2:50 pm Feb. 25, 2013
By the end of the Knicks' four-game losing streak, it had started to feel as if the team might never win again.
Whether it was a disspiriting loss to the Toronto Raptors on their home floor, or an absolute demolishing by the Indiana Pacers, the Knicks were not executing on offense, allowing opposing teams easy baskets at will on defense, and hardly looked like a playoff team, let alone a team with designs on winning the Atlantic Division and challenging the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks team that ran out to an 18-5 start isn't coming back. But the Knicks did show elements of a strategy that could provide results on par with a playoff contender in Sunday night's 99-93 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
It was easy to forget that, prior to the four-game losing streak, the Knicks had won six of their previous seven games. The formula for these wins came primarily from getting star-level production from Carmelo Anthony and efficient offense from Tyson Chandler, making up for lack of points from shooting guard Jason Kidd and small forward Iman Shumpert with bench scoring from Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith.
In those seven games, Kidd managed 18 points, total, playing in six of the seven, shooting just 23 percent from the field. Shumpert was better, but not great, averaging fewer than six points per game and shooting 37 percent from the field.
It didn't matter, though, because Stoudemire scored 17.1 per game over that span, shooting better than 69 percent, and Smith scored 16.4 per game, shooting 44 percent overall and 39.3 percent from three point range.
During the four-game losing streak, Kidd and Shumpert were similarly unproductive, with Kidd averaging 2.3 points per game on 21 percent shooting, and Shumpert declining further, to 2.8 points per game on less than 19 percent shooting. But the real drop came from Stoudemire and Smith, with Stoudemire averaging 10.5 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting, and Smith giving the Knicks a 1-for-9 and 1-for-7 performance in two of four games.
The Knicks, receiving a 9-for-10 shooting performance from Stoudemire and 14 points, effective defensive effort from Smith, managed to win Sunday despite a combined 2-for-12 overall, 1-for-8 from three shooting night from Kidd and Shumpert.
That they only won by six points, at home, against a struggling 76ers team says plenty about the inherent limitations the Knicks, or any team, has when 40 percent of the starting lineup isn't providing minimally competent offense. In the case of Kidd, it appears the need to play him so much when both Shumpert and Raymond Felton missed time with injuries has had an effect on the 39-year-old. In Kidd's first 30 games, he shot 44 percent from three, and took five threes per game. In his next 18 games, he's making 21 percent of his threes, and taking fewer than four per game. When the Knicks were at their most effective, Kidd's shooting spaced the floor nicely. Now, teams are leaving him open, and he seems reluctant to shoot. It is a major problem.
So is Shumpert, whose game has gone backward following a promising debut after missing eight months with a knee injury. Whether it is confidence, physical limitations, or both, Shumpert simply isn't providing the Knicks with the production they need to thrive.
The easy answer would seem to be putting Stoudemire and/or Smith into the starting lineup. But this isn't so clear. Stoudemire is thriving in space usually reserved for Carmelo Anthony, when he is playing, and vice versa. And Smith also gets the bulk of his shots during the times Anthony is on the bench.
Nor are there alternative answers elsewhere on the Knicks' bench. Chris Copeland could conceivably play at small forward, James White at shooting guard. But both players give back much of their gains offensively with limited defense. That's the reason neither one is currently in coach Mike Woodson's rotation.
What the Knicks really need to hope is that Kidd can find whatever combination of health and rest that allowed him to be an effective weapon early this season, and that Shumpert can rehabilitate his knee sufficiently to become somewhat the player he was last year.
Until then, the Knicks can beat some teams with Anthony, Chandler, Stoudemire and Smith. But they can't expect to contend without a starting lineup that is playing, offensively, 3-on-5.