By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks showed many good things in Wednesday’s season opener. But there were also a couple of red flags that could prove to be a problem in the season’s first true test against the Chicago Bulls tonight.
A game that should have been a blowout turned into a nail-biter when the Knicks came out of halftime with little energy on either end of the court and got outscored by 15 points in the third quarter. The Knicks managed to win the game thanks to defensive grit and big plays from Pablo Prigioni and Tyson Chandler, something they will need for four quarters tonight against the Bulls, who make their living on such plays.
First, the good: Chandler looked nothing like the player who was dominated by Roy Hibbert in the playoffs last season. He was a true guardian around the basket (five blocks), and even though he only had six rebounds he was very active around the glass. No one had a better plus-minus (+18) except for Pablo Prigioni (+19). Tim Hardaway Jr. hit his first two shots as a Knick and Iman Shumpert scored 16 points despite shooting only 1 of 5 from behind the three-point arc.
One thing that was very different from last season? The uncharacteristic number of team turnovers (22) and lack of three-pointers (3 of 13). Protecting the ball and hitting from behind the arc were two things the New York did so well last year. I’ll chalk the turnovers up to early-season rust. I don’t foresee it as a long-term problem with Prigioni and Ray Felton at guard. The three-pointers are a different issue and might be an early indication of the Knicks changing up their offense this season.
With Steve Novak and Jason Kidd departing, two guys that only scored from behind the arc, the team might be in line for fewer threes this season. Andrea Bargnani hasn’t shot well from downtown in two seasons and Beno Udrih is more of a mid-range player. Ron Artest, Iman Shumpert and Hardaway should be able to pick up the slack — but it is something to keep an eye on.
Moving away from three might not necessarily be a bad thing either, considering how well the Pacers and Bulls defended it last year.
The one big red flag was Bargnani, who got his Knicks career off to a rough start last night. There was no improvement after a poor preseason and there were actually some very quiet boo birds after some turnovers and missed shots. I understand Knicks fans’ frustrations, but if they want him to be effective here, they will have to be a little more patient. He was chased out of Toronto with a lot of boos, and the last thing he needs is to have that start early in his New York tenure.
He has to play better, but the fans have to give him some time, too.
In his postgame interview session, Mike Woodson said Bargnani would play more against Chicago. I wonder how that’s going to work since Amar’e Stoudemire is supposed to play Thursday, and that should eat into a lot of his minutes. Kenyon Martin also didn’t play in the second half against Milwaukee, which means he might be available tonight. Bargnani’s midrange game might help against Chicago but his rebounding against Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah could be truly frightening.
Felton might be kept out against the Bulls with a cranky hamstring, a loss that would make it very difficult for the Knicks to score against the Bulls’ excellent defense. He’s the team’s best pick-and-roll ball handler, and if he doesn’t go both Prigioni and Udrih will have to pick up the slack. They aren’t as good of a playmaker off the pick and roll and neither would be able to get to the hoop like Felton could.
The Knicks struggled mightily against the Bulls last year, and a good performance against them early in the season would give everyone a lot of confidence moving forward. It would also be early evidence that the Knicks have improved in ways that make them better against the Bulls and Pacers. The Knicks also showed an unfortunate propensity last season to get taken out of the game, losing their cool against overly physical teams. They need to show more maturity against the Bulls, and I would like to see guys like Artest match physicality without going over the edge.
It’s an early-season game that might not mean anything in four months, but Thursday’s Bulls matchup will certainly give the Knicks an early feel for where they are as a team. Chicago is coming off a blowout loss to start their season, and will be primed for their home opener.
The Knicks, on the other hand, are on the second night of a back-to-back.
From neutral perspective, the game has a Bulls 15-point win written all over it.
Let’s see if the Knicks can make some noise — and buck those odds.
You can follow John on Twitter for insights on the Knicks, Giants, Yankees and everything else in the world of sports @Schmeelk.
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