Commentary

No joke: D'Antoni has Knicks thinking D

Coach says he knows it takes defense to win ... it might also help him keep his job

Updated: April 5, 2011, 8:17 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

Defense wins championships. So we can stop fantasizing about an NBA title coming near Broadway in June right now.

No matter what the New York Knicks did against the pathetic Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night at the Garden -- nearly surrendering a 22-point lead before running them out of the building in their fourth and final meeting of the season the way they failed to do in their previous three meetings -- the feelings of most folks haven't changed about coach Mike D'Antoni.

He's still seen as a coach who's fiery and frenetic, an entertaining high-wire act whose offense is suspenseful, if nothing else, but whose defense is so porous at times, it's actually offensive. Yet as the Knicks get set to participate in their first postseason since 2004, igniting a frenzy unseen since Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson served as headliners, evidently all the hype and furor destined to arrive in a matter of days has already touched D'Antoni. He's undoubtedly sensed the elevation of heat coming his way about these Knicks, and his uncertain future as their coach.

"To be honest, defense is all we're concentrating on," D'Antoni exhaled, forcing his bottom lip and eyes to bulge. "Offense comes easy. But defensively, it's what we're really concentrating on. And again, with younger guys and guys that are more comfortable with offense than defense, we do play small. We spread the floor. We play a smaller team, a faster team, because we believe we'll put up a lot of points and it gives us the best chance to win. Obviously, sometimes we pay a price for that."

How about most of the time?

There's no need to belabor the point that the Knicks are just bad defensively. You can be a .500 team (38-38). You can have victories over Miami, Orlando and San Antonio on your résumé. But the harsh realities are inescapable: The Knicks surrender more than 106 points per game. They rank in the bottom five of the league religiously. They yield 47 percent shooting to opponents -- which means most people who take two shots against them usually make one -- and their definition of a defensive presence is Jared Jeffries.

Yes! That Jared Jeffries!

I would tell folks to stop laughing, but the thought of the Knicks beating one of the four teams they're scheduled to meet in the first round (Miami, Chicago, Orlando or Boston) is downright comical. Even with Carmelo Anthony exhibiting effort and Chauncey Billups preaching its importance to the success of this team, defense has been this team's Achilles heel.

Partially because the Knicks can't play much of it.

Primarily because they show even less interest in doing so.

As a result, the rumblings have begun about D'Antoni's future, and whether he's the right man for the job. Should D'Antoni be shown the exit after this season? What qualifies as a proper measuring stick for the job he's doing now?

Some have even argued that while D'Antoni didn't really have a team his first two years -- that the previous two seasons were all about clearing cap space for the LeBron James sweepstakes in 2010 -- no coach in this city's history has ever been given a two-year pass before severe skepticism was thrown in his direction.

"I know a lot of people will laugh and ridicule me for saying this, but we actually play fairly good defense on the first possessions," D'Antoni said, prophetically pointing out the levity in such a statement. "After that, it's long rebounds, second-chance points and sometimes we do play too fast and our offense gets out of sync. Plus teams get out and run on us. But we're going to get it done because we know -- we do know -- that with good defense we can win."

True. The problem, however, is that it's always been true for D'Antoni, who averaged 58 wins and registered two 60-win seasons in four years at Phoenix, but never visited the NBA finals.

"The reason why we didn't win a title in Phoenix is because our defense wasn't good enough," D'Antoni explained. "That's a fact. That's a fair, critical assessment of our team. I was there. I know that was the problem. But here's the thing: Did anybody really think when we started that we were going to win the title? They had us not making the playoffs, then we won 62 games. Well, I understand our defense needed to be better, but at the same time we were maximizing our talents, what we did best, and we won 62 games.

"The only thing I hate -- and again, I know this sounds like an excuse -- is how folks forget that Joe Johnson broke bones in his face and the third year, Amare [Stoudemire] comes back from his injury, but the hip-check incident [with Robert Horry and Steve Nash] takes place, prompting the suspensions, and we ultimately lose that series.

"So now, believe me, I understand where folks are coming from. I know we need to continue to get better defensively. I've got to do a better job of getting them to hone in. If I do it, all this noise will go away."

And if the Knicks don't hone in, whatever that means?

"I know the deal," D'Antoni deadpanned. "Trust me, I know."

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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