The Indiana Pacers know they have what it takes to challenge the defending champs. In Paul George, they have a guy to guard LeBron James. In Roy Hibbert, they have a guy to protect the rim. They have the size to take advantage of the Heat on the glass. They won the season series, 2-1.
But the Pacers have to take care of business against the New York Knicks first. Only eight teams in NBA history have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series, but the Knicks might not be an easy opponent to keep down.
As bad as things have looked for New York over the last two games — and they’ve looked really bad — this is a dangerous team. The Knicks ranked third in offensive efficiency in the regular season and we saw a glimpse of their potency in Game 2.
At the same time, we saw how bad the Pacers can look offensively. Turnovers, bad spacing, missed shots. It was all there. Over the course of the four games thus far, the Knicks (who were a below-average defensive team) have held them under a point per possession.
The Pacers’ defense has been terrific in this series, particularly in Game 4, when the Knicks tried to throw the kitchen sink at them. But it’s been terrific because there’s been no let-up. It takes both effort and focus to defend on that level, and it would be easy to think a Game 6 at home allows Indy to not bring their best in Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, TNT).
Written on the board in the Knicks’ locker room after Game 4 was, “Win one, change everything.” And that might be right. New York is desperately searching for answers right now, but if they can find them on Thursday, it could get the ball rolling.
All you have to do is look back to mid-March, when the Knicks had lost four straight and 10 of their last 16 games. Their offense was in a funk, having scored less than 90 points per 100 possessions during the four-game losing streak. Carmelo Anthony was out and J.R. Smith was struggling.
Then, in Utah, Mike Woodson made a lineup change. The Knicks broke out of their slump, won 13 straight games and pulled ahead of the Pacers in the standings.
Woodson is likely to go back to the lineup that sparked that run — with Pablo Prigioni in the backcourt — after going away from it in Game 4. Nothing will come easy against the Pacers’ defense, nothing looks good when the shots don’t go in and the Knicks must find a way to keep Indiana off the glass. But small-ball is how the Knicks won 54 games this season and how they got past the Boston Celtics in the first round.
If they’re going to send this series back to Indiana, the Knicks must remember how they got here.
If they’re going to finish it in five, the Pacers need to do the same.
INDIANAPOLIS – One of the most interesting things about playoff basketball is a team changing gears and abandoning something — a lineup or a style of play — that worked all season because it’s outmatched in a series.
The New York Knicks went there in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday. And it didn’t work.
With his team down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers and shooting blanks offensively against the league’s best defense, Knicks coach Mike Woodson abandoned the starting lineup that had sparked the Knicks to 13 straight wins late in the season. It hadn’t performed poorly (plus-1 in 22 minutes) in the first two games of the series, but did struggle (minus-7 in 13 minutes) in Game 3. The new starting lineup, meanwhile, had never played together.
Woodson abandoned more than a lineup. He abandoned his team’s whole small-ball, two-point-guard, Melo-and-shooters mantra that was so critical to the Knicks’ success. Out was point guard Pablo Prigioni and in was big man Kenyon Martin, sliding Carmelo Anthony to small forward, where he had played just six minutes through the first three games.
It was a sign of desperation, and the hope was that an extra big on the floor would keep the Knicks from getting crushed on the boards like they did in Games 1 and 3. It would also allow them to run secondary pick-and-rolls (instead of isolations) on the weak side of the floor after the Pacers stopped the primary one.
The Knicks did run more pick-and-rolls, they ran more of them with Anthony as the ball handler, and they got the ball up the floor and into their offense more quickly. But the result — a 93-82 Indiana victory — was basically the same as Game 3 three nights earlier. New York got off to a slow start, trailed by 14 at halftime, shot 36 percent, scored less than a point per possession and got crushed on the glass again.
“I thought our offensive flow wasn’t bad tonight,” Woodson said. “I thought the ball movement was a little bit better, but we couldn’t make shots.”
