HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Perfection doesn’t last forever. Not in the NBA. So this dazzling start to the season for the New York Knicks does have an expiration date.
That doesn’t mean Knicks fans shouldn’t enjoy the ride, though. They not only have the only unblemished (5-0) record in the league, but also a group that has the makings of a legitimate contender for a top-four playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Again, it’s early. And the true tests will present themselves in the coming days and weeks. Specifically, Thursday night’s tilt against the best team in the Western Conference (San Antonio) and a potential Friday night slugfest (in Memphis) will be key. The early overall returns, however, show a much-improved defensive team capable of winning even when their shots aren’t falling at a ridiculous clip.
Their effort last night showed us that they have the intestinal fortitude to come back from a late challenge as they dumped the the Magic in Orlando to preserve their perfect record. (And for you armchair historians out there, the last time the Knicks started a season 5-0 was the 1993-94 season — a campaign that ended in Game 7 of The Finals).
Credit for this turnaround should be spread all around, starting with Knicks coach Mike Woodson and All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who has embraced the change without so much as a hint of displeasure. Having the oldest team in the league doesn’t always translate to having the wisest crew. But veterans like Raymond Felton and, more specifically, Jason Kidd, bring an element of understanding to every game in the natural grind of a season that you don’t get from a younger and inexperienced point guard (like … don’t say it … Jeremy Lin).
All that said, perhaps no player epitomizes the Knicks’ mini-metamorphosis better than the oft-embattled swingman J.R. Smith, who has become a consistent force off the bench for the first time in his career while leading the league in 3-point shooting (72.2 percent). With Kidd on one end of the spectrum and Smith on the other, Woodson has found a way to make it all work, as Nate Taylor of The New York Times pointed out after last night’s game:
“At halftime, Coach really got on us about our defense,” J. R. Smith said. “We played harder, we got through the screens and we closed out on shots. I think that was the difference.”
Smith provided the Knicks with the offense they desperately needed, scoring 21 points (12 in the third quarter) and shooting 9 for 14. He also had 2 steals and 4 rebounds.
By playing more aggressively, the Knicks held the Magic to 36 points in the second half.
The Knicks have yet to allow an opponent to score more than 40 points in the second half.
“We have active hands,” Kidd said. “You have guys who understand where to be on defense. Sometimes it’s not always going to be perfect, but guys were making the second and third effort. That just comes with trust.”
Trust isn’t a word you heard tossed around a whole lot with these Knicks last few seasons. And it’s a word that will no doubt be tested when Amar’e Stoudemire returns from injury (knee). He’ll have to trust Woodson and his staff if and when they ask him to assume a role outside of the superstar one he’s used to playing.
But he’ll have to trust that they are doing what’s best for the Knicks if/when they ask him to come off the bench and work himself back into form with the reserves rather than starting and altering the chemistry for a group in a groove.