By John Schmeelk
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For the first time since Stephon Marbury, Knicks fans got to experience Tuesday night what it was like to have a point guard who could take over a game late in the fourth quarter. This isn’t to take anything away from Chauncey Billups, or even Ray Felton in his one season under coach Mike D’Antoni, but Tuesday night’s 107-103 win over Portland was something different.
Down the stretch, the Knicks didn’t have to dump the ball to Carmelo Anthony in isolations and work off him to score. Instead, they could allow their point guard to handle the ball and use high screen-and-rolls to either create for himself or find his teammates for open shots.
It was far from perfect. Derrick Rose held the ball too long on a couple of plays and kept dribbling rather than hitting a wide-open Anthony or Kristaps Porzingis for open 3’s. He missed a floater instead of popping it out for a higher percentage jump shot. But those were small imperfections in an otherwise impressive fourth quarter in which he scored eight points, dished out four assists and shot 50 percent from the field.
The fans loved it, too. There were audible groans when Anthony tried to go one-on-one for a couple of possessions. They were reminiscent of the (ridiculous) groans that Patrick Ewing used to get on post-ups after the Knicks acquired Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and Latrell Sprewell. In this case, it is a little more understandable given the other options.
The Knicks went small at the end of the game, and their lineup made guarding pick-and-rolls nearly impossible. With Melo at power forward and Porzingis at center setting the screen for Rose, the defenders had no good options. If you trap or even hedge very aggressively on Rose, Melo or KP will have an easy open look. If you switch, Anthony or Porzingis will wind up with a mismatch against a smaller player or Rose will have an isolation off the dribble against a bigger player. If you go under the screen, Rose can get a full head of steam toward the basket.
With two other shooters on the floor with those three players (in Tuesday night’s case, Courtney Lee and Mindaugus Kuzminskas) teams will have trouble rotating well enough to avoid giving up an open shot. We saw the Trail Blazers defense afraid to leave the screener and other shooters twice in the fourth quarter, which turned into free runs to the basket for Rose.
Rose having the ball in his hand also allowed Anthony to play off the ball, and he did more than just stand around. He tapped out a key offensive rebound on the final possession to set up Rose’s final step-back jumper to seal the Knicks’ win. On defense, Anthony tracked down a key rebound to secure a Knicks possession off a CJ McCollum jumper.
One legitimate gripe about the end of the game was the team’s inability to get the ball to a hot Porzingis, Coach Jeff Hornacek said afterward that the Knicks had a couple plays designed for Porzingis, but they weren’t executed properly. (My thought is that Hornacek was specifically referring to play in which Rose missed Porzingis wide open near the top of the key after he set a screen for him.) Rose’s game-clinching basket wasn’t the highest percentage shot in the world, but he was skilled enough to put it home. It’s clear Rose isn’t completely comfortable with his teammates yet, but he is getting there. His decision-making late in games will determine a lot of the Knicks’ success this year.
The most amazing thing is in a game when Rose played well down the stretch, he might not have even been the best point guard on the team. Brandon Jennings finished with 11 assists in just 22 minutes, and he is emerging as the leader of a second unit that Hornacek is showing more and more confidence in: Jennings, Justin Holiday, Kuzminskas, Porzingis, and Willy Hernangomez. The group runs, shares the ball and allows Kristaps Porzingis to be the main focus of the offense for long stretches. Jennings seems to cherish playing the role of a pure point guard with that group. He is pass-first, and it brings out the best in his teammates. It’s a different look that has proven very effective.
The most important thing is that the pieces are in place for the Knicks to win with team basketball at the end of close games instead of isolations, as long as they can execute properly. It’s something Knicks fans should be very excited about.
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