. A much maligned figure, Jeffries has set the example in finding a way to fit into the team that help win games. Let’s see if he can keep it going.

Team defence, team offence
Ball movement, sweet shooting, sharing the ball, offensive efficiency. All hallmarks of a Mike D’Antoni offence. All absent for the season’s first 10 games. All features of the Knicks’ four successive wins. Watching the Knicks repeatedly find the open man for a bucket was what we expected their offence to look like when D’Antoni took charge. It’s more 17 seconds or less rather than seven, but it’s working.
On the defensive end, the Knicks are obviously short-handed. Darko remains their only true shot blocker and he’s stuck to the bench. What the Knicks seem to have discovered is that it’s possible to defend effectively as a team. Against New Orleans, Gallinari and Chandler joined Lee crashing the boards and helping to disrupt shots. This collective effort caused a strong of important fourth quarter stops before the sharpshooting of Harrington, Duhon and Gallo secured the win.

Despite all the talk about the Knicks now looking like a playoff team, their 8-15 record suggests otherwise. The will for this team to achieve something, anything, is so strong that every win threatens to take on greater significance than it actually merits. They’ve still lost almost two thirds of their games and are a long way short of the .500 mark that should guarantee an Eastern Conference playoff spot. That said, standing only a couple of games outside the eighth spot, and with seven games against mid tier Eastern opponents coming up before the new year, they could, if they can maintain the form of the past week, put themselves in a position to make a serious push for the post season in the new year.

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Filed under Basketball, nba, New York Knicks, Season on the sofa

Barely worth their place in the NBA: New York Knicks season on the sofa week two review

Knicks fans, fasten your metaphorical crash helmet because, on the evidence of the four games over the last seven days, this season is shaping up to be a true test of faith and loyalty. This season is going to hurt and, most of the time, it is going to be embarassing.

It is two hours after the Knicks walked off the court at the Bradley Center after a truly humiliating 102-87 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks. They conceded 40 first quarter points to a team averaging 87 a game. Their offense was putrid. They turned the ball over repeatedly. The defence was so poor it was inexcusable. In short, the Knicks didn’t even look good enough to be considered an NBA team. They played so badly in this game that Walt Frazier could be heard laughing in disbelief at their collective ineptitude.

The Milwaukee massacre provided a sad end to a week that had begun brightly. Monday night’s game against New Orleans finally gave the Knicks their first win of the season. They appeared to have learned the lessons handed down in their opening three defeats. Gone was the over-reliance on the three, the lack of ball movement and the absence of team defence replaced by Al Harrington slashing his way to the basket, Danilo Gallinari faking threes and creating easy baskets inside for David Lee and, (at times) a swarming defensive effort that forced Chris Paul and Co into bad shots and turnovers. Instead of the sluggish starts that hindered their progress in the season’s opening week, the Knicks came out sharp and slick with Larry Hughes hitting shots propelling the home team into a 12-point lead. When the Hornets made a third quarter run to briefly retake the lead, the Knicks, led by Lee (28 points) and Harrington (24 points), put the game away with a 40-point fourth quarter. They ran out convincing winners 117-111.

Mike D’Antoni described the Knicks’ first win of the season as “a massive step forward” but, as has happened many times, was made to eat his words by his team’s feeble efforts in their next match-up against the Indiana Pacers. A lethargic defensive display and thoroughly anti-clutch 0 for 10 shooting in the game’s final nine minutes resulted in a humbling 101-89 defeat to a severely depleted and previously winless Pacers team playing its second game in two nights. Even though Danny Grainger fouled out with four minutes remaining, the Knicks could not keep up with the Jonses, Dahntay and Solomon.

Fans will accept losing to the likes of the Celtics, the Lakers, the Magic and the Cavs. What will infuriate them is losing badly at home to teams in the bottom halves of their conferences. If the Knicks aspire to respectability, games in the Garden against the likes of the Pacers are games they simply must win.

Being blighted by inconsistency is no way to prepare for the Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The return of the King threatened to be a blow out on paper and so it proved. The game was over was as a contest after one quarter after 19 points from Lebron secured a 40-21 lead. Despite the Knicks playing decent defence in the game’s opening possessions,  the Cavs still started seven for seven. James drained three pointers, created two easy baskets with quality passing, made a buzzer beater and even found time to pat Larry Hughes on the arse after successfully launching a three in his face.

Aside from a couple of mini-runs, the Knicks fell listless for the remainder of the game. Unhappy with the lack of heart and passion shown by his experienced players, Mike D’Antoni gave second quarter minutes to rookie Jordan Hill who made an energetic five-minute cameo during which he made three of five field goals and turned the ball over twice.

As the game meandered to its inevitable conclusion, former Knicks-turned-TV-commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy lamented the Knicks’ ongoing “talent issues” and agreed that their failure to establish a low post and/or pick and roll game was the primary cause of the long periods of offensive stagnation and their field goal and three point shooting percentages. The Knicks reduced the Cavs’ 20 point lead to single figures in the dying minutes of the game to make the final score a semi-respectable 100-91 but that masks how inferior they were to their opponents. James’ 33 point, nine assist, eight rebound performance showed the Knicks everything they are missing. The man is supremely skilled but he is also a fine team mate and leader, revelling in the atmosphere at MSG and enjoying his team mates’ successes. As Chris Rock suggested when he was interviewed courtside, “when Al Harrington is your go-to guy, you know you are in trouble”.

Twenty-four hours later, the Knicks were thoroughly dissected in Milwaukee. After hitting their first four shots, they totally and utterly capitulated to trail the Bucks 66-35 at the half. Don’t bother with the box score for this game. Instead, ask yourself this question. How on earth has D’Antoni avoided criticism for the sad state of his team? His over-hyped, one-dimensional offense only splutters sporadically into life. His team play no defence at all and are regularly out of games by half time. His players amble through increasingly heavier defeats making basic mistakes and looking like they couldn’t care less. There’s no team work, especially on the defensive end.

When is someone going to ask why this team have quit on the coach seven miserable games into a new season? If there’s truth to the rumour that the players are insulted by the New York media’s focus on Lebron and have decided to sleepwalk through the season, that’s as big an indictment on the coach as anything that happened in the Isiah era. And remember, thanks to Mr Thomas, even if the Knicks tank the entire season there’s no draft pick at the end of it. Donnie Walsh will argue that this current Knicks squad have little bearing on his long term vision for the team. Next year’s roster will bear little resemblance to the one currently embarrassing the Big Apple. It is too much to ask the MSG faithful to sit through performances this bad on the promise of a better tomorrow. While everyone expected the Knicks to be mediocre this year, nobody was prepared for them being this poor. If he cannot coax better effort from his team, Mike D’Antoni will need to grow a thick skin if he is to make it to Walsh’s promised land of free agent nirvana in the summer of 2010.

On this week’s evidence, the NBA’s most popular coach is looking more and more like a fraud. On this week’s evidence, the Knicks are still a total mess. On this week’s evidence, there’s no way Lebron James will be caught dead in a blue and orange uniform next season.

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