By: J.R. Smooth
The New York Knicks are streaking – J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony leading the way
The New York Knicks are on a tear. After a mini four-game losing streak during the middle of March, Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks have rolled off twelve-straight – including road victories at Utah, Boston, Miami, Atlanta, and Oklahoma City. New York’s average point margin during its streak? 12.3. They’re not merely winning. They’re doing so convincingly.
Much of the reason for their turnaround has been the play of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. The former Nuggets have become as potent a one-two punch as there is in the league.
Over his last eleven games during New York’s winning streak, Carmelo is averaging 32.7 points on 24.4 shots, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1 steal per night, while shooting 41.4% and 84.6% from the 3-point and the free-throw lines respectively (with TS% of 59% and eFG% of 54.2%). He has a 40% usage rate in tandem with a miniscule 8.5% turnover rate – both of which would be career-marks by a long-shot. This is an incredible stretch of play Carmelo Anthony has embarked upon, and there’s no signs he’s ready to slow down.
And what of J.R. Smith? The 27 year-old is blossoming into a bona fide star player coming off Mike Woodson’s bench this season. The Knicks are depending on him every night and thus far, he has delivered. Career-highs in minutes, points, defensive rebounding, total rebounding, blocks, and a career-best 8.9% turnover rate will do that. Smith isn’t the same vat of unfulfilled potential he came to be known for in Denver. He’s actually turning that awe-inspiring play into something much more meaningful: Consistency.
During New York’s twelve-game winning streak, J.R. is averaging 23.8 points on 16.4 shots, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.2 steals, and just 2.2 turnovers in 34.5 minutes per night. He’s playing inspired basketball at both ends of the floor. The Knicks are scoring 120 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 100.2 with Smith on the court in that span. That is an ear-splitting differential.
Immediately after hearing he’d been awarded NBA Player of the Week for games played between March 24-31, I tweeted:
“J.R. Smith winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors should give Mike Woodson a free pass at Coach of the Year. Not even kidding.”
Well, I was kind of kidding. And I kind of wasn’t. After having watched over half of Smith’s career in a Nuggets uniform, I do not think enough can be said for his overall play as a Knick this season. He’s calmer, more poised, more confident, more sure of himself, and wholly more reliable than he ever used to be. Nowhere is that more reflected than his turnover rate.
All that said, when Anthony and Smith see the court together the Knicks go off the rails – particularly offensively.
Consider: Since the beginning of their streak on March 11 in Utah, Smith and Anthony have seen the court for 271 combined minutes. In those minutes, they’re posting an offensive rating of 123.5 (points per 100 possessions) and defensive rating of 101.9 (points per 100 possessions). To put those numbers in proper perspective, the best two-man offensive combo in the NBA this season is Kevin Martin and Russell Westbrook, who combine for 116 points per 100 possessions. They’re 7.5 full points off Anthony and Smith’s pace during their winning streak.
In terms of differential, only the Pacers have put together as impressive an offensive and defensive differential, where during the month of February, Paul George and Lance Stephenson claimed a 113-86 differential. No two players have had as impressive a stretch for their team this season. Marc Gasol and Tony Allen played 12 games in November and posted a 110-88 differential for Memphis. But no one has touched Smith and Anthony’s combined offensive output.
For a more in-depth look at how the Knicks have regained their form, see this piece from SBNation’s Mike Prada: The New York Knicks have rediscovered themselves.
The quiet brilliance of David West and Roy Hibbert in Indiana
From New York we move to potential Knicks’ second-round playoff opponent, the Indiana Pacers. Larry Bird may be gone, but he didn’t leave the cupboard bare. Currently locked into the Eastern Conference’s third-seed, one of the main reasons Indiana has been so solid is due to the dominating front line of David West and Roy Hibbert. I highlighted the two in my blog last July when trying to unearth the hidden talents of Timofey Mozgov. Sadly, I didn’t do them justice. Very few people do.
You can’t mention one without also mentioning the other. That’s how enmeshed the two are in Indiana. In the 1663 minutes of court-time they’ve seen together this season, the Pacers are scoring 105.4 points per 100 possessions while allowing a stout 95.8 defensively. By comparison, Memphis’ Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are scoring 2.8 points less per 100 possessions (106.7) while allowing arguably the same amount defensively (95.9).
Four of the top-5 defenses in the league employ a ‘Twin Towers’ concept, where each team’s interior is anchored by dominant big men. The Pacers, with David West and Roy Hibbert, have the league’s most elite defense, allowing only 96.1 points per 100 possessions. The Grizzlies, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, are second-best, allowing just 97.8. The Spurs, with Tim Duncan and Tiaggo Splitter, are third, allowing just 98.9. And the Wizards, with Nene and Emeka Okafor, are fifth (behind Oklahoma City), allowing only 100 points per 100 possessions.
For a team without a signature star player, not enough is said about the performances of David West and Roy Hibbert. Teams like Indiana, Memphis, and San Antonio are built for the long haul because of their dependably elite interior defense – which is one reason why I don’t foresee New York making it past a potential second-round matchup with the Pacers. The perimeter scoring of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith will only take you so far. Unless your team has Kevin Durant and/or LeBron James, the league’s true contenders are built from the inside-out.
How big of a loss is Danilo Gallinari for Denver?
One potential contender that’s most definitely not been built from the inside-out is the Denver Nuggets. Denver had a bad week, as star forward Danilo Gallinari went down with a torn ACL against the Mavericks last Thursday. He will miss the remainder of the season.
Gallinari’s injury and what it means for Denver’s chances in this year’s playoffs has been the source of much debate over the last few days. Perhaps not so surprisingly, many seem to be of the opinion that Denver is deep enough to withstand such a loss.
Can Wilson Chandler fill his shoes?
After extensive thought, I tend to agree. Wilson Chandler has played some excellent basketball coming off the bench this year. He’s a better rebounder, better ball-hawk, and (at least so far) a better 3-point shooter than his Italian teammate. It should be noted that Chandler’s 40.8% mark from distance is far and away a career-high. His best 3-point shooting season came during 2010-11, when he shot a full five percentage points less (35%). Whether or not his current output is sustainable is anyone’s guess.
In this space last week, I previewed a possible first round matchup between the Warriors and Nuggets. One factor I briefly touched on was Wilson Chandler’s potential playoff impact. While Golden State was without Australian center Andrew Bogut for each game against Denver, it must be noted Chandler only saw significant time in the two team’s final matchup – tallying 14 points on 14 shots, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals, and 3 turnovers in 21 minutes. It was Wilson’s first game back after missing two months due to recovery from offseason hip surgery. I bring this up because Chandler went 2-of-5 from 3-point range in that game – right in line with his season average. If Denver is to have any hopes of emerging from the first round of the playoffs for the first time in four years, they will need Wilson Chandler to do it.
The unheralded Carl Landry could be big for Golden State in the playoffs
And, finally, while we’re on the subject of Golden State, I wanted to give Carl Landry some well-received dap. While Warriors fans want Jarrett Jack getting recognition for the Sixth Man of the Year Award – and I think he’s deserving – it’s the underrated Landry who may come up largest in the playoffs.
Landry has appeared in 43 of Golden State’s 44 wins. In his time on the court during those victories, the Warriors score 104 points per 100 possessions, while allowing a very stingy 96.9; good enough for a 7.1 differential. Most importantly, especially where the playoffs are concerned, with Landry on the floor in games decided by five points or less, the Warriors post a 110.25 and 107.75 offensive and defensive rating, respectively (2.5 differential). In the post season, when every possession matters and most games are decided in the final minutes, Landry could prove essential.
Stats used courtesy of NBA.com/Stats