After a LONG hiatus, the Knicks Bricks starting 5 is back for their 2nd season. Thanks for joining us. We would have started earlier, but every time we’ve tried to put finger to keyboard in the past week, all we could muster was a bunch of exclamation points and excited emoticons like a gaggle of middle school teens. Yup, it’s been that exhilarating of a start to the season. And, unlike last year when expectations were high and we were forced to cover muted results, this year, the entire basketball universe glossed over the Knicks offseason moves with as much indifference as an Amar’e Stoudemire defensive rotation. The AARP jokes flowed like long JR Smith 2’s, and the entire planet seemed to be more than happy to crown the Nets the new kings of New York (I don’t want to spoil it for you, but they aren’t). Well, here we sit 3 games into the ’12-’13 campaign, and it’s abundantly clear the Knicks aren’t just good. They are 2nd best team in the East good. Yup, I said it. Hold me to it. Post it as locker room fodder on the blogs of Pacers, Sixers, Celtics fans (I’d say the Nets too, but A) they don’t have fans and B) they suck). I don’t care. One week into the NBA season, the pundits need a recalibration; The Knicks are conference finals good.
Last night’s thrashing of the Sixers for the 2nd time in as many days was a perfect example. After coming out of the gate slowly to the tune of a 9-0 Philly start, the Knicks spent the rest of the game punishing the Sixers on both ends of the floor, steadily and consistently. The final score read 110-88, and it was honestly barely that close. Feel free to make the “no Bynum or J Rich” argument… which totally ignores the Knicks are without Amar’e, Camby and Shump. I’d call that a wash and that argument invalidated. The fact is, the Knicks have rattled off 3 straight W’s to start the year over 2 of the top teams in the East last year, and not one iota of it doesn’t look sustainable. On to the bullets…
- Ball movement, ball movement, ball movement. What more is there to say? With all the Jeremy Lin related outrage in the offseason, the Knicks quietly brought in 3 veteran point guards who know how to initiate an offense in their sleep. Ray Felton is still a pick and roll dynamo, Prigioni is an international veteran that knows how to get teammates open looks, and Jason Kidd is, well, Jason Kidd… a 1st ballot Hall of Fame distributor who, even at his advanced age, is still every bit as proficient as he ever was choreographing an offensive set. When healthy, having one of these 3 on the floor at all times means the biggest recurring nightmare of the ’11-’12 season is long behind us. In case you forgot, our PG play last year consisted of:
- Melo playing point forward
- JR butchering ball handling duties on the 2nd unit
- A rookie Shump trying to play a position he wasn’t even remotely prepared for
- Toney Douglas couldn’t break a press with a sledge hammer
- Boom Dizzle trying to channel 2007
- Mike Bibby’s corpse bopping along the Garden floor to the sound of steel drum
Out of all those permutations, only Linsanity was the least bit of a positive force, and even that meant abandoning a conventional offense that neutralized the rest of the team’s strengths. This year? The ball movement has been exceptional, and will continue to be with one of these PGs on the floor at all times. When we have 2 of them out there together, the passing is simply sublime. Easy buckets never go out of style, and sharing the ball is contagious. I’m loving every extra pass.
- Melo at the 4! When STAT comes back, this is going to get mighty interesting, but on the heels of Bron’s accession to rarified air at the 4, it’s completely indisputable to anyone with a set of eyes and a rudimentary understanding of basketball that, at the 3, Melo is an All Star caliber volume scorer that you can make the playoffs with, but maybe not a hell of a lot more. As a 4? Melo is a flat out monster, capable of finally reaching the MVP status he’s been branded with since he was a freshman in college. The advanced statistics, eye test and results back that up. Melo at the 4 works for the exact same reason Bron at the 4 works. You can’t let Melo go one on one on the block if you’re the defense; you have to double Melo or accept the consequences. Melo has warts as a player, no one will argue that. But goodness gracious, we know Melo can score. Putting him on the block, you allow the offense to work from the inside out, while putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the interior defense and help defenders. If you double him, Felton, Prigioni and Brewer can knock down open shots. JR, while streaky, is a great 3 point shooter when hot. Kidd has become an elite spot up shooter, and Novak is the best shooter in the league. The exterior pieces are in place. At the 3, Melo could be held in check or, worse, given enough rope to hang himself and his team’s offensive scheme with perimeter Iso ball. As the 4? He’s an 8 man box waiting to happen. You cannot ignore him, you cannot let him go 1 on 1 and you must construct your game plan around stopping him in the post. It also takes his greatest weakness as a scorer (his less than elite perimeter jumper he loves) and neutralizes it to an extent… Just like Bron at the 4. Melo may fancy himself a 3, but given his strength and ability to punish defenders in the post, he was born to play the 4 in the new small ball NBA. The days where the only viable option for a post threat was a Patrick-esque traditional 5 are long gone. Especially as he ages, Melo’s ability to shake and bake on the perimeter will fade a lot quicker than his incredible strength. Not only is he better suited for the 4 today, he’s better suited for the 4 for the rest of his career. As long as the Knicks play thru Melo at the 4 from the inside out, this offense is extremely potent.
