Friday, November 16, 2012

YOUR...6-0 New York Knicks. Are They For Real?

(With the Knicks up by five in San Antonio with mere minutes remaining on the clock, I texted MAMBINO's two resident Knicks masochists fanatics, asking if they could handle what was happening to their beloved 'Bockers. I got a number of responses, but mostly in the vein of "AAAHHHHHHHH". Very verbose. 

The New York Knicks have the best record in the league, standing at a very respectable 6-0 record, with quality wins against Miami, Dallas and at San Antonio. Gotham is, to the surprise of no one, reacting with hyperbolic headlines and unbridled excitement at the extraordinary start that Carmelo, Kidd and company have raced out to. As a mere Knicks sympathizer, I had many questions for two rabid fans, who, by their own admittance, have their emotions on the team vacillate on a minute-by-minute basis. This is the e-mail string that followed.)

KOBEsh: El Miz--BockerKnocker, brace yourselves. YOUR...New York Knickerbockers are, I daresay, a juggernaut. At 6-0, this is the best start for the franchise since their Ewing-led heyday in the 90s. Let's start with the most basic question: what's the number one reason they're doing this?

El Miz: Mike Woodson.  Coach Woody has gotten a group that features Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith to buy into things like holding the opposing team under 25 points per quarter, under 40 points in the second half, and caring about what the other team shot from the field percentage-wise. Carmelo has bought in, and it is pivotal to have the alpha dog buy in--last year, Carmelo wasn't buying anything that Mike D'Antoni was selling...and that was it for the Gentleman Thief.  

The absence of Amare Stoudemire has helped as well -- it has allowed Melo to get into a groove at the 4, a position where he excelled last year and won Player of the Month in April, a month where he averaged 30 points and 7 rebounds per game on 50% shooting from the field (including 46% from downtown).  It is clear now that Melo is better suited in this post-Seven Seconds or Less NBA to be a stretch 4, and without Stoudemire, there is no controversy in getting the best player in his most optimal position.  But this team is not undefeated without the emphasis on defense, and that has started with Woodson.

KOBEsh: I completely agree. I've been absolutely taken aback not by NYK's ability to defend; they've always had the requisite athleticism and strength to lock down any team in the league. I've been astonished by their willingness and more importantly enthusiasm to do so. It's been a breath of fresh air considering how apathetic they've been under D'Antoni. Lakers fans have gotta feel great right now.

You mentioned Stoudemire in your last response--but I'm not going to delve into the negative. It's too hard to predict how he'll affect the team on his return, and I don't want to sully the positive vibes that you only get to experience once...a decade.

Besides the defense, what's been the most surprising part of this unreal start? 

El Miz: The most surprising thing has definitely been the ball movement.  With "ball stoppers" like Carmelo, J.R., and Tyson Chandler, it has been remarkable to see the ball moving so well.  The arrival of the ageless Jason Kidd is the primary reason, as he has been drilling into Anthony's head that moving the ball is harder to defend than one guy just taking it to the hoop.  Again, it is one of those things where once Anthony buys in, everyone else seems to follow his lead.  Early in the second game of the season against Philly, Melo noticed he had a mismatch and went down on the block and called for the ball.  When the double came, he passed it out and Steve Novak drained a 3.  That was the first time where I thought "Wow, Melo is really getting it."

Also, the importance of the veterans has been huge.  Grunwald was criticized heavily for his offseason, but his idea to fill this team with veterans was genius.  Carmelo and J.R. both need guys to keep him in line, guys like Kidd and Rasheed who have been to the Finals and even guys like Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby who have been around the block and know what it takes to win.  Filling the team and the locker room with old sages was questionable in August but looks like a genius move two weeks into the season.  
For example, in the preseason, Woodson announced he was going to keep Ronnie Brewer in the starting lineup, as he wanted to have Smith's scoring prowess on the second team.  Smith pouted, only to have those vets get in his ear and make help him accept his role.  Those little things can impact an entire season.  Smith is playing the best basketball of his career, and looks like he will battle the Clippers' Jamal Crawford for Sixth Man of the Year award.
BockerKnocker: The trust. Everybody trusts each other to contribute. I haven't seen Knicks team basketball since the '99 playoffs. This all starts at the top, as El Miz said. Melo didn't let a poor shooting night (or the horrendous officiating) get to him tonight; he was unbelievable. It wasn't his scoring (he had a poor night shooting the rock), but rather the little things, like xoxing out bigger guys like Diaw and making the extra pass. He trusted Felton to take 20 shots tonight! Unselfishness like that would have never happened last year. Not only does he listen to instruction but he looks attentive when doing so. He. Is. Getting. It. 

It's been 2-3 weeks but Melo is unquestionably the league MVP if the season ended today. 
KOBEsh: I think it's hilarious that this Knicks team was so bone-headed that it needed four guys 38 years or older just to rein them in. Awesome.

Right now, we're looking at a flawless 6-0 start, with victories over Orlando, Philly (twice), a very game Dallas team, the reigning champs from South Beach and of course, last night's triumph against the Spurs. It's important to note that tonight was the first time that the score was within four points, let alone double digits. The Knicks haven't just been winning--they've been dominating, and over good teams. Of course, the breaks in their schedule have helped the old knees of a veteran team, but let's not get it twisted. This Knicks team is GOOD.

The question thus BEGS to be answered: how good is this Knicks team? Is this for real?
El Miz: Pretty damn good.  2/5th's of the last crunch-time five-man lineup to beat LeBron in a playoff series (Kidd and Chandler in the 2011 Finals with the Mavericks) are getting major minutes for the Bockers, they are playing elite defense, and Melo is playing the best basketball of his career.  Two of their more talented players--S.T.A.T. and Shump--have yet to play a minute, and still they are undefeated.  Outside of Miami, no team in the Eastern Conference would scare me in a playoff series. This is very "for real".
BockerKnocker: If we beat Memphis tomorrow I will light the city on fire
KOBEsh: Let's just get after it: can this Knicks team contend...for a chip, this year? What would it take? 
El Miz: Melo continues to make #theLeap.  Shumpert comes back and can defend at an elite level. Stoudemire comes back, buys into his bench role, and becomes a super-high efficiency scorer on the second unit.  Everyone else stays healthy.

Shumpert's return is really the big thing, as it seems like Melo is in the process of validating a decade of being an overhyped loser.  If he can come back and be a difference maker on the defense end, all of a sudden I think the Knickerbockers match up very well against those cowards down in Miami.

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