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Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the New York

Head coach Mike D'Antoni of the New York Knicks shouts from the bench against the Indiana Pacers. (March 13, 2011) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

INDIANAPOLIS --Despite widespread belief of the contrary, Mike D'Antoni does, in fact, have a defense mechanism. Unfortunately for him, it's a penchant to grin, sometimes even chuckle, when a nerve is struck, which must be maddening for fans to see after a loss, especially when he goes Alfred E. Newman after one like the 119-117 defeat here to the Pacers that completed a home-and-home sweep.

There are some things D'Antoni doesn't belive in handling publicly and one of them is player accountability, especially when it comes to stars. So when asked directly about Amar'e Stoudemire's inexcusable admission after Monday's practice that he softens up on defense when he picks up an early foul, D'Antoni will only grin and bear it.

"He is a little bit more cautious," D'Antoni replied carefully. "We've got to get him to be a little bit more anticipating what's happening . . . He'll have to be able to play good defense with fouls."

When you ask directly about a Knicks defense that so often looks like it's running around, chasing the ball and racing out at open shooters, D'Antoni doesn't have an answer for that, either. Or maybe doesn't want to give an answer.

"There's no reason for it, other than just trying too hard," he said.

Trying too hard?

"That's all I can say," he continued. "We'll look at the tape and try to find out, but we try to keep the same principles the whole game. We don't change anything."

Then he allowed a little hint into what he was really thinking.

"There was a couple of times we doubled and a guy didn't rotate," he said, opting not to name any names, "a couple of things like that, but that's definitely not in our plan."

Chauncey Billups seemed to disagree with the idea that the Knicks play the same principles down the stretch.

"Hindsight is always 20-20, but you probably try to change up the pick-and-roll coverage in the last few minutes and not let them see the same thing, a steady diet," Billups said.

The example Billups pointed out was how Toney Douglas was going over the top on the pick-and-roll against Darren Collison with Stoudemire playing a zone just to slow the penetration. "But that gives him a pocket to kind of get the pull-up, which is a strength of his," Billups said. "And he hit a couple of big ones."

None bigger than Collison's 16-footer with 24.6 seconds left that put the Pacers ahead 116-115 -- the stop the Knicks so desperately needed -- whenn Stoudemire stayed in his zone and never got out to Collison, who buried the open look.

Coincidentally, the same type of situation happened in the loss to the Cavaliers at the Garden, when Jared Jeffries lost Baron Davis in a pick-and-roll and Stoudemire did not jump out on Davis, who buried a dagger three. It happened yet again against the Cavs, this time at Cleveland, when Billups got caught up in a screen on Daniel Gibson and Stoudemire did not step out to at least make Gibson pause. Instead, he fired a dagger three just as Billups was getting out on him.

In most cases, a player would be called out for the same issue. But is it scheme as much as effort?

The Knicks were a frustrated team throughout this game and it boiled over afterward, as players started speaking out about the team's embarrassing defensive performance.

"We've all got to take a good look in the mirror and re-define ourselves and take pride in our defense," Shawne Williams said. "It starts with me and everybody on this team. We've got to guard better, we've got to take pride in it."

Though Carmelo and Amar'e have both regularly discussed defense, when Shawne spoke, it sounded less like rhetoric and more like a direct message.

The question that remains, however, is who among them will challenge the team to demand better of themselves on the defensive end? D'Antoni probably knows it's a bad career move to lose his team's two stars by calling them out publicly. But it doesn't do much for his future, either, if the defense doesn't improve.

Clearly Donnie Walsh -- or whoever is the heck is running this team next season -- has to look to find more energetic role players to fill in around his offensive-minded stars. There needs to be more scrappers on this team, more floor-burn, dirty-work types to make up for what the stars lack. They are who they are and at this point in their careers, you're dreaming if you think they're going to change that dramatically.

But that doesn't mean you can't hold them to a higher standard. As Williams said, eventually pride has to play a factor here. 

* * *

* - Another point about the lack of a true defensive mentality: Williams was moved back into the starting lineup, which was a decision based strictly on offense. The idea was that Williams' three-point ability at the power forward position could pull one of the Pacers bigs out of the paint. But Williams got into early foul trouble against the Pacers big, bruising front line and the idea failed to work as planned.

But before we start pining for the days of before the trade, let's try to avoid revisionist history. Defense was an issue with the pre-trade team just as much as it is now. In fact, I would venture to say the post-trade team should be better defensively because of the addition of Jared Jeffries. This is a common theme, Fixers, not a new problem.

* - Chauncey Billups had a brutal finish to the game that included two costly turnovers in the final 94 seconds, the second of which was an ill-advised pass into the deep post to Stoudemire, who may have had position but the ball was thrown at his feet with 15.3 seconds left. An even worse possession came with 2:31 left and the Knicks leading 110-108 with the chance to go back up by four, when Billups went to drive and lost the ball off his own hip. The Knicks would fail on their next two possessions, which included a three-point miss by Billups with 1:34 to go, as the Pacers regained the lead at 112-110.
Billups, in his second game back after the six-game absence from the deep thigh bruise, at least shot the ball a little better (5-for-11) than on Sunday (4-for-14), but he missed all four of his three-point attempts. He's clearly not 100 percent yet and is having all kinds of trouble defending quick guards, such as Darren Collison, especially around screens.

* - There was some confusion about the final play with 0.3 seconds left. D'Antoni said the idea was to set up a lob for Landry Fields to attempt a tip-in because, according to D'Antoni, "with three-tenths of a second all you can do is throw it to the hole and try to get someone to tip it, you can't catch-and-shoot." Actually, for anyone who knows their Knicks history, the NBA rulebook has the famous Trent Tucker Rule that says you can, in fact, catch-and-shoot as long as there is no less than 0.3 seconds left on the clock, though it would take a miraculous shot. Carmelo, who stood off the three-point line just a few feet from the inbounds passer Jared Jeffries, begged for the ball because, despite the unlikely circumstance of getting off a good shot, Melo said, "I definitely wanted to try."

* - We've heaped plenty of criticism on Stoudemire, but one thing that can't be overlooked is how much officials allowed the Pacers to physically pound him inside. Jeff Foster gave them no choice to make a call when he was whistled for a technical foul 12 seconds into the fourth when he threw Stoudemire to the ground on a shot attempt. But for all of the hustle Tyler Hansbrough brings, he got away with a great deal of reach-ins off rebounds. Roy Hibbert, as well. If this was the early 1990s, Hansbrough and Charles Oakley would have come to blows, for sure. Stoudemire seemed on the verge of picking up his 16th tech, but with all the officials allowed in the game, they also allowed him to vent his frustration, too.

But once again the Knicks' lack of real size is hurting them in the paint. Williams gives his all and battles, so this isn't a knock on him, but Stoudemire so clearly needs a wingman to serve as an enforcer out there, a bodyguard, the way Oakley served as Patrick Ewing's backup. Ronny Turiaf could serve that role well, if only he were at full health, which, clearly, he's not.

* - The Knicks have 16 games left in the season and nine of those games are against teams with losing records. That should be a positive, right? One player shook his head at that suggestion and said, "Have you seen how we play against losing teams?"

 

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