Credit the Indiana defense. It was phenomenal for the second straight game. While the Knicks looked somewhat crisper offensively, they still couldn’t get to the basket. When they looked to attack off the dribble, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers simply shut off the paint, where New York shot a miserable 13-for-34.
“Our effort was just off the charts,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said afterward. “I couldn’t be more proud of our defensive effort, our rebounding effort, and our willingness to share the ball offensively.”
The Knicks got some decent looks at the basket and shot decently (10-for-25) from mid-range, but you can’t win with mid-range shots. They got more 3-point attempts off then they did in Game 3, but many of them were rushed or contested.
It’s a bad time to be playing so poorly. And you can’t blame Woodson for trying something different. But he didn’t quite reach all the way down into his bag of tricks.
Kidd still played 16 minutes off the bench, even though his two misses looked awful and took place in the first 7:20 he was on the floor. Meanwhile, two guys who could have provided an offensive spark, Chris Copeland and Steve Novak, rode the pine until late in the third quarter and the final minute, respectively. The Knicks outscored the Pacers by 12 points in Copeland’s 12 minutes, and he and Novak combined to shoot 3-for-4 from 3-point range.
“Right now,” Woodson said, “I’m reaching, trying to find combinations that will work.”
Nothing has. And the bottom line is that the Pacers are the better team. The best player in the series hasn’t been Anthony, but rather Paul George. And while Woodson can’t find anyone who can make a shot, the Pacers have someone new step up every night. On Tuesday, it was George Hill, who led all scorers with 26 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
The Pacers can now close the series out in New York on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, TNT). Woodson will still be searching for answers.
INDIANAPOLIS –J.R. Smith hasn’t played well since he elbowed Jason Terry in Game 3 of the first round. In Game 3 of the conference semifinals, Smith might not play at all.
Under the weather with a 102-degree fever, the Sixth Man of the Year missed the Knicks’ shootaround Saturday morning and is questionable for Game 3 Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
“I don’t know if he’s going to play tonight,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “If he don’t, somebody else has got to step up and help us win.”
The Knicks will have Amar’e Stoudemire for the first time in two months, which gives them the ability to play big for more than the five minutes they have in each of the first two games. But they also have the backcourt depth to deal with Smith’s potential absence and stay small. Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni and Iman Shumpert have all been playing well, and Jason Kidd, though he’s missed his last 14 shots, is still a critical part of this team’s success.
“I feel really good now about how Iman’s moving, jumping, and all that,” Woodson said. “So he could pick up some extra minutes, along with Pablo. Raymond’s already playing big minutes and I’m not going to forget about Kidd, because you’ve got three days of rest.”
“I don’t want to put that pressure on myself to say that I have to do more out there,” Anthony said of Smith’s possible absence. “We gotta figure it out. We’ll see how the game goes, see the course of the game, see where it takes us.”
Of course, Anthony seemed confident that Smith would play in Game 3, even though he didn’t know the details of Smith’s condition.
“J.R. gonna play tonight,” Anthony said. “We can get him right. That’s what we have team doctors for, as far as medicine and things like that. He’ll be all right … hopefully.”
In the final minute of the third quarter, with the Knicks still up just three, Woodson put Pablo Prigioni back on the floor.
Prigioni, a 35-year-old rookie, was a big key to the Knicks’ offensive resurgence and 16-2 finish to the season. What he lacks in obvious basketball talent, he makes up for with intelligence, a willingness to move the ball offensively and relentless, on-the-ball defense.
Damian Lillard was the Rookie of the Year, but Prigioni (who somehow didn’t get a single first, second or third-place vote) was the Plus-Minus Rookie of the Year, making a clear difference on both ends of the floor. New York was better both offensively and defensively when Prigioni was in the game in the regular season.
But he was in and out of the rotation until that final stretch. Woodson has never played Prigioni big minutes, even once he seemingly realized his value, obviously needing to find enough time for Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in the backcourt (1, 2 and 3 positions). But there were a couple of times in the first round where that may have hurt the Knicks.
