The New York Knicks have dramatically flattened out since their hot 21-9 start to the season, mostly splitting games the rest of the way with a 17-14 record, including an ugly 92-63 Monday night loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Has New York watched as their weaknesses have been exposed, or is this merely a regression to the mean? It seems as if it could be a little bit of both.
Something has happened ever since the Knicks hit that invisible wall; teams realize that being more physical around the perimeter leads to fewer three-pointers and therefore more pressure on Carmelo Anthony.
For the first two months of the season, New York shot an amazing pace from deep, nearly 40 percent as a team. Ever since they've fallen off a cliff, shooting 34 percent since the beginning of January.
Just looking at Carmelo's shooting percentages in that time period is like comparing night and day.
When the Knicks were dispatching teams easily, Carmelo shot 47 percent from the field, 43 percent from the arc and averaged just under 29 points per game. Since the start of 2013, he's shooting 41 percent from the field, 34 percent from deep and averaging 27 points.
His scoring production hasn't dropped off because the Knicks can't afford it to. The only problem with that is his increased use of possessions to get to the same point.
In order to offset this increased pressure on Anthony, one of two things is going to have to happen: the Knicks need to continue on their recent defensive tear, or they need another player to step up and help out down the stretch.
Common sense says J.R. Smith should be the guy to step up, but relying on him is like relying on a spare tire on the highway. Sure, it's round, made of rubber and full of air, but the thing could blow at any time.
Any kind of uptick in production from Smith shouldn't be something to rely on, but rather something to look at as icing on the cake.
Just looking at his long-distance shooting over the course of the season should tell you that. Smith went from shooting 48 percent from deep in November, down to 30 percent and 25 percent in December and January. A bit of a bounce-back in February saw him at 42 percent, and now he's back to shooting 33 percent for this month.
It's not going to work to take J.R. as a sure thing in terms of improvement, it's more of a hopeful thing.
The same rings true for Raymond Felton, whose swings aren't as dramatic, but they're evident, as he's swung from 42 percent from the field all the way down to 37 percent, back up to 42 percent in February and now 49 percent through seven games in March.
It's impossible to predict what's going to happen on any given game when Felton steps on the court.
That's why there are actually two players to look at who can swing the tide in the Knicks' favor, if only by initiating changes.
Tyson Chandler's defense is the first step.
New York already plays a slower-paced game than most teams, so they're easily able to take advantage of how much Chandler does in the half-court set. Plus, after a rough February in which they gave up 97 points per game, they're all the way down to 90 per game in March.
Defense is what carried them down the stretch in last year's run, and it should be what they rest their laurels on this year as well.
Also harkening back to last season, they've got to go to Steve Novak to open up the offense.
So much of their spacing in the early parts of the season was thanks to three-point shooting, which has absolutely disappeared since, leading to isolation-heavy basketball.
Novak had many plays designed specifically to get him open throughout last season, but now he's being used as more of a bail-out shooter, leading to a plummeting percentage.
Relying on guys like Smith and Felton to make jump shots can be a recipe for disaster, as we've seen over the course of the past few months.
However, getting Novak into a rhythm, running a play or two every quarter to get him open and using him to the best of his ability would certainly give the defense another reason to get out of the lane.
Suddenly, with Novak making a few more shots every game, the defense gravitates a bit further out of the lane, Tyson Chandler becomes an offensive weapon like he was back in November and December and the lane opens up.
Given that, there's more room for a J.R. Smith cut, or for Carmelo Anthony to work off the dribble.
They need to rebuild what they had before January, but they need to do it while relying on guys who can actually be relied upon to make their shots with some form of consistency.
Give them that, and they've got a chance to return to their former level of play, or at least somewhere near it.
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