By John Schmeelk
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After trading so many assets for Carmelo Anthony last season, a real worry for the Knicks front office was making sure the team had enough depth to survive a compressed lockout schedule.

When Shawne Williams bolted for New Jersey, the Knicks’ bench looked downright barren. Thanks to interim GM Glen Grunwald that’s no longer the case.

After a dreadful first half against the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, the starters brought the Knicks back and then the bench delivered the death blow. Steve Novak was the sharpshooter, but his offensive explosion hides the contributions of others. Baron Davis looked like a true point guard, showing uncanny court vision with many of his passes. Iman Shumpert returned from his knee injury with a spring in his step and his typical great hands on defense. Jared Jeffries gave his usual intangibles off the bench and JR Smith nearly hit double figures. Every player on the Knicks bench had a positive plus/minus, with four in double figures.

Novak has been a true godsend, giving the Knicks a pure shooter that can stretch the floor and really make Mike D’Antoni’s system work. Playing at power forward, opponents often don’t want to or can’t get out on him fast enough to challenge his shots. He also hasn’t been a complete disaster on defense or on the boards. No one will confuse him with Dennis Rodman but he hasn’t killed the team there. Scary as it may sound, at times he seems more competent defensively than Amar’e Stoudemire.

Shumpert is turning into the pure defensive stopper that every team needs, and seems to be responsible for a half dozen deflections or turnovers a game. He is also too quick for small forwards to guard on the perimeter, easily blowing by them. Baron Davis gives Jeremy Lin valuable rest, and Smith provides the ability to score one on one. In fact, he’s second to only Carmelo Anthony in that regard.

Of course, some people are taking the strong play of the bench as an indictment of the starters. For the most part, that’s a false conclusion. Tyson Chandler played a great all-around game and spurred the comeback. Carmelo Anthony scored 22 points on 16 shots, and shot better than 50%. He also finished +12. Lin had one of his most efficient games of the year scoring 19 on just 12 shots, with thirteen assists and only one turnover. Landry Fields played poorly, but that will happen from time to time.

The bad first half was troubling, with the team showing little energy. Stoudemire was considered the leader of the team heading into the season, but it’s pretty obvious that mantle has been taken by Chandler. It took him challenging the team at halftime to look like the dominant team they were in the second half. The defense in the first half was terrible. The last thing this team can do is assume they can coast or cruise to victories. At 18-18, they are in no position to give away any games.

One of the reasons Chandler has emerged as a leader is his willingness to do everything necessary to win. Stoudemire talks all the time about how the team can be as good it wants to be and everyone needs to do what is asked of them. If he wants to be the team leader he needs to start leading  by example. His defense continues to be an embarrassment. Whether it is misplaying the pick and roll, or being late on rotations, or simply not challenging opponents at the rim, his defense has been noticeably bad. Carmelo has shown a much greater effort on defense and Stoudemire needs to do the same.

It isn’t a physical limitation. It’s either focus, commitment or effort.

That being said, it was the type of win that good teams have. When the chips were down the Knicks played their best ball and ran an inferior team off the floor. They’ll have a better test against the Celtics on Sunday. Boston is on the decline, but still play good fundamental defense. Rajon Rondo has killed the Knicks in the past, and he will be a good test of their renewed defensive commitment. The Knicks have three days of practice to get ready for that game, and prove their season is still on the uptick.

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