Friday, December 17, 2010

LeBron who? Amar'e has made the big apple forget about LeBron James

As quickly as Tino Martinez made New Yorkers forget about Don Mattingly, Amar'e Stoudemire has made New Yorkers forget about LeBron James.

It almost seems like ancient history now, but back in July the whole city of New York was salivating at the possibility of King James becoming the King of New York. Knicks President Donnie Walsh for two seasons had cleared up cap space by dealing away fan favorites in numerous trades as well as draft picks to gut the rotting corpse that former Knicks President Isiah Thomas had left him. And he had done a good job by giving the Knicks the ability to sign two max contracts in the summer of 2010.

New Yorkers believed that LeBron was their guy. LBJ dropped little subtle lines here and there. James was always donning a Yankees cap. It made sense, right?

Then the Cavaliers were bounced from the playoffs and the frenzy began. For the next 50 days, the top story was LeBron, LeBron, LeBron! ESPN even dedicated a page on it's website featuring a ticker to the days left until NBA free agency began.

July 1 came. The Knicks met with LeBron. For the next week, the sports world was able to create thousands of stories based on chatter and rumors, most of it unverified. It literally changed by the minute. He was going to Chicago...Cleveland...New Jersey.

But that didn't matter. New Yorkers still believed LeBron was there guy - it had to be. They deserved it. They had spent this entire decade waiting to be great again, and this was New York's chance. It's destiny!

Even Wall Street was in on it. The MSG stock sky rocketed in the days before The Decision speculating that LeBron was going to be a Knick in the fall.

Then the Knicks inked Amar'e. Amar'e wasn't the player the Knicks really wanted but he'll just be a piece for LeBron - right?

"The Decision" came. LeBron was taking his talents to South Beach. New York was hungover for about a week. Darkness swept the Knicks Nation. New York would never recover from such a blow.

Now all the Knicks had was a $100 million power forward with bad knees. The Knicks were going nowhere...again...

The Knicks started with a 3-8 record losing a string of games to sub-par teams. New team, same story. ..

The End...

Then the remarkable happened. The Knicks started playing well. They strung several wins together on a western roadtrip and suddenly New York was paying attention.

The winning continued. And now the Knicks believed they could win any time they walked on the court. The swagger was back. Basketball was back in New York.

The Garden became alive for the first time in years and the Knicks were playing meaningful games for the first time in a decade.

Who is to "blame"?

Watch any Knick home game and you'll hear the crowd chanting MVP - and it's only December. For who? Amar'e Stoudemire. The true savior of New York. The guy that was supposedly New York's silver medalist of this past summer's free agency. The guy the Knicks were never really after. The guy that has been the most dominant player in the league since mid-November. The guy that has been flushing the ball on opponents on what feels like every play and averaging over 30 points a game over the last 10 contests. And the guy who during a 6-game losing streak publicly challenged his teammates to not accept losing and single handedly turned the season around for the Knicks. Amar'e has taken the reigns as New York's emotional leader and New York has embraced him.

His toughness and fearless style is exactly the type of player that fits the mold in New York. Thick skinned. Ice water flowing through his veins. Amar'e takes responsibility for wins and losses by putting the team on his back. He wants the last shot. He gets in the opposition's face if you tick him off. He knocks players to the ground after a blocked shot and stares them down. He screams in your face after he dunks it on you. Electricity and passion. This is what New York wants and has wanted the whole time. Not pomp and flash. He's not a King. He's blue collar. He's New York.

The Knicks meet the Heat tonight for the first time this season. In October this game would have been about reigning boos on LeBron for payback. But now Amar'e has made it about winning.

LeBron James? LeBron who? How quickly New York has forgotten. How quickly Amar'e has made New York forget.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Knicks offense flies high against Boston; Interior defense their undoing

Wednesday's epic regular season match-up between the Knicks and Celtics has all left us with a Thursday morning hangover. Boston's 118-116 victory over the up and coming Knicks featured all the NBA action one could ask for including two game "winners" - one, by Paul Pierce in the closing moments of the game and of course Amar'e's discounted three as time expired.

But all the action aside, there are few things that we learned about the Knicks on Wednesday, one of them a major concern as the season progresses.

The Upside: The Knicks can play with the best of them

The Knicks showed last night that they can beat the Celtics. Yes, even though we all said a loss would not be a moral victory. It strangely is. It's a step forward since coming into this season making the playoffs was New York's only goal. Now the Knicks are thinking they can be an elite team in the East this season. The reason they can run with Boston is simply because of their high powered offense.

New York was able to score on the NBA's stingiest defense and score on them often. The Knicks jumped off to hot start and didn't stop the whole night. They ended up with 116 points - 24 more than the Celtics season average for points against. Amar'e dropped 39, the most a player has scored on the Celtics this season. The 116 points is also the most points the Celtics have given up all season.

With Chandler at the PF (naturally a SF/SG), he is able to stretch F/C defenders to guard him along the perimeter. We saw this last night.

He keeps them honest with spot up threes and lately Chandler has been hitting them consistently. What does this do? Well besides having the ability to drive past slower defenders, it forces big men to defend 15-20 feet beyond the basket. This clears up the middle for Amar'e who can now feast on one-on-one match ups from 10-12 feet out.  Even Garnett, one of the best defenders in the NBA had a tough time guarding STAT one-on-one.

This is a good sign for the Knicks that even against a stingy like Boston they were still able to score 116 points - over 7 points above their season average. The upside is going small and having four players they are able to score on an elite defense.