In Game 5 against the Celtics, with the Knicks able to close out the series at home, Smith shot 3-for-14 while Prigioni sat on the bench for all but 13 minutes. The Knicks lost that game by six, but had outscored the Celtics by nine with Prigioni on the floor.
Then came Game 6 in Boston. The Knicks were up 26 points when Woodson replaced Prigioni with Smith with 9:43 to go in the fourth quarter. Coincidentally or not, the Celtics then went on a 20-0 run, putting a major scare in Woodson and most of New York City.
Woodson admits that Celtics run was on his mind four nights later.
“I didn’t forget Game 6 in Boston,” he said afterward.
So, just 13 seconds after replacing Felton with Shumpert, he sat Shumpert back down and brought back Prigioni, perhaps to match up with the quickness of D.J. Augustin, who had just checked in for Indiana, or perhaps to get back to a two-point guard lineup (Kidd was also on the floor).
Whatever the reason, the results were good. Prigioni helped the Knicks turn their three-point lead into an incredible 30-point cushion before the Pacers made a single shot from the field. (more…)
BOSTON –This series might be more about the feebleness of the Boston Celtics, how they can barely run their offense against a team that ranked 16th defensively in the regular season, how they can’t hold onto the ball, and how they can’t make open shots when they get them.
When 6-foot-9 Jeff Green gets double-teamed by two point guards and can’t do anything but fall backwards and weakly flail the ball into the backcourt, you know the Celtics just can’t compete. And there were plenty of plays like that in the New York Knicks’ 90-76 victory in Game 3 on Friday.
But make no mistake about it. The Knicks have taken it to the Celtics in this series. They’ve earned their 3-0 lead and the opportunity to complete the sweep on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).
Game 3, the first one at home, is supposed to be the game the underdog wins when they’re not completely outmatched. The Celtics, even without Rajon Rondo, weren’t exactly chumps this season. They had a top-six defense, a strong record at the TD Garden, and played the Knicks even in the two regular season meetings in which Kevin Garnett played. This squad of vets always has its pride and effort, and on this night, it had a little more emotion, playing its first home game since the Boston Marathon tragedy.
But guess what? The Celtics are completely outmatched. The Knicks are just a much better team. They were always better offensively, and they’ve now proven that they’re better defensively when push comes to shove.
“I thought we were a team that matched up really well with the Knicks,” Paul Pierce said. “I though we played them pretty good throughout the season. We lost a couple of close ones, but I didn’t expect this coming in. I knew this would probably be a long series, being the way we matched up. So I am surprised we’re down 0-3 right now.”
The Celtics’ offense did have an opportunity early on Friday to break through. They got to the basket and got open looks on the perimeter in the opening minutes. But the shots just didn’t go in.
The Knicks took advantage and, on this night, didn’t wait until the second half to put their foot on the gas. With Boston still struggling to score, New York clearly saw the opportunity to (essentially) put the series away. A 21-6 run just before halftime put the Celtics in an 18-point hole that they could never come close to digging out of.
After the Celtics missed those easy shots early, the Knicks didn’t let them recover. They turned up the defensive pressure, and in this game, the turnovers (18 of them) were more about New York’s pressure than Boston’s execution.
“Our goal was to not even let them believe they have a shot,” J.R. Smith said. “And I think we did a great job at that, and the way we got to it, defense and moving the ball.”
This is what great teams do. They don’t just hold serve. They break. They go into one of the toughest buildings to play in, play hard-nosed, aggressive defense, and execute offensively in a hostile environment.
Friday morning, Knicks coach Mike Woodson said he was “anxious” to see how his team would react in its first road playoff game. He got his answer, loud and clear.
The Knicks had a handful of quality road wins in the regular season, but this was a breakthrough, a performance to really build on going forward, a game to build trust between teammates who want to know they can count on each other to come through in difficult situations.
“The beauty about our team is that somebody has always stepped up when we needed it,” Woodson said afterward. “To me, that’s the sign of a team that’s committed, that’s together, and that’s trying to do one thing, win a title.”
