By John Schmeelk
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The New York Knicks played their best basketball against three good teams in Texas last week, but does that mean they are poised to turn their season around?
I'm not so sure.
The Knicks did some good things -- but coach Mike Woodson needs to come away having learned some lessons for any of it to matter.
Iman Shumpert's revival is what made all the difference. The Knicks had been craving consistent backcourt production since the start of the season, and Shump finally gave it to them. He was the second-best player on the roster after Carmelo Anthony, and if that continues the Knicks will get back to .500 and contend for a playoff spot. He's the only true two-way player the Knicks have in the backcourt that can not only hit the open three but also defend the other team's best player. Woodson was wise to put him on Tony Parker and Monta Ellis over the weekend. Shumpert's ability to slow them down offensively was just as important as his scoring.
The Knicks' defense was better over the weekend, and a lot of it can be traced to the emergence of Toure' Murry. When he was on the floor, New York held opposing teams to only 94 points per 100 possessions, the best on the team. With Beno Udrih on the court, that number jumped all the way to 110.4. The Knicks' point-guard defense has been terrible all season long, and Murry makes a big difference there. It gives the team another above-average defender to guard whoever Shumpert isn't assigned to.
People talk about rim protection, but guard defense is just as important in today's NBA. Tyson Chandler, for example, had a 120 defensive rating over the weekend in 47 minutes sharing the court with Udrih. But when he played with Toure' Murry for seven minutes (granted a small sample size), the rating dropped to just 54 points per 100 possessions. If the guard doesn't make Chandler switch on pick and rolls, and does a decent job of keeping opposing point guards out of the paint, it makes all the difference. If the Knicks can continue to improve their defense, they can start winning again. A lot of that depends on playing the right people.
When Pablo Prigioni comes back he has to be a big part of the rotation. Raymond Felton will help the offense on the pick and roll but he needs to be paired with defensive players to hide his weaknesses on that end of the floor. As I wrote Monday, J.R. Smith needs to have his minutes given to players like Shumpert, Prigioni, Murry and Tim Hardaway Jr. The Knicks aren't good enough to throw away minutes and production to someone playing as poorly as Smith. If his knee and play improves in practice, he can get his minutes back.
Likewise, the Knicks need to prioritize their frontcourt minutes between Anthony, Chandler and Kenyon Martin. There will be some minutes left for either Amar'e Stoudemire or Andrea Bargnani, but not both. Anthony is a better rebounder than both those players, and is more suited to player power forward than either. If Smith, Stoudemire and Bargnani continue to play their usual minutes, the Knicks are never going to turn any semblance of a corner.
Woodson has to decide if it's more important to win basketball games or give playing time to the players on the team with the biggest contracts. The decision is really that simple.
How desperate is Woodson? Is he willing to turn away from more established players and towards the guys that will actually help him win basketball games?
History says no. But maybe, just maybe, Woodson will surprise everyone.
You can follow John on Twitter @Schmeelk for the latest on the Knicks, Giants and everything else New York sports.
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