- This is a potentially great defensive team. Not good, but GREAT. The law of small sample sizes applies, but no one has cracked 90 points yet. Melo has come to play defensively this year, and the Knicks have surrounded him with plus defenders in every direction. Felton is a stout perimeter defender. Kidd is still elite guarding 2s that can’t exploit his diminishing speed. Brewer is a tough, physical defensive ace built to harass LeBron. Tyson is my hero and ready to repeat as defensive player of the year. Even on the 2nd unit, JR (while a tremendous gambler) gets in passing lanes and creates turnovers. Kurt is as strong and savvy post defender as you’ll find. Prigioni is smart and pesky. Sure, Novak is still a sieve, and STAT’s defensive IQ is abominable, but, as whole, this is a team of excellent individual defenders that know how to play together. And as Sheed plays himself back into shape and is joined by Camby (who may be activated Friday), that is a ton of great and/or smart defenders… and we haven’t even addressed our defensive super hero in waiting, Shump. I’m not a doctor, but I’m pretty sure holding your opponents in the 80s and scoring in the 100s is a recipe for success in the NBA in any era.
- As AC pointed out to me last night, this team’s basketball IQ is simply amazing. Yes, wear and tear over an 82 game season is going to take its toll on a team this geriatric. There is no doubt about it. However, while the media could only focus on that downside to the influx of elderly players, I am not sure why having such experience and veteran leadership on the floor and in the locker room has been downplayed so significantly? All it takes is a couple of possessions of watching this team to see that, what they may lack in the athleticism of their youth, this team more than makes up for in basketball IQ on both sides of the ball. Rotations happen when they should. The ball finds the open man. Young defenders are baited into pick and roll mistakes. Cutters roll thru the lane and baseline at the opportune time. From top to bottom, the basketball IQ on this team is astounding. I am going to love watching this team play.
- JR played extremely well as the secondary scorer again last night. If only for another night, he lost track of the long 2 he loves so much, instead taking reasonable shots in the flow of the offense. JR seems to respond so well to the vets and Woody, so one can only hope this is a prelude of what’s to come. But, with all the questions surrounding STAT’s health, place in the rotation etc., a 2nd scorer when Melo isn’t at his best is essential. JR has looked every bit the part the past 2 games. Some players never “get it” and mature into what they should be. I always thought JR was one of those guys. But maybe he is one of those guys that just takes a LONG time for the light to go on. I’m (extremely) cautiously optimistic he’s making that leap. At least until the next time he starts peppering the back of the rim with off balance 20 footers. Until then though, enjoy the Argentinian Peso (get it, like a dime from Prigioni? H/t to our boy J Kent on that one)…
- Speaking of holding an offense hostage, Nick Young everyone! If he was an NFL draft prospect, his Mel Kiper/Todd McShay evaluation would read: “Needs improvement: conscience”. I’ve watched Nick hold the Wiz hostage here over a couple of years, and I’m still shocked and appalled every time I watch him play. The corner 3 he took falling out of bounds with 10 seconds left in the 1st was one of the five worst shots I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Needless to say, it found the top of the backboard. Enjoy the Nick Young era Philly… couldn’t happen to a nicer fan base.
- Malik Rose is the biggest homer in the league in the broadcast booth, especially for a guy that never even played for Philly. We get it Malik, you grew up in Philly. You’ve told us 15 times over the last 2 broadcasts. Perhaps some objectivity to the proceedings is order. The Grizzlies broadcast team may have some competition for the most biased coverage in the league. Once again, love the NBA League Pass…
- The pick and roll game looks like it’s in mid-season form, especially with the keys in Felton’s hands. Tyson has gotten more easy dunks so far this year than he did entire months last year. You have to believe that is going to translate with Amar’e as well. Hopefully Felton and STAT see a ton of minutes together like 2 years ago.
- I just want to remind everyone Jrue Holiday is only 22 years old. Philly did extremely well to lock him up when they did. If his jumper has improved anywhere near as much as he has shown the past few games, there are All Star games coming in his not so distant future. Extremely impressed with his play, and a little baffled that everyone forgets he was the top HS player in country and went pro after a single year at UCLA. He’s got a lot of growing still to do, and he is going to be scary good. Fortunately, he’s sharing the backcourt with Nick Young.
All in all, what more is there to say about the start of this season? The Knicks are winning with ball movement, smarts and defense, all things that don’t slump, and don’t go out of style. If Melo can continue to embrace his role on this team as its offensive horsepower (which shouldn’t be much of a stretch for him) and tone setter, if Woody can fit STAT and the other returning pieces in neatly and if this team can avoid massive injury issues, there is no reason we aren’t looking at the 2nd best team in the East. What we’ve seen from the Knicks these first few games isn’t just exciting because of how well they have played, but, more importantly, because the sustainability of how they are winning is clearly evident. This isn’t a team that has gotten lucky, or gone on absurd runs, or played teams having aberrational poor performances. This is a very, very good basketball team, one with palpable chemistry, even with this many new pieces. Any time you can drill a division (and playoff) rival on their home floor in the second half of a home and home, and do so with all of the starters celebrating on the pine for most of the 4th, you know things are moving in the right direction. I couldn’t be more excited to see where this season goes. Back to the Garden and Dallas on Friday night… Go New York, Go New York, Go!