By John Schmeelk
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Watching Chauncey Billups go down with yet another thigh injury was truly scary. It threatened everything the Knicks had built over the past seven to ten days. Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire might be the two true superstars on the Knicks, but their success depends far more on Billups than either of them.
The Knicks performance in the fourth quarter against the Sixers was frightening. Once Billups was forced to leave the game and the offense was left in the hands of Toney Douglas, it fell apart. Douglas was able to make up for his playmaking shortcomings by hitting a three and a pair of free throws down the stretch, but it still showed how much the Knicks need a real point guard. As Billups said after the game, eventually Douglas will have to win games by setting other people up, rather than scoring himself. He’s a valuable player that can shoot, defend, and he has more guts than he knows what to do with, but a true point guard he is not.
One game is only a shred of the evidence. When Billups played well before his thigh injury, the Knicks won. Douglas played well in his absence and the team strived. When Billups played poorly upon his return, the team looked like garbage. It wasn’t until Billups finally got healthy and started playing good basketball that the Knicks went on their current winning streak. Yes, it’s that simple.
Of course, both Anthony and Stoudemire have to play well but their jobs are made so much easier by a point guard that can set them up. Billups is the lynchpin that holds it all together and it should be no surprise. The key to Mike D’Antoni’s system has always been the point guard whether it was Steve Nash or Raymond Felton. In a ball movement based system everything starts with the point guard. It continues to be that way today.
Billups is far from perfect. He takes way too many bad shots towards the ends of games. Often times, (though not as much recently) he doesn’t push the pace enough. He still falls into bad habits of giving it to Anthony in isolation situations too early in the shot clock. He doesn’t find Stoudemire enough on the pick and roll. But even with all those flaws, the Knicks need him to play well to have a chance of a first round upset. Without him, it’s hopeless.
It appears this thigh injury isn’t as serious and he shouldn’t be out for a long time. It looks like the same for Stoudemire’s ankle. Rest both until they are 100%. The Knicks are playing well offensively heading into the playoffs and their defense has shown some recent signs. Hope reigns again at Madison Square Garden and the playoffs are right around the corner.
UP AND UNDER
Up: Anthony seems to have found his way in the offense. He still forces bad shots too often in isolation situations, but his shots are slowly but surely coming more in the flow of things. More importantly, he seems to be more willing to share the ball and find his teammates that have better shots. There’s still a long way to go but he’s getting there. His trend of falling in love with the three point shot is a little scary.
Down: Ronny Turiaf would be a very valuable Knick if he could only stay healthy. He can’t and it could cost him a spot in the playoff rotation with Shelden Williams proving to be a valuable commodity on defense and on the boards.
AROUND THE WORLD
At this point it seems fairly obvious, but the Knicks would be best suited to play the Miami Heat in the first round. They have nothing that would exploit the Knicks greatest weakness, a lack of size. In addition, Anthony has owned LeBron James in head to head situations dating all the way back to high school. The Celtics are struggling but they have the type of veteran team that can turn it on come playoff time. Their toughness, grit and unselfishness would eventually overwhelm the Knicks. The pressure on the Heat in a first round series would be immense and perhaps the Knicks can relive that magic from their first round upsets in the late 90’s.
I like the way D’Antoni is using all his players down the stretch so he can settle on a set rotation in the playoffs. Here’s my prediction: Billups, Anthony, Stoudemire, Fields, Shelden Williams, Shawne Williams, Bill Walker and Douglas. The ninth guy who might end up playing in an emergency would be Turiaf, if he could stay healthy. In fact there’s a chance Turiaf leaps over Shelden Williams if the Knicks match up with Miami, since they don’t have a post player. Walker’s strong play the last week has gotten him a spot in the rotation. He has even playing defense. Impressive, considering that’s the third sign of the apocalypse.
You can follow my ruminations on the Knicks and everything else in the world of sports (and other things occasionally) at http://twitter.com/#!/Schmeelk