By John Schmeelk
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It would have been very hard to predict a better first 49 games of the season for the Knicks. They are on pace for 53 wins and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, something that Knicks fans would have signed up for before the season started.
The Clippers' matchup on Sunday served as a good test as the next to last game before the All-Star break. After a series of matchups against less-than-impressive competition, the Knicks took on one of the best teams in the Western Conference and showed that they still have some work to do.
The same flaws that have popped up when the Knicks play some of their worst basketball came to the forefront against the Clippers. The Knicks' offense has been fairly consistent all season long, with the only truly notable drop-off coming during the time that Raymond Felton was injured. Since he has returned, the offense -- for the most part -- has been the team's strength. The defense, on the other hand, has been their Achilles heel since December.
Contrary to popular belief, the defense has actually improved over the past couple of weeks. In fact, since the first of the year the defense has been better than it was in December, and nearly at the season's average. A defensive efficiency of 103.2 is nothing to write home about, however, and most of that improvement can be traced to the past two weeks, which featured games against less impressive teams.
That improvement was wiped out against the Clippers, when the Knicks showed all the same defensive holes that they did in the 4th quarter against the Wizards two games ago. Chris Paul owned the lane and dominated the pick-and-roll. No one could stay with Jamal Crawford. There were missed defensive rotations and open shots all over the place. They can get away with some of those things against the league's worst teams, but not against those at the top of the standings. The symptoms remain the same, and the root causes are no different.
The Knicks' pick-and-roll defense has been a weakness this entire season. When they don't outright switch into mismatches, the big man rarely helps long enough to give the point guard enough time to get over the screen. Even when he does, the point guard doesn't do enough to stay in front of the ball handler. Felton has been victimized time and time again in these situations.
When the Knicks do switch into mismatches they indiscriminately double team, even if it isn't necessary. Yesterday, the Knicks double-teamed Chauncey Billups when he was trying to post Felton. Really? They also sent double-teams at Blake Griffin when he was having all sorts of problems scoring in the post against whomever the Knicks had guarding him. When those double-teams do take place, the rest of the team seems shocked by them and there is no rotation off the ball. It results in open shots all the time.
The Clippers' depth also spotlighted a weak point in the Knicks' second unit. Usually, the Knicks can hide Steve Novak because teams aren't deep enough to have five scorers on the floor, especially when their reserves are on the floor. The Clippers are especially deep, and they had a field day offensively when Novak and Amar'e Stoudemire were on the floor together. They couldn't stop anyone and that allowed the Clippers to build much of their fourth-quarter lead. Much like against the Wizards, the Knicks played some of their poorest defense in the fourth quarter. In fact, the only time the Knicks played decent defense all day was when Tyson Chandler was on the floor. The problems, however, were not limited to defense.
As great as Carmelo Anthony was, the Knicks' offense became too stagnant and the ball didn't move enough. This wasn't Anthony's fault, nor was it Felton's, who did a good job getting to the basket. The offense wasn't crisp and the ball didn't swing fast enough to get open looks. Stoudemire had his worst game in a few weeks, and Chandler only made three baskets. Besides Anthony, the Knicks made only two threes in 12 attempts. It was pretty obvious before the game that the Clippers decided they would forego double-teams and a lot of heavy rotations on defense in an effort to make the Knicks score one-on-one and limit their ball movement. \
It worked. We've seen the Knicks fall into similar traps against the Celtics, Bulls and Pacers. The Knicks also have trouble adjusting when teams deny Anthony the ball, something Grant Hill did on Sunday and others will do once the postseason comes along.
The scary things for Knicks fans is that these weaknesses aren't hard to see or diagnose. Every NBA team runs the pick-and-roll incessantly, and most have quick guards to get into the lane. Swinging the ball for open threes is NBA Offense 101. Teams will continue to take advantage of these flaws, and it will only be worse in the playoffs against the league's better teams. The Knicks have played great defense in stretches this year, but they haven't done it consistently. Can a team that isn't locked in defensively most games simply turn it on in the playoffs? The Heat did it last year, but can the Knicks?
The good thing for Knicks fans is that these problems also aren't difficult to fix. For one, as Iman Shumpert gets healthier he should be able to take on some of these quicker guards. The Knicks have shown that they can play good defense when they put their minds to it, and Mike Woodson, despite the excess switching, knows how to guard the pick-and-roll. The players committing to it seems to be the real trick here. These are the obstacles that the Knicks need to clear to be a real threat in the postseason, instead of a speed bump for the Heat on their way to the finals.
The problems are obvious. Now the Knicks just need to fix them.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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