10:34 am Mar. 27, 2012
Whatever happens to the the New York Knicks over the remainder of their season will have everything to do with what happened Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
There was the result itself, an 89-80 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, that helped secure New York's playoff position, at least for now. But then there was the body count, with Amar'e Stoudemire diagnosed with a bulging disc in his back that will keep him out "indefinitely", whatever that will turn out to mean. Jeremy Lin missed Monday night's game with a knee injury, with no sure date for his return. And Carmelo Anthony, three quarters through a breakout performance, reinjired his groin, which kept him out for two weeks last month, leaving him questionable going forward as well.
The remaining Knicks team, held together with bits of string, managed a most unlikely result in a game they absolutely had to win. But the sustainability of that effort and what went into it is extremely suspect. The reality is, no one knows what the Knicks will look like over the final 16 games of the season, or how well that group can play.
When asked after the game if this group can win, Knicks coach Mike Woodson replied with a smile, "Well, I hope so. But having Amar'e out, I don't want guys to just feel like they can't step in and make plays, offensive plays. But what's got to be a given is our defense."
Let's start with the lineup. The Knicks opened with a starting five of Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, Landry Fields, Anthony and Tyson Chandler.
Anthony is an unlikely power forward: at 6'8", 230 pounds, he'll be undersized against most other fours. And that's only part of the problem. That unit also lacks a solid perimeter scorer, and relies on Davis to play starter minutes.
The results with Davis playing a season-high 34 minutes were evident. Davis's shot was flat, and he finished 3-for-12 from the field. He committed nine turnovers, most of them coming late in his shifts on the court. And his defense flagged as he tired as well: less a question of effort, and more a simple conservation of energy to stay on the court.
"I didn't have the best game of my career," a visibly exhausted Davis said as he sat in front of his locker following the game. "Probably the worst game since I've been here. It was good to get those type of minutes, to extend myself. We played well as a team tonight, it was a gutsy win for us."
That's not to say Davis was ignoring the toll those minutes took.
"I'm all right," Davis said with a chuckle in his voice. "A little banged up, a little tired, exhausted. But it was good. As long as Jeremy's out, I'm going to have to fill that void, get used to those minutes."
Davis spoke to the knock-on effect the injuries have on New York's depth. With Lin and Davis, the Knicks have a pair of solid point guards, one in Lin who can play starter minutes, one in Davis who is best in more limited time.
Without Lin, Davis will be asked to stretch beyond what he's done so far, testing his recently rehabilitated back injury. And when Davis isn't on the court, New York lacks even a semblance of a point guard, with Mike Bibby showing none of the aptitude that once made him a starter at the position.
Unto the breach last night stepped J.R. Smith, who is his own point guard, taking 13 shots, 10 from three-point range. Only his final three-point attempt was good, though that occurred organically, from an Anthony pass out of a double-team that extended New York's lead to 87-80 late in the fourth quarter, putting the game away. Most of the others came on contested shots after Smith dribbled in an attempt to create space, to no avail.
The point guard position isn't the only problem, and may not even be the most serious one. Without Stoudemire, the Knicks lack a starting power forward. It really isn't Anthony's best use: He should be playing the small forward position, giving him a more reasonable defensive matchup and the chance to operate more on the wing. And with Jared Jeffries also out with a knee injury, the alternative of using Josh Harrellson at the spot has disappeared, since Harrellson is needed instead to back up Tyson Chandler at center. Harrellson is no center, but he's the closest thing New York has to one when Chandler is out of the game.
That manifested itself on the offensive end, with New York having many empty possessions and an unsightly 23 turnovers, as well as the defensive end, where Mike Dunleavy, a skilled perimeter shooter, shredded the Knicks for 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting in the first half. Dunleavy cooled off in the second half, and Milwaukee's guards Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis failed to take advantage of the defensive chaos of New York. But one shudders to think of how a team like Orlando, with perimeter shooters galore, will feast on a New York defense too disorganized to rotate correctly.
"They were a little off tonight," Davis said of Milwaukee's guards, smiling. "Thank God for that."
The defensive lapses are no reflection on Woodson. That's because the Knicks, 50 games in, are still a bunch of players figuring out how to play together.
"Just continue to work with each other, get acclimated with each other," Davis said of how to solve the team's offensive and defensive problems. "Work on our chemistry. Guys are still adjusting to each other, figuring out who wants the ball where."
As for the man who will need to do most with the ball going forward, Anthony, it's questionable whether he can even play right now.
Anthony held court in front of his locker, wearing a white cardigan with orange stars and a calm expression of someone who understands that the fate of New York's season could rest in his hands. And yet, his ability to be out on the court, given his own injured groin, was still undetermined.
He acknowledged the discomfort in his groin, and couldn't commit to playing against Orlando, saying, "I'm hoping. I'm guessing. I don't know. We'll see what tomorrow brings."
The Knicks will face that tomorrow with a 2.5 game lead for the final playoff spot, and just a 2.5-game deficit in the Atlantic Division, trailing Boston and Philadelphia. That much they know.
Everything else, from the health of their three top scoring options, to exactly how they will fill the minutes of those absent players, is up in the air with only a month left until the playoffs. A team that's spent much of the year shedding identities is now in desperate search of yet another one.