If there's an award out there for the NBA's anti-Lakers squad -- i.e. a team exceeding expectations and exciting its fan base rather than driving those loyalists towards self-medicating -- the New York Knicks would make a strong candidate. Expected by most to be a second-tier playoff team in the Eastern Conference, Mike Woodson's squad instead has a 16-5 record, is tops in the conference and has twice knocked off the world champion Miami Heat. Carmelo Anthony is making an early play for the MVP, Tyson Chandler a push for a second straight defensive player of the year award, and Raymond Felton, averaging 16.6 points and 6.8 assists after a tremendously bad year in Portland, would be a great candidate for comeback player of the year had it not been re-branded as the most improved player award (which tends to go to breakout guys, not to once-effective players busting out of slumps in part because they're no longer so plump).
The Lakers, meanwhile, are 9-13, limping into Thursday's game at Madison Square Garden having lost 8 of 11 since Mike D'Antoni's successful debut against Brooklyn at Staples back on Nov. 20. They haven't simply lost touch with the Clippers at the top of the Pacific, but are now six games behind Golden State as well.
This is a classic "nothing's got to give" type game. Nothing about the direction of either team says the Lakers should win, but having now dropped too many games to the NBA's bottom-feeders, the Lakers no longer have the luxury of allowing themselves reasonable losses to high-end teams. They need to start winning. Now.
Can they do it tonight against one of the hottest groups in the Association? To learn more about the Knicks we hit up Jim Cavan, from the always outstanding Knickerblogger.net blog to learn more about what's percolating at MSG this year...
1) What stands out most in your mind to explain why the Knicks have been so good this season?
Cavan: It has to be the offense. Credit general manager Glen Grunwald with heeding the template of the last two champions -- surround your sweet-shooting star with two-way players capable of hitting an open jumper -- and assembling a pretty formidable “win-now” squad. The offense still starts and runs through Melo first, second and last, but there are enough wrinkles in the system and enough operative spacing to give other guys -- Felton, Smith, Novak, whomever -- ample opportunities.
Even Woodson has displayed some pretty nimble play calling, particularly out of timeouts. For a guy who made his bread as a defensive guru, Woody’s flipped the script pretty violently, to a point where most fans are concerned about the defense ultimately hindering whatever delicate title prospects the Knicks might have.
2) Has Melo done anything differently as a scorer to successfully mesh his talents with his teammates, or has this simply been a case of better parts around him?
Cavan: It’s definitely both, but call it 75-25 in favor of the latter. Certainly give Melo credit for buying into his coach’s philosophy -- any coach and any philosophy, for that matter -- and asserting himself as much more than a one-dimensional threat, staying engaged on D, crowd-diving for loose balls, and steadily endearing himself for a fan base hungry for glory. A cursory flip through Melo’s statistical output (shot attempts, assist rate, etc.) would seem to suggest an offense heavily reliant on isolations, and while we’ve certainly seen some of that, Melo has also shown himself more than capable of hitting the open man. He’s even started using the term “hockey assist,” which, I’m not even sure he knows what hockey is.
But there you have it.
At the same time, there’s a reason management chose proven products over projects in cutting Jeremy Lin adrift, re-signing Raymond Felton, and inking four guys (Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby) who -- despite being born during the Nixon Administration -- bring a heavy dose of mast-steadying moxie to the ship deck. It’s a template not unlike that which Mark Cuban employed during the Mavericks’ 2011 chip dash and so far, it’s working.
3) Who is the X-factor Knick whose performance can swing a game one way or the other for New York?
Cavan: This is a two-part answer. The first is J.R. Smith. After starting the season on far and away the most efficient clip of his tumultuous eight-year career (eight years -- think about that for a second), Smith has been in something of an offensive tailspin of late: He’s shooting just 30% from the field (including 21% from deep) over the last six games, a precipitous drop from a November in which he tallied 44% and 48%, respectively. Which, I mean, anyone who says they’re shocked has to be lying -- J.R. is most certainly who we thought he was. Still, Smith’s managed to overcome a cold streak by remaining (mostly) engaged on defense, rebounding the ball well, and maintaining a career-low cough-up rate (just 1.5 turnovers per 36).
The second, somewhat more feel-good answer is Jason Kidd. Many people -- including this guy -- expressed trepidation when the Knicks signed the 39-year-old Kidd to a guaranteed three-year deal over the summer. And when he celebrated said deal by getting hammered in the Hamptons and driving into a Cablevision pole, some wondered whether we’d just lit $9 million on fire. But performance can be a sweet salve, and Kidd’s been nothing if not an indispensable cog in the Knicks’ machine -- coming up with timely steals, always finding the open man and hitting countless clutch threes. If Melo is the team’s most valuable player, Kidd might well be it’s most indispensable.
4) What matchup has you most intrigued?
Cavan: Tyson v. Dwight is always entertaining, but I’m most curious to see how Woodson decides to guard Kobe. I imagine he’ll start off by putting Ronnie Brewer on ol’ No. 24, with Kidd checking MWP and Felton guarding whomever the point guard is (sorry, I had to). Brewer’s been dealing with some intermittent knee swelling, so if a flare-up renders him bench bound, we’ll likely be seeing quite a bit of J.R. Smith marking Bean.
On the other side, I fully expect Metta to try and get into Melo’s head early and often -- which, considering Melo’s upper echelon technical foul clip thus far, might not be too difficult a prospect. Either way, the two have had some pretty feisty scuffles over the years, and tonight should be no exception.
The Lakers are desperate, and there’s something about playing in the Garden that can juice even the most hard-pressed souls. Kobe has had some gangbuster performances in the World’s Most Famous, and you know Mike D’Antoni would love nothing more than sticking it to James Dolan, Melo, and the rest of the 'Bocker Brass by blowing the doors off the joint.
At the same time, Woodson’s comments -- made a few weeks back -- about teams looking for a road win having to “go somewhere else” have helped crystallize what’s fast becoming the league’s most distinct home-court advantage. I think it starts and stays close most of the way, but the Knicks’ depth will ultimately be too much for the Kobe and company to withstand. Knicks 109, Lakers 101.