By John Schmeelk
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Saturday night hurt for Knicks fans, and understandably so.
The Knicks lost a playoff series they easily could have won against Indiana, if their best players played just a little closer to expectations. It’s easy to be despondent and pessimistic after a series like that, even though the team surpassed all expectations in the regular season, winning 54 games and securing the two-seed. But Knicks fans would be wise to cope with this loss with some perspective.
Before the season, the Knicks gathered as many veterans as possible around Carmelo Anthony with the expressed goal of beating the Miami Heat on the way to a championship. Despite that lofty goal, any realistic Knicks fan would have considered it a successful season if they would have challenged the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and lost. If a championship was the equivalent of a home run, then that would have been a triple. The Knicks fell short, making the end of the season a failure, but not a complete one.
They still smacked a double.
The Knicks were two wins away. New York could have gotten those wins if J.R. Smith didn’t self-destruct and go ice cold at the worst time. They could have gotten those wins if Tyson Chandler was healthy and didn’t play like a shell of himself. They could have gotten those wins if Mike Woodson realized earlier in the Pacers series that the smart way to play Indiana was to go small. Heck, simply putting the Celtics away in four games and getting rest before Game 1 could have been the difference. I didn’t even mention Carmelo’s bum shoulder and poor playoff shooting. If one of those things doesn’t happen, just one, the Knicks might beat Indiana. So many things went horribly wrong, and the Knicks were still six minutes away from hosting a Game 7 that could have brought them to the Eastern Conference finals.
These aren’t franchise-killing fundamental flaws that call for firing the coach, liquidating the roster and starting over. The Knicks aren’t far away from where they want to be. This season is one to build on, not to discard. More times than not, championship teams aren’t put together in a year. They are built over time, even for a win-now team like the Knicks. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this first year of playoff experience that can make the team better next year. Teams and coaches have to live through those mistakes before they can correct them.
As a coach, Woodson needs to get more creative offensively not rely so much on Anthony and Smith to create in one-on-one situations. For their part, Smith and Anthony have to be willing to commit to getting their shots in the flow of the offense rather than freezing the ball. In the end, this will help both players since their shots will be easier, and far more efficient. Right now, the team depends on those guys making some very low-percentage shots to score enough points to win games. Good defensive teams like the Celtics and Pacers took advantage of that tendency and made the third-best offensive team in the regular season look downright pathetic.
Woodson did some things very well this year. He juggled a number of lineups, turned Smith into a better player and dealt with a ton of injuries. But the same weakness that plagued him in Atlanta, an uncreative offense, ended up hurting him with the Knicks. He just didn’t know how to generate points consistently against the better teams. Until he fixes that problem, he won’t be a championship-caliber coach. At times, his lineup decisions were mind-boggling, having more to do with loyalty to veteran players than winning basketball games. I still don’t know why he didn’t make more of Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland on the floor. Woodson has to fix these things if the Knicks want to take the next step.
The players also need to learn a few things. The first is that every single game, play and decision within a game can be the difference between a win and a loss. Whether it was Smith’s blown defensive assignments in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Pacers, or his elbow against Jason Terry, those plays cost games. Whether it was Anthony not closing out on a Paul George three or failing to get back on defense, those small mistakes lose games. Whether it was Chandler not going after a rebound, Shumpert or Martin committing a dumb foul, Ray Felton shooting a twenty footer instead of driving, or anyone taking a low-percentage shot, those plays lose games. The Knicks can’t lose again next year because the team they played was smarter and played harder.
Hopefully, this team was humbled a bit, too. At times this year, they were far more confident than their play would have dictated. Arrogant teams don’t focus play to play or game to game. They don’t work as hard. The Knicks need to recognize the effort needed to get better to take the next step, before they actually take it. They have to be willing to make the commitment.
Unfortunately they have very little flexibility to improve the roster in free agency, and it’s possible they might even lose some players like Smith, Prigioni and Copeland. (More on that tomorrow.) Their coach isn’t changing either. With the majority of the Knicks contracts expiring after the 2014-15 season, New York has one or two more years to make a run with this group.
They might never beat the Heat, but this season they made a good run — a run they can be proud of.
Somewhere along the way — mostly because of the Yankees — a season was considered a failure if a team didn’t win a championship. I understand the sentiment. I also believe, however, that after a decade of mismanagement from the likes of Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas, any Knicks fan who didn’t thoroughly enjoy this season is a fool.
Anyone who wants to start rebuilding again is just as dumb. Are the Knicks going to win a title next year? I don’t know, probably not. Just look at the odds. It’s not easy. This year they were one of eight teams left, and the second-best team in the East.
It’s OK to be proud of that. It’s OK to enjoy that.
I know I did, even with the way the season ended.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and New York sports.
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