Commentary

D'Antoni must step up late-game tactics

After a failed plan left the Knicks short in Game 2, the pressure will be on at MSG

Updated: April 22, 2011, 3:17 PM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Knicks can rave all they want about their effort in Games 1 and 2 of this series against the Boston Celtics. Spike Lee can join them, with his orange-and-blue Eskimo hat in tow, bloviating with a legion of fans over how their boys were robbed, and how different things will be off the streets of 33rd and Eighth Avenue soon enough.

But if someone doesn't talk to Mike D'Antoni to address the transparency of his late-game coaching measures -- especially when compared to the likes of Doc Rivers -- the only thing anyone in this town will be celebrating is a franchise's rise from deplorable to respectable. That at least the Knicks' season ended in the last week of April.

When was the last time that was enough to whet one's appetite?

Don't bother answering.

Normally, this isn't the kind of cynicism that accompanies a tight loss to a team once favored to return to the NBA Finals for the third time in four years. It certainly isn't the type of skepticism that accompanies a team whose star, Carmelo Anthony, dropped 42 points with 17 rebounds, putting forth one of the most prolific offensive performances seen by a Knick in quite some time.

But when the last play of the game is, essentially, designed for Jared Jeffries -- and the coach admits as much, saying the play was actually drawn up that way -- you scratch your head, wondering what exactly is wrong with the coach, even as Game 3 at Madison Square Garden is scheduled for Friday night.

Just like it's easy to surmise that D'Antoni deserves an abundance of credit for the Knicks' defensive play and overall effort in Games 1 and 2, it's simple to point the finger of blame in his direction. When asked what happened on the last play of Game 2, when Melo passed the ball to Jeffries after being double-teamed, here's what D'Antoni had to say:

"That was what we talked about," D'Antoni muttered. "We thought they would double-team [Melo]. We double-flawed it. [Jeffries] was going to be underneath the basket. Billy [Walker] at the foul line and two guys spaced out. Then you've just got to make a play."

We can stop right there. Specifically because D'Antoni mentioned "Jeffries" and "making a play" in the same sentence.

Let it be said right here that no one means any disrespect toward Jeffries. He does play defense and is a quality, character, person. But anything he does for you on the offensive side of the ball is purely accidental. And everyone knows it.

"As coaches, we certainly do," one Eastern Conference coach, obviously familiar with D'Antoni's system, took the liberty to explain following Game 2. "Whatever happened to Jeffries is anyone's guess, because he was pretty good in college and didn't mind shooting the ball. But clearly that isn't who he is now, so why he was in that position is anyone's guess.

"You can point to his 10 points [on 5-of-7 shooting], but that situation calls for something different, for a person a bit more familiar or fearless offensively to touch the ball. That clearly isn't Jeffries, but that was D'Antoni digging in his bag of tricks again. You can't try that with one of the best coaches in this league, and Doc Rivers is clearly that."

Upon further breakdown, let us count the ways of D'Antoni's faux pas.

There is Jeffries being in the game at the moment. Then there is Jeffries being allowed to be in the vicinity of the ball. Then there's Jeffries touching the ball. There's Melo getting the ball on the right wing for the umpteenth time, along with the bevy of pick-and-rolls that must have made the Celtics feel like it was a version of "Groundhog Day."

It would've been nice to see D'Antoni call a down-screen, where Melo could roll off the block to have Paul Pierce chase him. It also would've been good to see the Knicks figure out a multitude of other options, since everyone knew Glen "Big Baby" Davis was coming over to help on double-teams in the last two minutes.

"Things don't work out sometimes," D'Antoni deadpanned.

Yeah, we know, Coach! We know.

But as Game 3 creeps closer and closer, with the specter of the injured Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups being either hobbled or out of the lineup altogether, it's going to be incumbent upon the Knicks to do something to mix things up a little.

Spacing the floor would be preferable. So would having additional shooters on the floor with Melo, so he'll have someone to confidently kick the ball to in clutch moments. Ball movement would be apropos, since the Celtics' birth certificates tell us they might not be that interested in playing defense for nearly a full 24 seconds on each possession.

Essentially, anything to counter the Celtics' locking in on what the Knicks will do.

"I've gone against the Celtics for many years," the Eastern Conference coach told me, "and I can tell you this: Their experience, their familiarity from playing with one another, is something you simply can't teach. You have to mix it up with them. You can't run the same plays over and over again and expect to be successful. That's death against these guys. They've played together for too long. They'll figure it out."

Hopefully, D'Antoni hears such bantering before Game 3.

Not after, which will be after a loss if we see more of the same.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, host of a weekday show for ESPN New York 98.7 and a regular on "SportsCenter" and "First Take."

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