Against a San Antonio Spurs frontcourt that features two incredibly productive 7-footers in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson had no choice but to go big. It was finally time to provide the answer to all the questions the New York media has been pestering him with. It was time to dust off a player who hasn’t started a game all season. It was time to turn to a guy the Madison Square Garden crowd has a long-standing relationship with. Woodson had to go with…
You weren’t expecting someone else, were you? With all the fuss over who starts and who sits, Woodson played the matchups with 38-year-old Marcus Camby, having Amare Stoudemire come off the bench and shake off the rust in his second game back.
And guess what? It worked beautifully, as the Knicks went big and won big in a 100-83 victory that snapped San Antonio’s seven-game winning streak.
Camby may actually be made of rust at this point, but the guy knows how to defend the basket. Wall him up next to Tyson Chandler, and that’s length that can block out the sun. Although the Knicks offense was a bit gummy with some spacing issues, the defense completely shut down all paths to the basket. Everything was pushed outside, and the Spurs gladly drifted there. As a near 40 percent 3-point shooting team on the year, it didn’t take much convincing.
Problem was, the Spurs couldn’t hit a shot. With absolutely noting falling from the perimeter (9-for-34, 26.5 percent), the Spurs were stymied offensively. But more importantly, on a night they scored just 83 points, only 12 of those came in the paint.
That a really impressive number for the Knicks’ 20th ranked defense. Although the Spurs got quite a few open looks on the perimeter (if you don’t count waitress defense), going with more size shut down any post game from San Antonio. Every trip down for the Spurs seemed to be one-and-done, as they collected a paltry seven offensive rebounds despite all the misses. In an incredibly half court oriented, slow-paced game, the Spurs were deprived of any easy chances at the rim almost entirely.
While Camby, Stoudemire and Chandler may have scored only 22 points in a combined 69 minutes, the beauty of the Knicks roster is that there are very, very defined roles for each player. J.R. Smith (20 points) came in and gave a big boost as a slasher, Pablo Prigioni did an excellent job running the pick-and-roll (9 assists) and creating turnovers, and the Knicks still functioned reasonably well as an offensive unit, even with Carmelo Anthony (23 points) spending a decent amount of time on the perimeter.
Where the game completely turned, however, was when the Knicks went small to start the fourth quarter. It was like the Spurs were playing an entirely different team. Already leading by 9, the Knicks rattled off a 15-2 run that included two Steve Novak 3-pointers to really put the game on ice. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich responded by pulling all his starters, something you get the impression he might have wanted to do anyway with the Spurs playing their fourth game in five nights.
Outside of tonight’s big win, it’s an interesting exercise to look at the Knicks in the scope of a title contender. They play about as well at home as any team in the league. They can shoot themselves into any game. They have a star who can control a game late.
But the big question, of course, is that 20th ranked defense. That’s just not the trait of a title contender, despite everything else that may point you there. There is an awful lot of data that shows you that top-10 defenses in efficiency are the only teams that go on to play for the title. Sometimes the 11th or 12th ranked defense will sneak in, but never the 20th. While it’s hard to imagine Stoudemire helping at all defensively, but Woodson has shown the ability to play matchups pretty well. That may not be enough to allow Jason Kidd to stay with lightning quick guards, for example, but scheme can often hide personnel.
And as the Spurs can attest to tonight, manufacturing and making open threes can do an awful lot for you as well — no matter whether you’re big or small.