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The power of One

    The stunning three-for-all that ended Friday’s win over the Hornets here in New Orleans somewhat overshadowed the shot that started the six-gun barrage. Chris Paul dropped under the screen on the umpteenth high pick-and-roll the Knicks called in the game and it gave Chris Duhon miles of space (not to mention time) to get a clear look at the basket from a good 24 feet away.


    Duhon buried the three against the sagging defense -- which had been carved up by the quick rolls and deft ambidextrous finishes by David Lee – to give the Knicks a 98-96 lead with 4:43 left in the game. No one knew then that it would be the game-winning basket, not with all that time left and CP3 with the ball in his hands.


    But as much as Jared Jeffries’ defense on Paul (with a nod to Larry Hughes for his effort as well, not to mention how Lee also held his own on random switches), it was Duhon’s shooting that clinched a galvanizing fourth straight win for this suddenly emerging Knicks team.


    It had been a brutal start for Duhon, who does hear everything said about him and his game and did notice that opposing defenses were practically ignoring him on the perimeter with a greater focus on stopping the effective pick-and-roll play. Duhon shot just 24.1 percent from the floor in the first 10 games of the season and that is directly related to the franchise-worst 1-9 start.


    In the 13 games since, Duhon’s field goal percentage improved to 39.8 percent (his career shooting percentage is 39.1) and the Knicks are 7-6. During the last six games – five of which are wins – he is shooting a more respectable 43.3 percent.


    “Once I make those shots, it just opens up everything,” Duhon said after the game in New Orleans. “Then everybody is into the game and David and I can do what we do best. That’s what I gotta do, I’ve got to be confident each night and take the shot.”


    With the pick-and-roll, you don’t need a traditional playmaking point guard as much as a good combo guard who has the ability to see and execute passes. This is why Allen Iverson could have helped the Knicks in the short-term because he is a threat that draws the defense to him (though since the AI impact hasn’t been felt in Philadelphia, the outrage over not signing him has quelled).


    Actually, Nate Robinson should be equally effective in this play because of his ability to knock down the perimeter shot. But Robinson doesn’t often put the ball in the right place to the rolling player and generally struggles to recognize the open man as opposed to looking for his own shot.


    With Duhon’s contract up at the end of the season, the Knicks will be looking for a point guard next summer and, obviously need to find one that shoots a higher percentage. They don’t necessarily need a traditional floor general type as we’ve occasionally suggested – remember, fallibility is sexy – because really all you need is a player who commands the defense to go above the screen, therefore opening up the roll for an athletic big. David Lee has literally made a living off this play and, as Hornets GM/coach Jeff Bower said, he is “one of the best bigs in the league at rolling to the basket.”


    You could pair Lee with Joe Johnson and that two-man game would be devastating. As defenses sag into the middle to help on the roll, it opens up the three-ball for a shooter like Danilo Gallinari or a cutter in Wilson Chandler. Put LeBron James or Dwyane Wade in that spot with Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire and tell me how you stop it.


    In fact, removing any of the 2010 candidates from this conversation and going with merely the current personnel, the Knicks are currently working to develop rookie Toney Douglas’ game so that he learns how to make that pass on the roll and how to recognize when the defense is drawn in enough to fire the pass to a wing player for an open shot. Douglas certainly has the ability to hit the jumper if the defense goes under the screen, but he so far has not entirely grasped the concept of reading the defense and the passing lanes. That should come with time, repetitions and video tape.


    At the other end, fellow rookie Jordan Hill needs to focus on trying to emulate Lee’s part in the extremely simple, but very effective play. Lee makes the catch-and-finish seem so easy, which it really is not. His ability to finish with both hands is an underrated skill that most head coaches in the NBA, his own included, recognize on a nightly basis.


    Lee has also brought the wood on defense in recent games, with a much higher level of intensity and effort against centers that, on a nightly basis, have him by two to three inches and twenty to thirty pounds. He still is at their mercy on post-ups, as we saw with Emeka Okafor in the first half, but what he can do with quick cuts and finishes at the other end of the floor can change the game defensively. For instance, Okafor struggled so mightily in defending the pick-and-roll (as we saw with Stoudemire, Brook Lopez and Joel Przybilla), Bower had to pull him from the game in the third quarter.


    Okafor never got back into the game and the Hornets offense, with Paul bottled up, had very little else to offer aside from a few post-ups by David West. The Hornets scored 32 points in the paint in the first half and managed just eight in the entire second half.


    What else . . .


    * - I made it a point to tell Wilson Chandler that his springs appear to be coming back and he nodded with a smile. Perhaps the ankle (bone spur surgery in the summer) is slowly getting off his mind and this break in the schedule (one game within a seven day period) has him starting to get his legs back under him. Chandler was slicing through the middle of the defense and finishing with authority above the rim for the first time this season. Most importantly, he was not settling for perimeter shots.


    * - Danilo Gallinari entered the game with a great level of intensity. He splashed some long-range bombs (two more to raise his league-leading total to 67 3PTM) but also finished a good, hard cut with a spectacular reverse jam in the first half. D’Antoni says he is noticing that Gallinari is starting to play more freely with his body and without as much concern about his back issues from last season.


    Anyone who has ever had back pain knows it can come and go in a moments notice and, even with corrective surgery, it takes a while before you can quell the body’s instinct to wince and freeze at the slightest hint of a possible flare-up. There’s clearly so much potential in this kid, however. Not only are we seeing it more with his offense, but he has been aggressive on defense with blocks and steals, and he is going after more rebounds.


    * - Is Jared Jeffries’ value rising? He has given enough evidence to prove he can be a very effective defender, especially against the pick-and-roll. While his offense is still mostly pedestrian, Jeffries could be a player to fill a defensive role on a contending team looking to deepen its bench. Would the Celtics take him (remember, he is an expiring contract in 2010-11) to help defend the likes of Rashard Lewis and LeBron James in the playoffs? Or perhaps the Cavaliers would want him to guard Rajon Rondo – as the Knicks have used him – and Vince Carter? Out West he could have value for some teams looking to defend big guards such as Chauncey Billups.


    Maybe we’re getting a little carried away, but the Knicks need to keep Jeffries at the level he is now come the trade February deadline, when contending teams do whatever it takes to bulk up. Of course the Catch-22 is that the Knicks playoff drive could suffer without him.


    OK, officially carried away at this point. Dialing it down.


    * - Eddy Curry, in a brief six-minute stint, looked everything like a player who still has a ways to go before he can reach game condition. If he can ever get his legs under him, Curry could be just as tough to guard on the pick-and-roll because he has the ability to finish with a soft touch. The goal right now is for him to stay healthy long enough to get there. Can’t overlook the importance of positive minutes on Tuesday in Charlotte, before the watchful eye of Larry Brown, who you know loves bigs and may need one before all is said and done. Brown may be the guy to help his old friend Donnie Walsh get those two max contracts for 2010.


    Wow. I’m bringing nothing but roses today. Enjoy ‘em, Fixers. It’s been a while.



New York Sports