Nothing on the Knicks’ side of the Game 3 boxscore stands out. Carmelo Anthony (26 points on 12-for-25 shooting) and Smith (15 on 6-for-12) were the leading scorers and each played a big role in the second-quarter run. Raymond Felton (15 points and 10 assists) continued to break the Boston defense down with the pick-and-roll.
But contributions came from everywhere. And it was really Pablo Prigioni who set the tone, getting his hands on balls defensively and knocking down three 3-pointers in the first quarter to help his team start to build an offensive rhythm.
And with Steve Novak finally knocking down a couple of 3s, everyone in the Knicks’ rotation is playing well. The Celtics will surely put up a fight on Sunday, but the Knicks look ready to close this series out and move on.
We knew they had the talent in this series. And now it’s clear that they have the toughness too.
NEW YORK – They say that every game in a playoff series has its own personality. And a couple of rotation changes should give Game 2 of the Knicks-Celtics’ series (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, TNT) a new look.
The Knicks hope to have Pablo Prigioni back from a sprained ankle for Game 2. And if they do, he will start and join Raymond Felton in the backcourt. The Knicks went 15-1 with the two point guards starting together in the final month of the regular season.
The Knicks have been incredibly efficient offensively, scoring almost 120 points per 100 possessions in 298 minutes, with Felton and Prigioni on the floor together. And after a game in which they scored 85 points on 88 possessions, they could certainly use an offensive boost. After assisting on just 13 of their 32 buckets in Game 1, the team hopes that Prigioni will bring better ball movement.
But the lineup change could have an adverse effect on the other end of the floor. Woodson said Sunday that if Prigioni is back, Felton will guard Paul Pierce to start the game (the original plan had Prigioni been healthy in Game 1), with Iman Shumpert defending Jeff Green.
Shumpert was guarding Pierce to start Game 1, and the Celtics posted Pierce on three of the first four possessions. When the Knicks doubled the post, the Celtics got a jumper for Kevin Garnett and a layup for Avery Bradley.
Mismatches on Pierce were a big part of the Celtics’ offense all day Saturday. Later in the first quarter, they ran the same play several times to get J.R. Smith switched onto Pierce at the foul line. And they had some more success with Pierce posting Jason Kidd on a few possessions midway through the second.
With their lineup change, the Knicks will be handing the Celtics a mismatch from the start. And Boston will obviously go to Pierce in the post early and often. New York will send double-teams, and it will be up to Pierce’s teammates to make them pay.
Green was a pretty good corner 3-point shooter (45.7 percent) in the regular season, but didn’t attempt any shots from the corners on Saturday. As a team, Boston was just 1-for-5 from the corners, an obvious area for improvement in Game 2.
Doc Rivers plans on making some rotation changes of his own. He went only eight deep in Game 1, using just three guards — Jordan Crawford, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry — off the bench. The trio combined to shoot 0-for-7.
Rivers said Sunday that we could see a big man off the bench — presumably Chris Wilcox or Shavlik Randolph — on Tuesday. If it’s Wilcox, it will be the first playoff appearance of his 11-year career.
We’ll have to see if that results in less minutes for Brandon Bass or if Rivers plans on playing with two bigs more than he did in Game 1. The Celtics were a plus-1 (and particularly strong on the defensive glass) in 21 minutes with both Bass and Garnett on the floor on Saturday, and a minus-8 in 27 minutes with one of the two on the bench.
The Celtics weren’t very good defensively, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions, in 396 regular season minutes with Bass and Wilcox on the floor together. And the Garnett-Wilcox pair played just 73 minutes.
Rivers also wants to see a bigger role for Crawford. Amazingly, Crawford didn’t take a single shot in his 10:46 on Saturday. And it surely goes without saying that it was the first time in the gunner’s career that he’s played at least 10 minutes without taking a shot.
