The Knicks opened their season with a worrisome loss to the Bulls at home (104-80) but got their legs and then some by spoiling Lebron's return to Cleveland the next night (95-90). They capped off their week with a solidly messy Garden win over the Charlotte
Bobcats Hornets (96-93), a game that last year's team almost certainly would have blown. It's an exciting beginning for a team that was assumed to be headed for a rough start.
What Went Wrong This Week: Everything that happened against the Bulls. The Knicks had no answer for power forwards Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson, who combined for 43 points on 17-33 shooting. Coach Derek Fisher struggled with his rotation, starting Amar'e Stoudemire, thereby leaving the second unit without enough scoring punch up front and not going to big man Cole Aldrich off the bench for defensive purposes until far too late. The supposed depth at shooting guard didn't quite look the part as Iman Shumpert, JR Smith and Tim Hardaway shot a combined 6-27 for eighteen points. As a whole, the Knicks' new look offense looked misshapen and lost against Tom Thibodeau's top-flight defense as Melo scored a paltry fourteen points. It was a dark time.
What Went Right This Week: Twenty four hours after their disappointing season opener, the Knicks marched into the Lebron-Cleveland re-marriage ceremony and wrecked things like a cold November rain. Coach Derek Fisher and his staff were creative and flexible with their rotation (playing undrafted rookie Travis Wear for meaningful stretches on Lebron, yanking Samuel Dalembert when he struggled, getting Cole Aldrich in the game at the right time), which this time included bringing Amar'e off the bench and starting dirty work specialist Quincy Acy. Shump came back from his disappointing game against Chicago with a solid 4-7 shooting, twelve-point night that saw him spend time guarding Lebron and Kyrie Irving as needed.
JR Smith recovered from his own rough outing by dishing out seven assists and making a number of big shots including a sick step-back and a floater, coming up with six points down the stretch to keep the Knicks in control (he finished with eleven). Smith might not understand the offense or always play within it but he's still a shot-maker (sometimes).
With projected starter Jose Calderon out 2-3 weeks with a strained calf, backup point guards Shane Larkin and Pablo Prigioni gave the Knicks quality production at the position. Larkin, who has been starting in Calderon's absence, showed a willingness to shoot that was absent in the preseason (he went 4-6 for nine points) and was a pain on the defensive end where he had five steals and Prigioni, who had six points and two assists, ran the show in the fourth quarter. Prigioni was tied for the team lead with a plus/minus of +10.
The Knicks' thirty assists on 37 field goals were a good indication that the offense was functioning at a high level but the biggest play of the game was unassisted as a Melo jumper over Lebron gave the Knicks a five-point lead with 26 seconds left:
Anthony finished the game with an efficient 25 points on 9-17 shooting to go along with six assists. Six assists.
On Sunday night against the Hornets, the Knicks built a fifteen-point second quarter lead before Al Jefferson woke up, got Dalembert into foul trouble and started bullying Amar'e. What Jefferson did in the second quarter, Brooklyn's own Lance Stephenson did in the third, making plays for himself and others and keeping Charlotte in the back-and-forth game.
The Knicks were down 93-90 with about two minutes to go when Shumpert left his feet without a coherent plan for what came next, losing control of the basketball. Lucky for him, Prigioni was there to collect it and give it back to him. Shumpert gathered himself and made a totally unwarranted three pointer to tie the game. After Shumpert stole a bad pass from Stephenson, Melo gave the Knicks the lead with a jumper and the Knicks held on for the 96-93 win, thanks in part to a very questionable five second call
by Tim Donaghy with 36 seconds left.
The Knicks declined to offer Shumpert a contract extension prior to the deadline for doing so this week, opting instead to hang on to as much cap room as possible heading into the summer when they'll target a big star; the irony is that Shumpert looks as close to putting it all together as he has at any other time (he finished with fifteen points and four assists in the win).
What's Different From Last Year: This could all go in the "What Went Right Section." The Knicks are running the triangle offense most of the time but are using typical NBA action like the pick-and-roll to get the looks they want, especially late in games (a feint at which got Melo space to shoot over Lebron to ice the Cavs game). That means this year they are running one and a half offenses while last year they ran half of one.
Amar'e Stoudemire looks spry (he had a very strong seventeen and ten against Charlotte). Jason Smith's jump shot has been as good as advertised (he was 5-6 against Cleveland and 3-5 against Charlotte) and he has shown chemistry with JR Smith that is similar to the love affair JR had with Steve Novak two seasons ago.
Like his mentor Phil Jackson, Fisher has kept pretty much everyone in the rotation as more than ten players have played in each game thus far. He's also proven to be more than happy to yank a player who isn't getting the job done on defense, as proven by Tim Hardaway's ten minute a game average (here's the pattern: Hardaway comes in, he plays a few minutes, he screws up on defense, he sits down). One reason Fisher may be so comfortable pulling players for defensive lapses is that it's easy to tell who's responsible: the team has abandoned Mike Woodson's switch everything "strategy" and instead plays pick-and-rolls by having the big man drop back to dissuade the ball-handler from driving to the hoop and having the picked player get around the screen.
That's led to the occasional open jump shot but avoids absurd scenarios like Amar'e trying to guard Kemba Walker on the perimeter while Pablo Prigioni tries to keep Al Jefferson off the block, which is exactly what would have happened a season ago. Not only is the Knicks' scheme better but their energy level has been miles improved on that end (on both ends, really).
Fisher has also given Anthony more rest than Mike Woodson did, including during the fourth quarter. The sample size is small but so far Anthony is averaging six minutes less than his league-leading 38.7 per game last season. Just as the lack of rest negatively impacted his clutch numbers last year, the extra minutes on the bench seem to have kept Anthony fresh down the stretch of the Knicks' two tight games thus far, both of which he's sealed with the kind of jumpers he missed in 2013-14.
What's Next: The Knicks have no time to celebrate their successful first week as they play five games over the next seven nights. They'll start that stretch by taking on the Wizards in Washington tonight before traveling to Detroit and (all the way to) Brooklyn and trading home games with the Hawks. A week of winnable but far from easy matchups will go a long way toward establishing just what this year's Knicks are capable of.
You can follow Jonathan Fishner on Twitter @therealkingfish, and check out his blog The Real King Fish.