Equally as impressive about the Knicks offense last night was that Felton and Stoudemire were still able to run the pick and roll to a success especially in the 2nd half, when you expect the Celtic defense to lock down.

The Downside: The interior defense will be their undoing

Chandler who at the PF helps create the scoring versatility at one end of the court, also leads to the Knicks undoing at the other end. Chandler is mostly always over sized in a power forward match up. Bigs catch the ball down low and are able to shoot over him. The result is that the Knicks are forced to double down to help Chandler. The counter-result, the player in the post kicks the ball out to a wide-open perimeter player.

This is what we saw last night, especially in the 4th quarter. The Celtics made it a point to exploit the Garnett-Chandler mismatch. They pounded the ball inside to Garnett who would muscle his way to the block for an easy hoop. When the Knicks did double down, Garnett would kick it out to an open perimeter player  - Allen, Pierce or Robinson.

With the Knicks clinging to a small lead in the 4th quarter, they were not only unable to make a big stop, but Boston was able to score on many easy layups - most of the uncontested.

Now the obvious question is, why not stick Amar'e on Garnett? Although Amar'e can match Garnett in strength and quickness, STAT is prone to playing defense with his hands rather than his feet. He often hacks and gets into foul trouble. So they let Amar'e take a weaker scorer at the expense of defense. In Wednesday's case he took Glen Davis.

Boston's strategy from the beginning of the game was to exploit this mismatch. The Knicks did a good job early on to poke balls and deny the entry pass into the post. However, when it really mattered, Garnett dominated Chandler down-low. The Knicks made very few key stops in the 4th quarter and despite Paul Pierce's team high 32 points, it was the Knicks inability to contain KG that lost them the game.

Now obviously, it's only one game, but what is concerning is that it's a sign of things to come. With a stretch of games coming up for the Knicks over the next month and a half, they will face many of the NBA's elite big men.

From now until February, they will face the Lakers twice, the Heat twice, the Spurs twice, the Thunder twice - and this is just a small sample. Just imagine the nightmarish match-up when the Knicks play the Lakers. Will Chandler have to guard Gasol or Bynum?

If the Knicks continue the strategy of having Chandler guard a bigger player, the Knicks will continue to have difficulty to make stops like they did against Boston. Scoring is great, but it will eventually come at the expense of defense.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Analysis: A Tale of two Amar'e's

The Knicks are on a tear that has not been seen since the days of Jeff Van Gundy. They are 13-9 through 22 games, but more importantly are 10-1 through the last eleven. Starting the season 3-8, most people were ready to write off the Knicks as another failed season as the result of another failed off-season . They had failed to land LeBron, and had failed to land any of the other premier free agent guards i.e. Wade, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay. They had just given a huge $100 million contract to Amar'e Stoudemire who was coming off an impressive second half and playoff run with the Suns, but had questions coming in.

Undergoing micro-fracture surgery several years ago, would STAT be able to stay healthy and log heavy minutes? Maybe the biggest question though was how would Amar'e adjust to an NBA life post-Steve Nash?

Well over half of Amar'e points for the Suns have come off Steve Nash assists. Would Amar'e be able to be as dominant without the guy who had created so many of his scoring opportunities?

Through the first 10 games, it didn't appear so. Amar'e was averaging multiple turnovers a game, was forcing the ball into the defense, and was catching the ball 18-20 feet from the basket. And when he did score it was usually at the expense of any type of offensive cohesion.

Then something funny happened. The Knicks suddenly found themselves in California and rattled off three consecutive road wins against the Kings, Clippers, and Warriors. This coming off of a previous 6 game losing streak. They didn't play the stellar teams of the West, but what they did do was win games - something New York had been struggling to do ever since Jeff Van Gundy left as head coach.

How did they do it? High powered scoring which involved a fast uptempo pacing of the offense, hot perimeter shooting and most importantly, Amar'e feasting inside the paint. And when I say feasting, Amar'e has been a monster during this current tear. Through the last 11 games Amar'e is averaging 29.5 points per contest. He is season average is currently 25.3 which puts him third in the league in scoring.

The increased outburst is definitely a conscious effort to not only get Amar'e more touches, but to get him those touches closer to the basket. Earlier in the season, Amar'e was catching the ball 18 feet beyond the basket and tried to beat every defender one-on-one. He forced the ball into the teeth of defense and was swarmed by rotating defenders which led to turnovers & offensive fouls.

Now, with the improved play of Raymond Felton, Amar'e is feasting on opportunities where he is catching the ball 6 feet to the basket. Amar'e is hands down the best finishing big-man in the NBA, and when a player of his talents is catching the ball that close to the basket, great things are going to happen. His dunking prowess is what has been making SportsCenter but his inside game has been the most impressive. In addition to his quickness, and jumping ability, STAT has amazing touch and can alter his shot in the air when close to the basket and still finish - something usually privy to elite guards. With his ability to finish, and the Knicks ability to continuously feed him the ball in the right manner is has opened up the offense for other players. Chandler, Gallinari, Felton, and now even Shawne Williams have been finding themselves wide open on the perimeter as the result of double or even triple teams. The Knicks high powered offense has pushed them to 107.7 points per game, third in the league.

The reasoning for the Knicks current streak is pretty clear. It's not as simple as give Amar'e the ball, but give the Amar'e the ball close to the basket. How the Knicks accomplish this is another story, but it has been largely because of Felton's ability to attack the basket and create passing lanes. Essentially, as long as the Knicks continue to create opportunities for Amar'e, they will continue to be competitive and win games. They still are yet to beat an elite team but that could change as Boston visits the Garden on December 15.