The Celtics probably don’t want to get to the point where Crawford’s shooting determines the outcome of any particular game, but he can help make the Knicks pay for double-teams on Pierce if he’s aggressive and looking to make plays for his teammates as well as himself. He can also take some of the ball-handling duties from Bradley.
NEW YORK – The collective age of the New York Knicks has been a running joke all season. And all season, head coach Mike Woodson has continued to preach the value of experience.
With age you often get injuries. And the Knicks have certainly paid a price for going the old-man route. A 40-year-old Kurt Thomas couldn’t hold up. A 38-year-old Rasheed Wallace has retired. A 39-year-old Marcus Camby has played just 10 games over the last three months. And 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni went down with a sprained ankle in the last game of the regular season.
But there are still a couple of old heads still standing in New York. Their names are Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin. They terrorized the Knicks in a playoff series nine years ago, and they each played a big role in New York’s Game 1 victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
Kidd played 35 minutes off the bench, filling the boxscore with eight points, five rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Martin was the only reserve big man Woodson used, coming through with 10 points, nine boards, a steal and two blocks.
Those contributions were desperately needed. With Prigioni out, 29-year-old rookie Chris Copeland (yes, the Knicks are so old, their two rookies are 29 and 35 years old) got his 14th start of the season and wasn’t up to the task. And with Steve Novak unable to get a shot and getting picked on defensively, the Knicks needed Kidd to fill in at one of the wings for 30 minutes, in addition to his back-up point guard duty.
Meanwhile, Tyson Chandler tried playing his first game in the last two weeks and couldn’t make much of an impact on either end of the floor. So Martin was asked to play big minutes at center.
It’s not a coincidence that the Knicks’ defense was much better in the second half, when Kidd played 21 of his 35 minutes and Martin played 18 of his 28. Martin anchored the paint, while Kidd seemingly got his hands on the ball whenever the Knicks came near him. All three of his steals came with the game on the line in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.
With 4:52 left, Kidd deflected a Jeff Green pass, dove on the floor and started a New York fast break. With 2:21 left and the Celtics still within five, he sniffed out a back-screen play Boston had run for a game-winner in early March, helped from the weak side, and stripped Green under the basket. And with 34 seconds left, he stripped Kevin Garnett on a mismatch in the post.
His feet may not move like they used to, but Kidd’s hands are still quick and strong, and his mind is sharper than ever.
“He beats everyone with his brain,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said afterward. “If you think quicker than a guy can move, you’re still quicker. That’s why he’s there first, because he thought what the guy was going to do before he did it. He’s just a valuable player to have on a basketball team.”
Kidd and Martin have each had their moments over the last six months. And from Day 1, it’s been easy to see Kidd’s influence on Carmelo Anthony‘s game this season. But this is the playoffs. This is why these guys are here and why Woodson has remained adamant that the veterans are critical to his team’s success.
“To me, it’s a plus to have veteran guys,” Woodson said. “That is no knock on the young kids. To have these veteran guys step up and still make a contribution to your team is major.”
After one playoff game, Woodson is looking pretty smart.
All seven wins have come without defensive anchor Tyson Chandler, and the one that got the Knicks started on this run – a critical victory in Utah on the second night of a back-to-back – came without Carmelo Anthony.
The streak hasn’t come against the toughest schedule – four of the wins have been over Toronto, Orlando and Charlotte – but it has included a win in Boston and a win over the Grizzlies. And it’s mostly been an offensive run, though the Knicks’ sketchy defense has held three of the seven opponents under a point per possession…
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Knicks’ resurgence has been keyed by a couple of unlikely contributors. Kenyon Martin wasn’t in the league five weeks ago, but has filled in admirably for Chandler as a 6-foot-9 center. And Pablo Prigioni, a 35-year-old rookie who was signed last summer to be the third-string point guard, has stepped into a role no one could ever have imagined him playing.
Both Martin and Prigioni have started all seven games of the Knicks’ winning streak. But the winning started when Prigioni started, for the first time in his NBA career, alongside Raymond Felton in a two-point-guard lineup.
