Mike Woodson fires up Knicks' defense

Mike Woodson of the Knicks talks with J.R.

Mike Woodson of the Knicks talks with J.R. Smith. (March 16, 2012) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

The effect Mike Woodson has had on the Knicks is similar to the one Jeremy Lin had when he was first given the basketball and told to run the team. Woodson has energized them. There's even been a "Woodsanity" sign at the Garden.

Woodson won't become an international phenomenon like Lin, who sparked a seven-game winning streak last month. But Woodson already is very popular in New York with the fans who became disenchanted by Mike D'Antoni's offensive approach and the Knicks' inconsistent effort under him.

The crowd is chanting "Dee-fense!'' more and the Knicks are playing defense more, leading to their 3-0 record since Woodson slid over from assistant to head coach five days ago.

"We're playing great defensively," Amar'e Stoudemire said after Saturday night's win over the Pacers. "We're really getting after it. We're playing smart on both ends of the court. We know where the ball is going. Guys are playing comfortable. We're playing with more energy. We're accepting every challenge Coach gives us. We're playing well."

Those challenges, Stoudemire said, are all aimed at the defense. Woodson is urging the Knicks to rebound the ball, apply pressure and guard screen-and-rolls. D'Antoni wanted the same things. But the players did them only once in a while, and very rarely during the six-game losing streak that led to D'Antoni's resignation last Wednesday.

The Knicks allowed 109.5 points in those six games and trailed by at least 15 in five of them. Under Woodson, the Knicks, who host Toronto tomorrow, are yielding 89.0 points and 39.5-percent shooting and have won by an average of 23.7 points.

Also, Carmelo Anthony seems more engaged and motivated. "I think just the way he's able to motivate us, he's able to get the best out of everybody," Anthony said. "We can lock in defensively and not have to worry offense. Now we're relying on our defense to get our offense, which is always a good thing."

"We have all 15 guys right now on the same page buying in," Lin said. "That's the biggest thing."

Stoudemire said D'Antoni stepped down because "everyone wasn't buying in." Teams usually respond after a coaching change, especially veteran ones with high expectations.

Collectively, the Knicks had to move on and focus on finishing the season strong. They're 21-24 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game up on Milwaukee. With the Knicks' talent and depth, just making the playoffs won't be considered a successful season; they have to go deep in the postseason. And they're off to a great start under Woodson.

"I'm not a spring chicken to coaching," he said. "I happen to have a great group of guys, a talented bunch, I think. And we've just got to keep them playing, playing at a high level. We do that, we've got a chance."

Woodson coached the Hawks from 2004-10. He averaged 23.0 wins his first three seasons and 45.7 in his last three. The Hawks reached the Eastern Conference semifinals his last two years, when Atlanta was among the top 10 in fewest points allowed.

Besides defense, the other buzzword since Woodson has taken over is accountability. He's gotten in players' ears and told them when he didn't like something they did on the court. He removed J.R. Smith from Friday's blowout of Indiana after Smith picked up a technical foul for taunting following a dunk.

"I think he just stays on top of guys throughout the game, in shootaround, in practices, before the game, in halftime," Tyson Chandler said. "He just kind of keeps you on your toes."

Said Stoudemire: "Coach Woodson is a players' coach. He's one of those guys who understands the game. It's a matter of us as players, us playing hard for him and trying to get these wins."

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