Can the Knicks challenge the Celtics?
|12.13.10 at 9:46 pm ET|
Since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in 2007, the Celtics have not had a legitimate challenger in the Atlantic Division. They won the division by 25 games in 2008, 21 in 2009 and while the Raptors were within 10 games last season, that said much more about the Celtics’ problems than any great surge by Toronto.
The Celtics run has neatly coincided with failed attempts at franchise building in Philadelphia and Toronto and complete overhauls in New Jersey and New York. While their opponents floundered, the Celtics took advantage, winning 47 of their 54 games against their divisional brethren.
That provided a comfortable landing space for the Celtics, who never had to worry about anything other than the Eastern Conference standings. Until now.
Finally, a challenger is emerging. The Celtics will play the Knicks Wednesday night in the most anticipated matchup in years at fabled Madison Square Garden. This is easily the biggest division game the Celtics have played since 2007, which is admittedly not saying much, but in a season that stretches as long as the NBA does you take your red-letter dates where you can find them.
Unlike other big games at the Garden in recent years this one has nothing to do with the future and everything to do with the present. While the Celtics have won 10 straight games, just like they did last year at this point in the season, all eyes are on New York.
The Knicks are the talk of the basketball world again, having won eight straight games to improve to 13-1 in their last 14 games. This comes after a dreadful 3-8 start that had many questioning, among other things, Mike D’Antoni’s system, Ray Felton’s ability to run said system and whether Isiah Thomas would make a triumphantly catastrophic return to New York at some point.
Things have changed. Felton is being hailed as the best Knicks point guard since Mark Jackson and MVP chants are raining down on Amar’e Stoudemire, who set a franchise record by scoring over 30 points in each of the last eight games. For his part, Thomas has faded blissfully into the background.
Of course, this being New York, a good deal of the attention has been consumed by someone not on the current roster, namely Carmelo Anthony, who more or less made it clear that he only wants to be traded to New York. (Whether or not he is in control of the process is another matter.)
After waiting patiently to build a proper roster, the Knicks are once again faced with a choice: Go for broke or give this team a chance. All of that makes for hot and heavy rumors, but until the day Anthony actually arrives ‘ if he ever does ‘ the Knicks are once again relevant for basketball reasons.
Here are five things to know about the Knicks:
THIS IS A MIKE D’ANTONI TEAM
The Knicks are following the D’Antoni blueprint, which means a fast pace and lots of 3-pointers. At almost 25 attempts per game no one launches as many 3′s, and they are making them at almost a 37 percent clip. It’s quantity, not necessarily quality for the Knicks, but it also keeps them in almost every game.
The defense is below average in every meaningful statistic, but it has improved and isn’t quite the liability everyone thinks it is.
This makes for a great stylistic matchup with the Celtics, who shoot the fewest 3-pointers in the league and rely on their top-rated defense. The Knicks, on the other hand, try to outscore you. For all the heat D’Antoni takes for this approach, his teams have been successful when he has the players, and now he has the players.
And for that he has Stoudemire to thank.
AMAR’E IS REAL
In the realm of NBA superstars, Stoudemire has always been curiously overlooked. The Suns were Steve Nash‘s team, always, and his reputation suffered from the depiction in Jack McCallum’s book, Seven Seconds or Less, as an injury-plagued oddball. When healthy, however, Stoudemire has produced among the very best in the league and he is the key to everything the Knicks do. He’s using more than 30 percent of the team’s possessions when he is on the court, and most of the Knicks sets start with him and Felton in the pick and roll.
This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing defenses because Stoudemire can beat you inside and out. A Stoudemire-Garnett matchup is one of the best in the league and will be fascinating to watch play out.
Stoudemire was seen as the consolation prize after the Knicks missed out on LeBron James, but for D’Antoni’s team he is the perfect frontcourt player.
RAY FELTON HAS CAUGHT ON
When the Knicks were losing games, it wasn’t hard to find a scapegoat. Felton, the other free agent, was having a miserable time running the pick and roll with Stoudemire.
But during their winning streak he has been fantastic. He’s shooting almost 48 percent during the last 14 games and has double-digit assist games in eight of them, including a 17-assist performance on Sunday against the Nuggets.
Felton is the only true point guard on the Knicks roster so it’s imperative for their success that he stays healthy and continues to play well. The prevailing theory is that Felton, now free of Larry Brown‘s iron grip, needed time to embrace the free-flowing love of D’Antoni’s system.
That may be part of it, but it’s more likely that he is benefitting from playing alongside a great player like Stoudemire, whose influence extends throughout the roster.
WILSON CHANDLER IS HAVING A CAREER YEAR
The Knicks decided not to sign Chandler — one of the few drafted players they have left on the roster — to a contract extension during training camp. That may wind up working out in Chandler’s favor because the fourth-year player from DePaul is putting together the best season of his short career.
He’s averaging 17 points and six rebounds a game, which are both career highs, but the biggest improvement has been from the 3-point line, where he is shooting almost 36 percent, up from a career average of 31 percent.
Chandler is feasting on all the attention that Stoudemire is getting and he is also one of the better shot-blocking forwards in the league and a serviceable, if not spectacular, rebounder. (Rob Mahoney offers an excellent breakdown of Chandler’s improved game here.)
His play helped offset the early-season struggles of Danilo Gallinari, who is also starting to heat up. With Chandler and Gallinari bombing 3′s from the wings, the Knicks are almost set. They just needed one more piece and they found it, oddly, in the second round of the draft.
LANDRY FIELDS: KNOW THE NAME
It’s not that Fields came out of nowhere. He averaged 22 points and almost nine rebounds a game as a senior at Stanford and was an All Pac-10 selection. But when Fields was drafted by the Knicks in the second round there were audible groans. Who?
They know him now. Fields has started every game for the Knicks and is shooting 52 percent to go with 10 points and seven rebounds. He’s the kind of player who just works, an athletic 6-foot-7 wing player who is smart and doesn’t need shots or plays to make an impact.
The Anthony rumor mill has the Knicks potentially offering two first round picks (the second would come from a presumed trade of Anthony Randolph), Eddy Curry‘s contract and some combination of Gallinari, Chandler or Fields.
While Anthony sounds great in theory, that’s a hefty price to pay.
A NOTE OF CAUTION
While the Knicks have been surging in the win-loss column, other indicators suggest that they are far from a finished product. They have beaten exactly three teams with winning records ‘ Atlanta, New Orleans and Denver ‘ during their hot stretch and they rank low in most advanced-metric ratings systems.
Some of that will catch up to them in time or, more likely, they will begin to cool off. Somewhere in the middle is a good basketball team. Whether they can legitimately challenge the Celtics or not remains to be seen, but we’ll begin to find out on Wednesday when Madison Square Garden is once again the center of the hoops universe.