Two point guards playing at the same time is nothing new for the Knicks, who started Felton and Jason Kidd for 22 of the first 28 games this season, mostly because they didn’t have another shooting guard to start. And as long as both were healthy, Mike Woodson basically started Felton and Kidd together through the end of February.
But Kidd really struggled at the end of that run, shooting a brutal 7-for-52 (13 percent) from 3-point range between Jan. 26 and March 1. So Woodson went with just one starting point guard for a stretch of 10 games. And because he refuses to start J.R. Smith under any circumstances, he had either James White or Chris Copeland in the lineup.
To no one’s surprise, that didn’t work too well, so Woodson decided to go back to the two-point-guard lineup, this time with Kidd coming off the bench and Prigioni, who had been given three DNPs earlier in the month, starting.
So far, so good. The Knicks are now 30-13 in games in which they’ve started two point guards and 15-13 in games in which they’ve started just one. Felton’s 12-game absence in December and January has something to do with that mark, and starting lineups sometimes play no more than 10 minutes together, but the Knicks have proven to be much better with two point guards on the floor, whether they’re starting together or not.
PGs on the floor
Felton + Kidd + Prigioni
Felton + Kidd
Kidd + Prigioni
Felton + Prigioni
Note: The three-point-guard numbers are obviously a small sample size, and they’re a bit skewed by a crazy 3:27 stretch at the end of a Dec. 21 loss to the Chicago Bulls. Anthony, Chandler and Woodson had all been ejected and the Knicks scored 21 points in the final 3:27 with a lineup of three point guards, Copeland and White, turning a 13-point deficit into a more respectable, four-point loss.
The big difference between two-point-guard lineups and one-point-guard lineups has been on offense. And the key has been turnovers and 3-pointers.
The Knicks lead the league in turnover ratio, coughing the ball up just 13.2 times per 100 possessions. And that number is even lower – 12.9 – when they’ve had two point guards on the floor.
And when they have two point guards on the floor, they shoot and make more 3s.
Knicks 3-point shooting
PGs on the floor
%3PA = Percentage of total FGA from 3-point range
Even though Kidd’s shooting went into the tank in February, the Felton-Kidd combo still has great numbers over the biggest sample size of any of the combinations. And the new Felton-Prigioni combo has only been better, though in just 139 minutes. Kidd, meanwhile, has shot a more respectable 34.4 percent from 3-point range since being benched on March 1.
The Argentine is just 6-foot-3 and rather slight, but he’s a real pest on the ball and in the passing lanes (a few examples here, here and here). The Knicks have forced 18.0 turnovers per 100 possessions when he’s been on the floor, a rate which would lead the league by a good margin (the Clippers are No. 1, forcing 17.4).
Woodson alluded to Prigioni’s plus-minus when asked about his newest starter this week.
“He’s a student of the game and the fact that he’s kind of waited and he’s watched and he’s learned,” Woodson said. “He’s played the minutes that I’ve given him. His minutes have always been pretty positive. If it was five minutes, it was five good minutes. And I think the fact that he is very knowledgeable of the game, he has patiently sat and waited and now his minutes have grown a little bit, and he still looks like he belongs.”
The Knicks’ schedule is about to get much tougher, with their next five games against playoff teams, a stretch that includes visits to Miami and Oklahoma City. Chandler’s continued absence (with a bulging disc), meanwhile, isn’t exactly encouraging.
But the Knicks are certainly rediscovering their offensive rhythm at the right time, which has helped them stay comfortably on the right side (the 2-3-6-7 side) of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. And while they certainly can’t maintain the level of offense they’ve been playing over the last seven games, this run has certainly established both Martin and Prigioni as valuable contributors going forward.
HANG TIME, Texas — How far around the bend do you have to go before you’ve come full circle back to the NBA?
How far do you have to fall before you get desperate enough for any kind of a soft landing?
Delonte West, meet the Knicks.
