Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks clinched their first-round series against the Boston Celtics with an 88-80 win on Friday, but unless both Anthony and his team make some major changes, they're going to be in for a rude awakening against the Indiana Pacers in Round 2.
First, in an effort to head off any "you're a Melo hater" talk at the pass, be advised: The Knicks would not have beaten Boston in six games if it weren't for Anthony. He's one of the only reliable shot creators on the roster, presents a matchup nightmare for any defender, and proved he could put up big numbers throughout an excellent season.
He's been excellent this year.
But Anthony's very worst tendencies were also on display against the Celtics, and what's even more troubling is that coach Mike Woodson seemed to be encouraging them.
During their first-round series, the Knicks shot just 41 percent as a team and posted an offensive rating of 96.9. Both of those figures are well below their regular-season rates, which were 45 percent and 108.6, respectively.
Those numbers are symptomatic of a couple of things, the most obvious of which is the way Anthony, in particular, was used in New York's offense.
Isolation plays have been a staple of Woodson's sets since the days of "Iso Joe" Johnson with the Atlanta Hawks. But this year, the coach went to one-on-one sets even more frequently.
During the regular season, the Knicks finished their possessions with isolation plays nearly 16 percent of the time, a figure that led the league. Apparently unsatisfied with so much offensive diversity, Woodson's Knicks spent the first five games against the Celtics using isolation sets on a whopping 26 percent of their plays.
It should probably be mentioned here that isolation plays are among the least efficient ways to utilize a possession. That's true from an isolated, statistical standpoint as well as form an anecdotal one. When one player eats up whole possessions and finishes them with a shot, it's harder for his teammates to stay fully engaged.
Clearly, the play-calling falls on Woodson, at least to the extent his say counts more than Anthony's (which might be debatable).
But Anthony's decisions in those isolation sets are the bigger problem.
Against the Celtics, when Anthony was stymied by good defense or forced into trouble against an overloaded strong side, he struggled to recognize when he needed to pass and when he needed to shoot. Because he's a scorer to his core, he opted to shoot far more frequently than he should have.
Here's what his shot chart looked like during the six postseason games he played against Boston:
And here's his regular season chart:
Clearly, he's taking more difficult shots lately than he did during the year. The usual "small sample size" caveats apply, but just watching the games shows that Anthony has been forcing shots and failing to pass when he should.
If you're not a visual learner, all you have to do is check out the raw numbers Anthony posted against Boston. A few of them are particularly telling. Anthony shot the ball 160 times in six games—making 38 percent of those attempts—and recorded only 11 assists against 16 turnovers.
In theory, a player seeing so much defensive attention should be able to find the open man at least occasionally. But that wasn't the case for Anthony against Boston, and it's simply incorrect to blame the rest of the Knicks for not knocking down shots on the rare occasions when Anthony did find them.
He simply wasn't seeing the floor well and wasn't finding players when he needed to. Boston's defense dared Anthony to take tough shots, and time after time, he obliged.
Looking ahead, that's a huge problem, because the Pacers do just about everything the Celtics do defensively—shift toward the ball on the strong side, concede contested mid-range jumpers, encourage isolation basketball—only much, much better.
During the regular season, Boston's defensive rating was an excellent 100.4, which rated No. 6 in the NBA. But Indiana's was elite at 96.6, the best figure in the league by nearly a full point per 100 possessions.
Plus, the Pacers have rangier athletes (and more of them) to throw at Anthony. Paul George is a better defensive player than any of Boston's bigger wings, and Lance Stephenson is also a capable pest. Even if Melo manages to work his way into the lane once in a while, Roy Hibbert and David West will be waiting for him—a much more physically imposing duo than Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass.
Ultimately, Anthony is his team's leader and unquestioned best player. That means he needs to be making the right decisions down the stretch—not just shouldering the entire load himself. And he definitely can't let his team completely fall apart like it did in the fourth quarter of Game 6.
If Woodson is putting him in so many isolation sets by design, the league's leading scorer has to realize that he's the one with the ability to determine how they play out.
Plenty of blame for the Knicks' recent offensive woes belongs to Woodson; there's no getting around that. But Anthony can mitigate the damage by moving the ball when the situation dictates that he must.
The Knicks escaped their first-round series, but only because the Celtics simply couldn't score consistently enough to make their excellent defense count.
The Pacers, essentially a bigger, faster, smarter, more well-rounded version of the Celtics, are going to be a far more dangerous foe. If Anthony doesn't change the way he's playing, New York is going to be in real trouble in Round 2.
*All stats via NBA.com, ESPN.com and Synergy Sports, unless otherwise indicated.