By John Schmeelk
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It’s amazing what happens when J.R. Smith doesn’t play.
It’s nowhere near that simple, of course. But it was a very significant change in direction for the Knicks on Friday night.
It wasn’t, however, the only change Mike Woodson embraced. New York’s win over the Miami Heat wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was a good model for how the Knicks need to play if they want to become factors in the Eastern Conference.
Smith is the perfect place to start. In a season where he has run roughshod in every possible way, Woodson finally drew a line in the sand. Whether it came from him or ownership or the front office, it sent the right message to the team: actions have consequences. If it’s obvious to everyone on the outside that Smith has a different set of rules, you can bet his teammates see it too.
The effect on the team’s offense was obvious. The ball moved from side to side all night. The team shot a high percentage from the field (53.7 percent) and from behind the arc (37.5 percent). The offense was downright efficient, something Smith hasn’t been all season. It’s not fair to put an entire two months of woes on one player, but when the guy that puts up the third-most shots on a team shoots under 35 percent, it’s hard to win games.
This shouldn’t be a one game thing. Smith needs to stay on the bench. Give Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr. a chance to take his minutes and see what happens. They responded Friday night with 17 points and 10 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. I’m not sure Woodson has the guts to follow through, but he should consider it. The Knicks would be better off.
Credit for the offensive turnaround also goes to Raymond Felton, who played his best game of the season. He only made one of six three pointers, but had 14 assists with only two turnovers. He orchestrated the pick and roll perfectly, finding cutters and open three-point shooters all night long. It looked like the Knicks’ offense from 2012-13, when it was purring at the end of the regular season. His unselfishness rubbed off on the rest of the team. Carmelo Anthony was a wiling passer, and had a couple of key dishes that led to baskets or free throws late in the game. Felton also got both Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire involved rolling to the basket and in the pick and pop. It turned into a balanced team effort.
Woodson also gets a nod for his late-game offense. What usually turns into an isolation-fest with the Knicks wasting away most of the shot clock before watching Anthony hoist up a contested jumper became an offense filled with different plays and movement without the ball. The Knicks used their double high screen and roll up a couple times (finally!), which led to an open Anthony three and a Stoudemire shot at the rim. There’s a reason Carmelo closed this game significantly better than he has others this year: his teammates helped him. He didn’t have to score one-on-one with help defense coming over to make his life even harder. I cannot fathom why it took Woodson so long to run his late-game offense this way, but maybe he will learn a lesson because it worked so well against one of the best teams in the NBA.
Even though the Knicks still employed some of their flawed defensive principles and bad habits (how many times did we see Bargnani isolated on LeBron James?), the team’s overall defense was pretty good. Bargnani was better than usual, and the team didn’t get completely obliterated when he shared the floor with Stoudemire up front. Spare the switching (Carmelo needed to fight through more screens to stay on LeBron), the defense was good enough to win games. Bargnani and Stoudemire even hit the glass, combining for 16 rebounds.
The team’s effort was off the charts, like it was in Texas over the weekend.
Can the Knicks and their coach keep it up, or was this a one-shot deal? They need to prove it was the former, since they’ve done nothing to earn any faith from the fan base.
But if the coach keeps Smith on the bench, Felton continues his improved play, guys like Tyson Chandler and Pablo Prigioni get back, Shumpert keeps playing this way, and the team’s effort level remains high, the Atlantic Division is still in play.
The Knicks are only five games in the loss column from No. 3 Atlanta. The time is now. Knicks fans are starting to believe.
You can follow John on Twitter @Schmeelk for the latest on the Knicks, Giants and everything else New York sports.
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