Marc Berman of the New York Post notes there will be more than a couple of teams watching as West makes his debut in the NBA D-League tonight when the Texas Legends face the Santa Cruz Warriors, but the Knicks may certainly be the most interesting of the lot.
As the playoffs draw near and the team that started out the season like a house on fire continues to look like a burned-out wreckage, would the Knicks be ready to take a real gamble on the 29-year-old point guard with a history of trouble?
Nobody questions his talent as a capable backup quarterback. He’s been part of playoff teams in six of his eight NBA seasons. But West’s career has also been marked by off-court problems that hardly make him dependable. He was said to be ready to make his comeback with the Legends earlier this season, but backed out at the last minute. Now he probably sees that the D-League is his only chance at a return.
The Knicks could be equally as desperate at the point as Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Iman Shumpert and Pablo Prigioni all have not measured up of late. After opening the season 18-5 back on Dec. 15, the Knicks are a thoroughly mediocre 20-20. They have lost three straight, four of five and 10 of their last 17 heading into Sunday’s game in L.A. against the Clippers. Having spent the first month-and-a-half titillating New Yorkers as the No. 1 seed, they are now far closer in the standings to the No. 8 seed and a first-round playoff matchup against Miami than to actually catching up to the streaking Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Knicks would have to make a roster cut, probably the injured Rasheed Wallace, to make room for West and they’re most likely not there yet.
But keep an eye on how the current five-game road trip ends — with a back-to-back in L.A. and Utah — and how West performs in the D-League. Desperation makes strange bedfellows.
All three wins have come on the road against good teams, and in none of them have the Clippers required a huge performance from one of their other starters. In fact, Blake Griffin has averaged just 16.3 points in the three wins. Eric Bledsoe, starting in place of Paul, has done a decent job of running the team, but has totaled only 11 assists.
The Clippers won the three games — and won them all comfortably –for the same reason that Paul has been able to sit the entire fourth quarter in nine of the 37 games he’s played in: They have the best bench in basketball.
Here’s all you need to know about the Clippers’ bench and why they’re a much-improved team: Last season, the Clips were outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when Griffin was on the bench. This year, they’re outscoring their opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions with Griffin on the bench.
That’s a 23.3-point turnaround and that’s really what it’s all about. A good bench should build on leads, not lose them. That’s why the Bulls’ bench was so good the last couple of years, even though it didn’t have anybody who could really score. When Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson were on the floor together, the Bulls shut down foes and scored enough to build on the lead the starters gave them.
With that in mind, here are the best benches in the NBA …
The Clips have a full, five-man bench unit that’s one of the best lineups in the league. In 243 minutes with Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf on the floor, L.A. is a plus-14.5 per 100 possessions.
Though Crawford is known for his offense, this is really a defensive unit that has only scored 102.8 points per 100 possessions, just a notch above the league average. But it has allowed only 88.3, making it the second-best defensive unit of the league’s 72 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes.
The question is how Grant Hill fits in. In Hill’s first game back, that unit only played six minutes together. And in the last three games, it hasn’t played together at all, though that may have more to do with Bledsoe starting.
Either way, it would be disappointing if coach Vinny Del Negro broke up such an effective unit. And it really could affect where the Clippers finish in the Western Conference standings.
Though Manu Ginobili has been neither healthy nor sharp, the Spurs’ bench continues to get the job done. It’s just tough to determine where the starters end and where the bench begins, because eight different guys have started at least nine games for San Antonio already. But coach Gregg Popovich‘s ability to mix-and-match lineups will little drop-off is part of what makes the Spurs’ bench so good.
The Spurs don’t have a full bench unit like the Clippers. Their latest starting unit is Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Their most-used lineup that includes at least three other Spurs has only played 38 minutes together, and that lineup includes Parker and Duncan.
This is why we’d rate the Spurs’ bench behind that of the Clippers. But San Antonio is still outscoring its opponents by a solid 5.7 points per 100 possessions with Duncan off the floor. That’s a very good thing. (more…)