Newsday's Al Iannazzone takes you inside the Knicks.
Can D'Antoni's small lineup continue to have big results?
There has always been a hesitation to play Amar'e Stoudemire at center mainly to avoid the pounding he'd have to endure against bigger, heavier opponents on the defensive end. But all along, Mike D'Antoni thought his best lineup was the five you see starting games over this five-game winning streak, with Stoudemire at center, Wilson Chandler at power forward, Danilo Gallinari at small forward and Raymond Felton and Landry Fields in the backcourt.
This group, according to the website, 82games.com, is the team's most used and most successful unit on the floor during games, with 200.1 minutes played in 21 games (did not count Monday's win over Minnesota) and plus 46. The group is also 10-3, which doesn't reflect the record of the team per game, but their success rate per game as a unit out-scoring the other team.
"It's kind of evolved into what I hoped it would have been this summer," D'Antoni said. "That's kind of who we are right now. It could change again. If Ronny [Turiaf] comes in and gives us a great boost on defense, all things being the same, we could probably change it again."
The Knicks seemed to play better with Turiaf at center and Stoudemire moved to his natural position at power forward, but statistically that five is nowhere near as effective. If is the second-most used five-man group by D'Antoni, but that group has only produced statistically positive results in four out of 12 games and are minus-17 against their opponents.
But Turiaf's energy and defense can't be dismissed that easily. Plus, his size and willingness to bang are important in preserving Stoudemire's long-term health. And while this stretch of games have gone well (you have to admit the win over Minnesota changed when Darko Milicic -- 4-for-4, 10 points -- bailed out in the first quarter with a thigh bruise) the Knicks have only had to deal with a couple of interior threats, such as Emeka Okafor and Kevin Love, and neither are legit low-post bangers. Next week things change when Nene and the Denver Nuggets come in on Sunday and then Shaq, Big Baby and the Celtics follow next Wednesday. On Christmas Day, Carlos Boozer will be on the court for the Bulls and then comes Dwight Howard in Orlando.
D'Antoni has thrived with small lineups before. his 2004-05 team, with Stoudemire at center, had 6-7 Shawn Marion at power forward and that team won 62 games and reached the Western Conference Finals. D'Antoni said that's what he based this year's team on, especially with Chandler having the same ability as Marion to run and score and defend fours. Eventually, D'Antoni had to scrap the small ball approach and move Stoudemire to power forward next to a banger at center.
And the Knicks are going to need more size, as well, and that's why, if you talk with anyone inside the Knicks braintrust -- all the scouts are in town for meetings as the trade front begins to see action -- they'll tell you the team's putting more emphasis on looking for size to bolster the front line more than they're in the market for a backup point guard.
Turiaf is a valuable player, but the history of that balky left knee suggests it will continue to be a problem all season. He missed 32 games with a sprain or soreness in the knee last season with Golden State. This season he's already been out of seven of the first 22 games. D'Antoni last week hinted to the team's need to "solve the problem of him not being that important," which suggests they're aware the knee won't allow Turiaf to be someone they can count on every night.
Timofey Mozgov is still a very raw project who is learning the NBA game and then there is Eddy Curry, who hasn't even put on the uniform yet and, unless things get desperate, probably never will. The "Free Eddy Curry" Army out there needs to understand that Curry hasn't showed anyone in practice that he can consistently play at the pace D'Antoni's Knicks need to play, never mind move the ball and defend.
For instance, when I had the opportunity to watch Curry during a post-practice scrimmage recently, what stood out to me more than an emphatic alley-oop he caught against Anthony Randolph was how Curry's teammates in the four-on-four chastised him several times for not rotating for a help out on defense. Missing training camp for a third straight year was a major setback for Curry, who just isn't getting enough time in practice to get himself ready to play in an NBA game, let alone for a team that has to play an up-tempo system.
The Knicks have enough just to keep their motor high on defense to make up for their lack of size, they can ill afford to deal with demoralizing breakdowns because their lumbering center is standing still as guards glide in for layups. Curry also needs to be in a position where he can succeed and this just wouldn't be that kind of environment. Even against teams with size, such as the Celtics, the Knicks need to play fast, not slow.
Oh, right, Anthony Randolph is still on the team, too. But while the 6-11 forward can run, he doesn't have the bulk or strength to bang with some of the league's big bodies on the defensive end. The hope is to eventually develop him into a forward who could outrun opposing bigs and be an offensive rebounding and shot-blocking dynamo.
[I have to add here that it always strikes me funny when people are critical of D'Antoni for not playing certain players because of some kind of personal grudge. I haven't met many coaches who would prefer to lose rather than play someone they believed could help them, so let's just consider that Randolph has yet to show something in practice to motivate a live-game look. Kelenna Azubuike is sort of in the same situation. There haven't been many practices and very few are intense, so he hasn't had the chance to really show he is ready to take someone else's rotation minutes. Considering the fact that the team has won 10 of its last 11, I will quote the great Cleveland philosopher, Sir Charles Oakley: "If it ain't broke, don't break it."]
But with Turiaf's knee concerns, it's definitely important for the Knicks to seek some size insurance. The problem is, just like backup point guards, finding a good big man won't be easy. Here's where you Barronites will quickly point out that Earl The Pearl Barron is now starting for the Phoenix Suns, who have won three straight. Duly noted.
So let's give you another name to consider: Chris Hunter. The Knicks had him in training camp last year and he eventually wound up in the D-League and then played 60 games last season for the Warriors. He had decent numbers (13.1 minutes, 4.5 points and 2.8 rebounds) for Golden State and has good size, toughness and a decent mid-range jumper. Donnie Walsh has always liked his game.
Right now Hunter is back in the D-League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. In two games he is averaging 20 points and 8 rebounds in 26 minutes.
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* - Amar'e Stoudemire's five straight 30-point performances matches Stephon Marbury's run from Feb. 4-11, 2005. With games against the Raptors and Wizards this week, Stoudemire has a legitimate shot at matching the franchise mark of seven straight, set by Willie Naulls from Feb. 22-March 4, 1962. D'Antoni says he's not surprised by Stoudemire's dominance this season because he saw it in Phoenix. But Stoudemire has added a deadly mid-range game that now makes him extremely difficult to guard and D'Antoni went as far as saying, "It just seems like it's easy."
Stoudemire, whose game right now has the smart, swagger and ruggedness of an Eric B. & Rakim song (like anything off "Don't Sweat the Technique"), didn't disagree. "Yeah, it is," he said. "I'm just taking my time, taking what the defense gives me."
When asked about winning his second NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor, Stoudemire said all the right things: "It's a team sport . . . It wouldn't even be talked about if we didn't win."
* - As if you needed any more evidence to rookie Landry Fields ridiculously understated effectiveness -- Fixer Gustavo Castillo came up with the best description when he called Fields "a freaking Ninja" -- let's share this from 82games.com: Fields is the Knicks' most effective player, at plus-70 (meaning the Knicks are 70 points better than their opponent when he's on the floor) and a 13-8 record (meaning the Knicks outscored the opponent when he's on the floor in 13 of 21 games).
* - Shawne "Cinderella Man" Williams remains hot. He nailed 3 of 4 from three-point range against the T-Wolves -- hitting those corner treys like Bruce Bowen -- to make it 10 of 12 from downtown in his four appearances this season.
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