Twenty-four hours after Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks tallied their third straight victory—a 102-92 home win over the Miami Heat—the Brooklyn Nets treated LeBron James and company to their own New York nightmare, a 104-95 double-overtime thriller that saw James foul out for the first time in over 400 games.
For the Heat, the story of their back-to-back borough beat-downs is one of managing the January doldrums.
For the Knicks and Nets, however, the past week has seen each finally turn a corner.
Whether their recent success is a sustainable sign of things to come or a mere mirage, only time will tell.
Still, there are plenty of trends on which each can hang their hats.
Ig-knighting the defense
Through the team’s first 32 games, the Knicks were 28th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (106.2). In their three consecutive wins—over the Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons and Miami—the defense has registered a certifiably stout 93.4.
|The Knicks: A Tale of Two Stretches|
|O efficiency||D efficiency||Net Rtg||TS%|
|First 32 games||101.9||106.2||-4.3||51.9|
|Last three games||104.0||93.4||10.6||54.6|
That alone has bumped them up four spots to 24th in the league. It’s certainly not where they want to be, but it’s a start.
The improvement has been there on offense as well, albeit to a slightly smaller degree: The Knicks registered a 101.9 offensive rating through their first 32 games, and a 104.0 rating during their three-game streak.
Such statistical improvements are only heightened by the eye test: New York looks far more engaged on both ends of the floor, and head coach Mike Woodson is finally settling into something resembling a rotational continuity.
Once they get everyone back healthy—Tyson Chandler has missed the last three games with an upper-respiratory infection—the Knicks should be in a good position to make a run at the Atlantic Division crown.
Unfortunately, they might have company.
Nets are scorching
While the Knicks struggled mightily in Chandler’s absence, the Nets have somehow managed to weather the loss of Deron Williams—out once again with an ankle injury—be relying on an unlikely combination of grizzled veterans.
Key to the Nets’ success has been the play of Shaun Livingston, whose 19 points, 11 rebounds and five assists proved the catalyst for Brooklyn’s bruising win over LeBron and the Dwyane Wade-less Heat.
But where Livingston has trafficked in sturdy steadiness, Joe Johnson—a streak shooter if ever there was one—has used a hot hand to give his team a much-needed offensive boost.
|First 32 games||14.9||.431||.539|
|Last three games||27.3||.500||.588|
After failing to hit double-digits in five straight games, Johnson is averaging 27.3 points on 50 percent shooting over his last three—this from a guy who was managing just 14.9 points per through Brooklyn’s first 33 games.
Two weeks ago, the Nets were the poster children for overpaid, under-performing talent. And though they have a long way to go before their performance reflects their paychecks, Jason Kidd and his troops have given themselves a brief respite from the media maelstrom—at least for now.
Sometimes, a cliche exists because it’s true. In the case of the Knicks and Nets, the cliche is this: It’s a long season, one where no three-game stretch—no matter how promising—can truly predict the results to come.
Indeed, some serious issues remain, chief among them the teams' still-jelling defenses. Despite their respective promising weeks, the Knicks and Nets still rank 24th and 25th in defensive efficiency, respectively.
Here’s another cliche, this one well known by fans of the NBA: Defense wins championships.
What do the Heat, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have in common? All five are in the top-10 for defensive efficiency, and all five have exhibited the ability—both this season and in playoffs past—to get stops when they needed it most.
Neither the Knicks nor the Nets are going to solve their defensive issues over night. At the same time, getting off to the terrible starts that they did behooves them to eschew the kind of winter malaise Miami is experiencing, and play every game as if it’s playoffs-or-bust.
With a full three months and heavy change remaining before spring arrives and the seeding is set, New York’s basketball torchbearers have ample time to solidify their respective identities.
But if either hope to make it past the first round, that identity will have to take at least a few cues from the fans themselves: tough, smart and with an extra defensive gear capable of bringing on the eponymous chants.
The Knicks: Buying. The Knicks are finally starting to look like the 54-win team of a season ago, and it starts with Melo, who appears poised for a signature stretch to put his team back in the conversation.
The Nets: Buying. Once Williams is back healthy—a big if, to be sure—the Nets have more than enough depth to put a scare into a Miami or Indiana.
(All stats current as of January 10 and courtesy of NBA.com.)