By John Schmeelk
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As bad as the Knicks’ West Coast trip was, I hope that Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony watched the Knicks’ win against the Jazz on Monday night very closely. The Knicks didn’t beat the Jazz because they were more talented. They beat them because they played smarter, harder and tougher basketball. It’s the type of game that the Knicks need to play even after their stars get back into the lineup.
Kurt Thomas played 26 minutes on a fractured foot and shut down one of the best post players in the NBA: Al Jefferson. Pablo Prigioni drew a charge and was hitting the offensive glass hard. Jason Kidd had active hands. J.R. Smith was taking it hard to the basket and getting to the free-throw line. Kenyon Martin was rotating on defense like his life depended on it. The team played very disciplined defense and moved the ball on offense. If the team plays that way with Anthony and Chandler in the lineup, they can still do some serious damage in the NBA playoffs.
It was the type of effort that the Knicks routinely gave back in November when they were playing their best basketball. If they want to finish in front of the Pacers and get the two seed, it is the type of basketball they will need to play the rest of the season. Anthony will get the points that the team needs to win, whether he is scoring or moving the ball on double-teams. He and the rest of the team must focus on defense if they want to win. They need to enjoy and respond positively to physical play rather than shrinking from it and complaining to the referees. If Thomas’s performance from Monday night can’t motivate a team to try as hard as they can defensively every night, I don’t know what can.
Veterans aside, Chris Copeland continued to show that he can be a valuable spark off the bench and can give the team some offense when they need it. He can hit the open jump shot and get to the hoop against power forwards that try to guard him on the perimeter. His pick-and-roll play with Prigioni was downright pretty in the third quarter. Copeland gives very little on defense, so Mike Woodson will have to be careful when he uses him, but he is useful as a scorer.
I’m not sure why Prigioni doesn’t play more. He is the best defensive point guard that the Knicks have. He passes to a fault at times, passing up open looks to give the ball to a teammate. For a team where ball movement is a big problem, that is hardly a bad thing. He has the best Net Offense/Defense rating based off of points of possession than any other Knick. The team is better offensively and defensively when he is on the court as opposed to off of it. He gives the Knicks defense and ball movement, the two things that they need most of all. He needs to play 20 minutes a game, and if that means fewer minutes for Kidd, then so be it.
The Knicks have a very difficult 17 games remaining on their schedule, but if they play as hard as they did on Monday night and with the same commitment to defense, they can be very good. That should get them out of the first round of the playoffs, and perhaps by the second round Stoudemire will be able to contribute.
If all that comes together with the effort, grit and defense that the team showed on Monday night, the Heat will at least have to work to get into the NBA Finals.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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