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D'Antoni's Knicks have an identity crisis

Mike D'Antoni yells toward the court while playing

Mike D'Antoni yells toward the court while playing the Orlando Magic. (March 23, 2011) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

CHARLOTTE -- Mike D'Antoni has used these 19 games so far since the trade to figure this out and like a mad scientist who has all but burned down the lab, he's still experimenting.

Chauncey Billups even suggested D'Antoni is "struggling," which, of course, is as politely put as it gets when you're team has lost six straight and nine of 10 and the lineup, rotation and, most notably, defensive schemes change at a moment's notice.

"When you're struggling as a coach or a player, you're just trying to find the right mix," Billups said after the loss to the Bobcats. "You're trying to find something that works. So Mike is just doing the best he can trying to find the right formula."

So far it's been mostly toxic. The decision to move Landry Fields to the bench and start Toney Douglas backfired, as Douglas looked weary after chasing Brandon Jennings around screens the night before. The choice to keep going with Jared Jeffries, who hasn't been nearly as effective as D'Antoni anticipated when he asked Donnie Walsh to bring him back, also fails to produce dividends as the bench was flat in the second quarter, which led to a debilitating 24-4 run by Charlotte.

As the rudderless Knicks -- still no alpha dog, though at least Carmelo (36 points) took over on offense for a while -- looked lethargic, Derrick Brown and his energetic legs, which could have coralled a few of those rebounds and loose balls, or finished on the break, had to sit there wondering why he was claimed off waivers.

But the overall maliase has to be more than will and skill. At this point it's rampant confusion and uncertainty, which has to fall on the coach. Sure, the white board in the locker room is covered with defensive strategy points and reminders. But how much of that gets embedded into the brain as opposed to a standard of play that is instituted, understood and, most importantly, enforced from the start?

"I can't say it's preparation, we really never have time to prepare," Billups said. "But when you're out there and you have to run two or three difference schemes, you have to run difference schemes for different [opposing] players, it's just tough."

Most teams do, however, change the coverage specific for certain opponents, based on their systems or personnel. But at the core of everything are their basic principles that never change. For D'Antoni's Knicks, the basic principles are to never switch on screens when possible (which tend to exhaust the guards) and apply ball pressure. Oh and, apparently, give the baseline every time.

But that's just a few reminders, that's not really a standard of play. That's not an identity. And Billups agreed: the Knicks don't have an identity. But that only led him to the chemistry and time excuses.

"Yeah, exactly," he said. "Those are the kinds of things you develop in training camp and in the early part of the season and then you come to the all-star break and - Boom! - this is what it is, this is who we are. This is who we got and this is how we've got to play everything. And you kind of develop that personality."

The Knicks don't have a defensive identity at all (and, a note to my growing Army of Knuggets fans out there: they didn't have one before the trade, either), but the greater concern since the trade is they don't have one on offense.

And this is supposed to be D'Antoni's forte. This is supposed to be what he's best at: give him talent and he can get the most out of them. He got Chris Duhon and David Lee to perform one of the most efficient pick-and-roll tandems in the NBA, how can he not get Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire to score at will? How is this offense so predictable and stagnant?

One positive Billups took from the game, which saw him start at the off-guard position but take over the point in the second half when it was clear Douglas was on fumes, was that the pace was much better than it's been. People bemoan Billups as a walk-it-up point guard, but if you watch closely he has a willing ability to advance the ball quickly by passing it rather than racing it up the court himself. The Knicks tried to do that more often in this game and it produced 20 fast break points.

Billups may have sounded critical of D'Antoni, but the two are actually working together in trying to figure this thing out. The offense is really nowhere near what it could be, but Billups routinely brings the conversation back to the more pressing area of need: defense.

"Our defense," he said, "at the end of the day, is going to make us or break us, I believe."

With this season-ending tailspin, they appear to be reaching that breaking point.

"There's a chance, but I don't see it," Billups said of a complete collapse to rival the 2007 Mets and 2010 Giants. "I think that we can still pull it together. We've got time tomake it happen, to be whre we're a good basketball team and we're hitting on all cylanders. I still feel like we've got a chance to do that."

* * *

* - With injury-plagued Ronny Turiaf (ankle) so unpredictable, the Knicks need to get something out of Shelden Williams and perhaps his 10 points, nine rebounds, block and - most importantly - five hard fouls will be enough to convince D'Antoni to go with muscle more often at the center position and keep the defense anchored with size. "I thought Shelden Williams gave us something defensively," D'Antoni said, "so that's soemthing we can build on. We've been there before, I hope we can stay there."

* - Carmelo wore a sweatshirt to the game that had faces of many famous Brooklynites, from Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson, Spike Lee, Jay-Z, Harvey Keitel, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz and, yes, even Stephon Marbury. Why isn't Red Hook's own Carmelo Anthony on there? "I can't wear a sweatshirt with my own face on it," he said. "I told them to leave me off there."

* - After the sixth back-to-back of the month, the Knicks will take Sunday off from practice, but D'Antoni is attempting something new for Monday's game against the Magic: a home morning shoot-around. When D'Antoni arrived, he decided against holding home shoot-arounds and would instead have the team meet at the Garden in the late afternoon for a walk-through. But desperate times call for desperate measures and that also means more mileage on your favorite beat writer's car.

This plan is sure to work -- and become the new standard -- only because it will make all the writers miserable. And that's exactly the kind of karma this team needs.

New York Sports