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Stoudemire's D on pick-and-roll hurting Knicks

That's twice this week the Knicks were shredded in the fourth quarter by the high pick-and-roll. Jameer Nelson torched them on Tuesday in Orlando and the Baron Davis had them scrambling Friday night at the Garden in a pair of games the Knicks know they should have won.

You score 110 points or more, you're supposed to win.

"We know we don't have no problem scoring the basketball," Carmelo Anthony said. "Just trying to figure it out, man, that's all I can say that this point. Trying to figure out what we're going to do on the defensive end."

There's only so long that a team can use the excuse that they haven't had enough practice time together. You can understand that on the offensive end, when an ocassional pass will miss the target or there may be a mis-read. But if you watch Carmelo and Amar'e Stoudemire hook up for several baskets -- they're starting to work the high-low pretty well, including a nifty alley-oop pass from Amar'e to Carmelo with 3:00 to go that gave the Knicks a 108-106 lead -- you can see that Carmelo is right, offensie isn't the issue.

But when he says they're "trying to figure out" what to do on defense, that's concerning. It's even more alarming when you hear Amar'e say "our strategies are not clear in how we want to defend the screen and rolls."

There really isn't much strategy to debate: you either switch or you don't switch. Mike D'Antoni generally doesn't like to switch. He prefers the big to show to give the guard just enough time to get over the screen. But he seemed to be going with it for most of the game until that last play, when Stoudemire didn't make the move.

It's basically a pick-your poison, as we saw with Nelson and Davis, when that guard can knock down shots, he can make you pay if you don't react quick enough on the hard screen.

And as we saw with Chauncey Billups, sometimes fighting over those screens can lead to an injury. If Stoudemire had just switched onto Nelson and forced the pass, perhaps Billups doesn't get hurt there. Sure, Nelson could have set up Howard in a mismatch against Billups, but maybe that would give Stoudemire enough time to hustle down to help.

The confusion with the pick-and-roll was notable last week in Cleveland, when Billups hesitated because he expected Stoudemire to step out on Daniel Gibson, but instead, with a second of time and space, Gibson buried a dagger three in that frustrating loss. Billups blamed the play on being new to the system here. In Denver, he said, they always switched.

It happened again on Davis' dagger three with 10.6 seconds left against the Cavaliers. Jared Jeffries was on Davis and dropped off to pick up J.J. Hickson, but Stoudemire again did not make the switch out to defend the guard and it gave Davis enough time and space to bury what essentially was the game-winning shot.

Sure, the switch can backfire, too, especially if it puts Stoudemire on a guard 20 feet from the basket. But the Knicks are going to have to figure out something with Stoudemire on these plays because it doesn't take an experienced scout to figure out how to beat this team in a close game down the stretch.

But we'll stop short of calling the Knicks a bad defensive team less than six days from a game in which we saw them come up with some impressive stops down the stretch against the Heat. Sure, Miami is clearly struggling lately but the Knicks frustrated them with tough defense and Stoudemire came up with a great help block to stop LeBron James. But what if Erik Spoelstra called for a pick-and-roll on that play?

Critics of D'Antoni will groan that he doesn't coach defense. That's not true. We've seen and heard it directly in practice: they spend a lot of time on defense. And Jeffries' presence is supposed to help and for most of the game, Jeffries was effective. But he struggled with foul trouble and perhaps Jeffries needed to just stay home on the one player on the floor who was the biggest threat rather than worry about Davis tossing it down to Hickson for a game-tying basket or foul. That open look from three was the biggest concern.

Davis killed the Knicks with 12 of his 18 points in that fourth quarter, but once again it should have never gotten to that point. Not with a 12-point lead with 6:58 left on your home court.

The defense couldn't get stops and the offense couldn't make a single momentum-killing play, either. Stoudemire twice rebounded his own miss and was unable to finish. Hickson gives him a lot of trouble around the basket. Samardo Samuels is like a very poor man's Big Baby Davis: He just disrupts everything with effort and wrecking-ball size.
Did we mention that the Cavs were also without Antawn Jamison? The Knicks lost to a glorified D-League roster witih Baron Davis coming off the bench.

