By John Schmeelk
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There is something different about the Knicks this year compared to how their year ended in the playoffs last season: Tyson Chandler looks like himself.
Carmelo Anthony is the team’s superstar, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to argue that Chandler is the Knicks’ most indispensable player. He was dominated by Roy Hibbert in the playoffs last year, and the Knicks didn’t stand a chance. On Thursday night, Chandler dominated one of the best front lines in basketball and gave the Knicks a chance to win a game few thought they could win.
The Knicks’ biggest deficiencies are on defense and on the boards, and Chandler is a solution to both those problems. The only other player on the Knicks’ team that brings even a facsimile of what he does is Kenyon Martin. When neither of those two players are on the court, the Knicks’ interior defense is one of the worst in basketball. This is where the problem comes in: Martin has chronic leg problems and Chandler can’t play 40 minutes a game if the team wants him standing in June for the postseason.
Mike Woodson can be as creative as he wants with his lineups, but it is hard for him to get around the fact that the Knicks are going to be a poor defensive team if neither Chandler nor Martin are in at center. It’s going to happen, so he is going to have to choose his spots carefully based on opposing lineups. Chandler, to no one’s surprise, had the Knicks best plus/minus last night: +8 in 36-plus minutes. Martin was +2 in just under four minutes. That means in the eight minutes neither Chandler nor Martin were on the floor, the Knicks were outscored by 11 points. Those eight minutes are the reason the Knicks lost the basketball game. That is the crux of Woodson’s challenge this year.
So while the Knicks are still dealing with a lot of problems, at least they have Chandler back. His defense and ability to keep the ball alive with back-taps and offensive rebounds really makes a huge defense for this team. He is truly irreplaceable. If he can stay healthy and not get worn down before the playoffs, the Knicks can beat any team in the Eastern Conference. It’s up to Woodson to figure out a way to get them there with Chandler standing.
A challenge, to say the least.
– A couple of other things happened on Thursday night that should have reminded Knicks fans of their successful run last season. After 13 first-half turnovers, the Knicks only had two in the second half and did an excellent job protecting the basketball. They also got back to the three-point shots, making nine of 24. Tim Hardaway, Jr. was a big part of it, with two of six. Andrea Bargnani even started hitting some jump shots, making four of seven. They might not hit as many three as they did last year, but it still needs to be in the arsenal to keep defenses honest against Anthony and in the paint.
– Anthony did not shoot well (8-for-24), but he did manage to grab six rebounds, dish out six assists and grab six steals. He hustled and looked engaged the entire game. Unfortunately, the last three minutes of the game revealed the same flaw that hurt the Knicks so often at the end of games last season: iso-ball. All the great ball movement that created open threes and open looks for the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter disappeared, and the rest of the team was left watching Anthony trying to score one-on-one against one of the best iso defenders in the league in Luol Deng.
Deng gives LeBron James more problems than anyone, and he did the same to Anthony on Thursday night. He missed a number of contested jumpers down the stretch. They were low-percentage shots that the Bulls were more than happy to take their chances with. Woodson continues to rely too much on Anthony’s one-on-one ability down the stretch of these games instead of running the offense and getting better looks. That type of offense won’t work against the best defensive teams in the league like the Pacers and Bulls.
– On Thursday night, the Knicks were playing the second half of a back-to-back on the road against a team playing their home opener and welcoming back their superstar after missing an entire season. I didn’t think they would even be in the game. Instead, they would have won it if Derrick Rose didn’t make a very difficult shot with little time left on the clock, or Anthony shot better from the field. All in all, not a terrible night for the Knicks.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk.
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