By John Schmeelk
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It's been awhile since we've seen this sort of thing, so I'll explain.
On Tuesday night, for the first time in over a decade, Knicks fans had the opportunity to feel something: what it's like for your team to be significantly better than the opposition in the playoffs.
This is what Heat fans felt watching their games against the Knicks last year, and Celtics fans two years ago.
Pretty nice, huh?
Considering the Knicks are the No. 2 seed with 54 wins and the Celtics are No. 7 (41), it shouldn't come as a surprise. Boston has no point guard to successfully orchestrate their offense, leaving it in the hands of Paul Pierce, who is clearly overworked at his advanced age. The Celtics also have nobody, other than Pierce (who is not as good at this as he used to be) that can create his own shot. One of the Knicks' biggest problems this year has been defending fast, quick guards -- guys who can break you down off the dribble. The Celtics don't have the personnel for that. The Celtics also can't take advantage of the Knicks' lack of size down low with their rebounding deficiencies. Kevin Garnett has not played well, even when on the floor and out of foul trouble.
As for the Knicks, they have three point guards better than anything Boston can throw out there, and two scorers that are better one-on-one players than anyone on the Celtics.
Perhaps most important has been the Knicks' ability to flip the switch defensively. The Knicks were a mediocre defensive team this season (17th in defense rating). But the team was one of the best on 'D' in the fourth quarter (3rd in defense rating), and that trend has continued in the postseason. Their second-half defense has been stifling, partly because of halftime adjustments by Mike Woodson, though it has much more to do with effort and execution from the players on the floor. It's a pattern that has continued in the playoffs, so it should be sustainable, even if not to the ridiculous extent we've seen in the first two games.
Woodson deserves a lot of credit, too. The knock on him has forever been his inability to adjust his offense. Well, he certainly made the necessary adjustments from Game 1 to Game 2. According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks ran 10 fewer isolation plays in the second game of the series (22), nearly a third fewer than they ran in game one (32). Instead the team ran 10 more pick-and-roll plays, a set in which they were far more efficient scoring. (10-for-21 shooting on the pick-and-roll as opposed to 6-for-16 in isolation.) Carmelo Anthony got easier looks at the basket by working off action away from the ball, which accounted for his higher shooting percentage.
Woodson also put the ball in Raymond Felton's hands, and he delivered, shooting 8-of-15 for 16 points with two assists and no turnovers. Despite the low assist number, Felton read the defense properly and took shots when he should have.
Felton also did a fantastic job guarding Pierce, despite the height differential. Felton was the MVP of this game, and his attacking style and willingness to push the ball in the third quarter made the difference. The Celtics' decision to use Avery Bradley on J.R. Smith (which worked well earlier) instead of Felton in the third quarter ended up hurting them as Felton took advantage of defenders Jordan Crawford, Jason Terry and Pierce. It was when Felton was out of the game in the second quarter, and Jason Kidd was the primary ball handler, that the Knicks played their worst basketball.
One last encouraging sign for the Knicks? Tyson Chandler. Even though he only played around 20 minutes and his numbers weren't eye-popping (three points, five rebounds), Chandler was far more active and engaged in the game. It's fair to expect him to be even better in Game 3 as the rust goes away and he gets into game shape.
This is going to be a process. Kenyon Martin has done a fantastic job stepping in and playing in Chandler's place as he works back, and his physical play on Garnett has made a real difference. Patrick Ewing (who is improving) made the point on the MSG postgame show that there was one play where Garnett tried to slide across the lane and Martin simply stopped him in his tracks, standing him up. It was a message that everyone, especially Garnett, got.
The Knicks are clearly the better team in this series. And while I expect Boston to come out and play their best game of the series on Friday, they simply don't have the talent or players to win four of the next five.
Even if Boston wins Game 3, which is very possible, the Knicks should be able to close out the series in five.
Enjoy it, Knicks fans.
This is what it feels like when your team is clearly better than the opposition.
It's been awhile. And I, for one, missed it.
- Woodson really needs to avoid the lineups with Kidd as the only point guard on the floor. When he is the primary ball handler, the offense often bogs down and turns into an iso-fest. I like Kidd on the floor, but only with Felton or Pablo Prigioni, who are much better running the pick-and-roll.
- The Celtics have been a matchup nightmare for Steve Novak. There's no one to hide him on defensively. He was attacked relentlessly by the Celtics when he was in the game. In just 9:30, he had a plus/minus of -14. The Celtics are disciplined enough defensively -- they never leave him open. More Chris Copeland and less Novak. Please.
- I know people are starting to talk about Amar'e Stoudemire's return. No one is a bigger fan of Stoudemire, and I still think it can work with Anthony -- but now is not the time to try. The Knicks are playing their best basketball of the year, and inserting Stoudemire into the rotation won't help things. Martin and Chandler can't lose minutes, so that means he would be playing for Copeland and Novak. It would erase the Knicks' small-ball lineups that have been so successful this season. It's a huge risk and one the Knicks shouldn't take.
- Did anyone else think Doc Rivers pulled Pierce and threw in the towel a little early Tuesday night?
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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