And then there was Toney Douglas, who after a strong game against Chris Paul and the Hornets on Wednesday looked terribly overwhelmed down the stretch against the Cavs. Twice Douglas picked up his dribble on a dead-end drive and the second time it led to a turnover, a bad foul by Douglas and seconds later, a seat on the bench. Empty possessions, especially when your defense can't get a stop, are suicide. Douglas just can not get command of the offense in these situations and D'Antoni had no choice but to pull him for Anthony Carter before it was too late. But it already was.

Yes, the Knicks missed the veteran leadership of Billups in this one. Billups, who may be back for Sunday's game in Atlanta, instead was on the bench in a suit and counseled Douglas once he was yanked from the game.

But this isn't just on Douglas or the absence of Billups. The Knicks also missed Ronny Turiaf (sore knee) and the energy he can bring off the bench. The Knicks reserves (16 points on 5 of 12 shooting) brought very little to the game. Shawne Williams recorded four blocked shots, but was a miserable 1 for 7 from the field, including a bad miss on a baseline jumper with 29.4 seconds left, right after Anthony Parker's corner three gave the Cavs a 113-112 lead. Parker's brother-in-law, Shelden Williams, saw his first significant action as a Knick and played a decent 12:22 with six points, four rebounds, a blocked shot and three good, hard fouls.

It's fair to say that Davis isn't a typical bench player and he'll likely be starting soon, but Luke Harangody came into the game and brought great energy around the basket and a shooting touch (6 for 11, 18 points).

Stoudemire (41 points) and Anthony (29 points) carried the scoring load as usual with an incredible 70 combined points, but they also combined for 11 of the team's 17 turnovers. That's concerning.

And, let's be honest, the bigger concern is that the two superstars just let the worst team in the NBA walk into the Garden and steal a win. This after one of them (Carmelo) called it "a payback game."

Afterward, I asked Carmelo to describe the feeling of this loss, considering the things he said and what the Cavs were able to do for a second time within a week. He replied, "I don't want to say it's embarrassing. It's a tough loss."

We'll say it for him. This was embarrassing.

* * *

*- Compared to the ugly loss in Cleveland, this time around the Knicks were much better on the boards, with a 39-37 advantage. Second-chance points were even at 14. The Knicks even won the points-in-the-paint battle at 46-42. But, partly a result of 17 turnovers, they gave up 86 field goals while attempting just 77, while the free throws were relatively even at 30-29 in favor of the Cavs. The difference in the game came down to the three-point line: The Knicks hit 8 of 18, which is a fine 44.4 percentage. But the Cavs drilled 12 of 21, for 57.1 percent. And there are your four points.

* - The Knicks haven't beaten the Cavaliers in 11 games. In fact, Mike D'Antoni has never beaten the Cavs during his Knicks tenure. The last Knicks win came Dec. 17, 2007 at the Garden. The teams play once more this season, April 3 at the Garden.

* - The Robert Randolph Curse continues. The Knicks have lost seven straight games on Friday night and are 5-10 this season when RR sings his theme song on MSG's "Friday Night Knicks" broadcasts. There are three more FNK broadcasts remaining, with the next one coming at Detroit on March 18.

* - Carmelo Anthony was hit with a technical foul with 11:03 left in the third quarter when he shoved Samuels in the head after Samuels caught Anthony with an elbow while the two battled for rebounding position. Afterward, Anthony shrugged off the incident and, in fact, couldn't even identify his opponent by name. After a few feeble attempts to prononce "Samardo," Melo just said, "I don't even know his name, the guy who took the charge."

For the record, that is Anthony's 11th technical on the season. Amar'e has 15 and has quelled his emotions for the most part. One more and he is suspended for a game. Dwight Howard won the race to No. 16 when he was hit with a technical in tonight's loss to Chicago.

* -  Donnie Walsh spoke as if he was satisfied with where the team was after the busy trade deadline: "When I first came here, I didn't know if we would ever be in this position this quickly, with three guys like Amar'e, Carmelo and Chauncey," he said. "So I feel good about where the franchise is going from here."

We don't want to start overanalyzing too much here, but it almost sounded as if he was speaking with a bit of a disconnect, as if he was suggesting he was comfortable with the condition of the team if he was to leave. Walsh's contract will expire this offseason if a team option for 2011-12 isn't picked up by April 30. There has been no word about his future since James Dolan on Feb. 23 said the two will discuss the matter after the trade deadline. Walsh turned 70 on Tuesday.


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