10:18 am Nov. 14, 2012
The New York Knicks improved to 5-0 Monday night with a 99-89 victory over the Orlando Magic, but many of the elements that had allowed the Knicks to dominate the Heat, Sixers and Mavericks were missing.
For much of the game, the defensive intensity that had been a hallmark of the team disappeared, appearing only in the fourth quarter. At one point, the Magic were outrebounding the Knicks 18-9, and finished with a 42-31 advantage. And point guard Raymond Felton, in a kind of homage to Toney Douglas, took a team-high 23 shots, making just nine.
That the Knicks won anyway had much to do with an Orlando Magic team that is truly devoid of the kind of talent needed to win even home games where the visitor fails to show up for much of it. But the Knicks also won thanks to the players who have so far been their two constants: Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.
That Anthony's offense is a given shouldn't surprise anyone, with his now decade-long track record in support of the idea that offensively, at least, Anthony is elite. His defensive effort was lacking for the first time in parts of Monday night's game, but came alive in the final quarter, playing consistently effective defense without fouling.
Incredibly, though, J.R. Smith has been an even better player for the Knicks, the team's best to this point, by at least one measure. (Let that sink in for a minute.)
Though Smith is not a starter, he's played the second-most minutes to Anthony on the team so far. And what he's done with those minutes has been remarkable. His Player Efficiency Rating is 24.4, just above Anthony's 24.1. Much of that is a likely-unsustainable field goal percentage of 49.3 percent, and an absolutely unsustainable three-point field goal percentage of 72.2 percent.
But the rest of what he's doing looks less like a fluke start to a season, and more like a player with Smith's overabundance of talent using it more wisely. He's taking much better care of the ball, with his turnover percentage at just 6.3 percent. That's far below his career level of 11.3 percent, but even last year, he'd lowered it to 9.7 percent. His assist percentage is up to 16.3 percent, with Smith making the decision to share the ball more. This is a good one for Smith to make, since he is a plus passer. And his steal percentage is up to 3.4 percent, a career-high, though his previous career-high came last year for the Knicks, at 2.9 percent.
So Smith is hitting his shots, playing excellent defense, and doing everything else well. Not only is he the best sixth man in the league to date, but the only shooting guard with a higher P.E.R. thus far is Kobe Bryant.
The great warning signal for Smith has to be that he's never played at this level in his career. When that field goal percentagee normalizes, his P.E.R. will as well. But Smith has logged plenty of quality seasons in the N.B.A., and there's never been much doubt that a Smith making better decisions could be an all-star caliber performer. He's 27 years old, so the physical gifts are still present in abundance. The attitude and results are, so far, clearly following.
For a Knicks team devoid of other upside, this development would be huge. The team's main players--Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler--are all in the middle-to-end of their primes. The bench largely consists of veterans, some near the very end of their careers. The inherent limitation on what these Knicks can be, then, is what they are now, with a steady downward trend. And it was hard to see how the very best of this team could compete with, say, Miami.
But if Smith has developed into the kind of shooting guard he's essentially promised to be since high school, the Knicks' chances of contending increase pretty dramatically.