The Extra Pass: Why the Knicks are starved offensively; plus Monday’s recaps

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As the New York Knicks were serenaded with a mix of boos and chants of “Brooklyn! Brooklyn!” at Madison Square Garden during an embarrassing 23 point home loss to the Nets, it felt like rock bottom. Again. For about the seventh time.

That’s the thing about the Knicks this season. When it looks like it can’t get worse, it often does.

But then there are the occasional stretches where the Knicks temporarily flirt with competency, which is all a team really has to do in the Eastern Conference to be in the playoff picture. For as lifeless and dysfunctional as the Knicks often appear to be, there’s a lot of bad basketball left to be played, and a lot of chances to figure a few things out.

Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to diagnose and cure the ails of the 19th ranked offense and 25th ranked defense in efficiency. You already know about the personnel issues: J.R. Smith is no longer playing for a contract or for anything other than his own amusement, Beno Udrih wants out, Iman Shumpert is thrown in a trade rumor or under the bus every other day, and all this happens around the elephant in the room that is Carmelo Anthony’s impending free agency.

There are coaching issues, too. When Tyson Chandler says, “I think we came to play, they just outschemed us” after a 23-point loss, that’s pointing a giant finger (you choose which one) at the coaching staff. Honestly, it’s a bit deserved — Mike Woodson’s adjustments are about as non-existent as the amount of accountability he demands from his chosen players.

But even when you factor in the impact of those things (and organizational dysfunction!), the Knicks’ primary flaw is their failed execution of the league’s most commonly utilized play: the pick-and-roll.

It’s a little crazy, if only because the Knicks were so explosive offensively last year because of that very play. Just look at the data broken down via mysynergysports.com:

2012-13:

Pick-and-roll ballhandlers: 15.2% of the offense, .84 points per play, ranked 3rd in the league.

Pick-and-roll roll men: 6.3% of the offense, 1.18 points per play, ranked 1st in the league.

Now compare those numbers to this year, and understand why an offense ranked 3rd in efficiency last year has taken such a steep dive this season.

2013-14:

Pick-and-roll ballhandlers: 12.8% of the offense, .71 points per play, ranked 26th in the league.

Pick-and-roll roll men: 6.8% of the offense, 1.01 points per play, ranked 14th in the league.

The eye test supports what the numbers show. Raymond Felton just isn’t turning the corner and getting to the basket like he was last year. Defenses are happily goading him into shooting jumpers, as he’s shooting below 40 percent from the field and 28.7% from three. He’s simply not a threat anymore, and there’s no reason to ever go over the top of a screen or extend to far out as a big man when he has the ball.

It certainly doesn’t help that Andrea Bargnani has been involved in most of the pick-and-roll action for the Knicks this season due to Chandler’s missed time. Bargnani is solely a pop man, which doesn’t gut or move the defense nearly as well as a hard dive to the rim from Chandler typically does. It’s a different element to the Knicks offense, but it’s supposed to be the changeup, not the fastball.

Since teams no longer have to collapse on Felton or Smith’s forays to the paint or Chandler’s dives to the rim with the same frequency as last year, good looks out of the pick-and-roll aren’t being created with any consistency.

That’s a big reason why the Knicks are 17th in the league in three-point percentage this year compared to 5th last year. The difference between a clean look and a contested one in the NBA is about a half of a second, and defenders simply don’t have to cheat towards the paint nearly as much as they once did.

When an offense loses its bread and butter, it starves. The Knicks still have time to turn it around, but it’s hard to imagine that will happen without the aid of penetration in the pick-and-roll. Who they’ll find that from at this stage is anyone’s guess.

D.J. Foster

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Mavericks 102, Cavaliers 97: This was a game that Dallas led by as many as 24 points, but the Cavaliers managed to come all the way back to have a chance to tie with 2.8 seconds remaining. But Mike Brown isn’t exactly known for his ability to draw up anything remotely competent offensively, and the Cavs couldn’t even inbound the ball to get the tying shot off, and were whistled for the rare five-second call that sealed it. Kyrie Irving finished with 26 points (albeit on 27 shots), and Anderson Varejao ended up with a game-high 21 rebounds in the losing effort. Monta Ellis had nine points in the final period for Dallas, but missed two critical free throws that gave Cleveland the final opportunity to tie, which was ultimately squandered. —Brett Pollakoff

Bobcats 100, Raptors 95: This score would have been a bit of a surprise anyway, considering that the Raptors had largely been playing much better and the Bobcats, even with the win, are still seven games under .500 on the season. But it’s even more of a shock considering that Toronto no-showed for the early part of this one, and trailed by as many as 30 before staging a furious comeback that fell just short. Kyle Lowry was the one who sparked the Raptors, scoring 14 fourth quarter points and having a chance to tie it at the free throw line with under 25 seconds remaining. He missed the chance to complete the three-point play, however, and the Bobcats finished the game by hitting seven free throws to seal it. Ramon Sessions finished with 23 points on just 10 shots for Charlotte, and Al Jefferson had a monster game with 22 points, 19 rebounds, seven assists and two blocked shots. —BP

Clippers 112, Pistons 103: DeAndre Jordan dunked four times in the game’s opening minutes, kick-starting a riveting matchup – between Jordan and Blake Griffin for who could dunk most. Jordan held onto his early lead, besting Griffin seven to five. Los Angeles led by 20 before the Pistons made a late comeback, but this one was all about the Clippers. Whether it was Griffin’s 25 points, Jordan’s 21 rebounds or Jamal Crawford’s 26 points on 13 shots off the bench, Los Angeles had all sorts of contributions that masked the absence of Chris Paul. — Dan Feldman

Wizards 107, 76ers 99: This wasn’t Washington’s most-polished performance, but its centers – Marcin Gortat (19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks) and Kevin Seraphin (16 points, seven rebounds and a block) – dominated in a combined 46 minutes. Sometimes, out-muscling an opponent is enough. Both teams will probably take this result. The Wizards boost their playoff position, and Philadelphia continues tanking. Plus, Michael Carter-Williams (31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals) bolstered his Rookie of the Year case. — DF

Nets 103, Knicks 80: The Nets improved to 7-1 in 2014 with an easy win over a Knicks team that didn’t look like it belonged on the same court for much of the afternoon. It was essentially over at halftime, when Joe Johnson had already scored 20 points and Brooklyn showcased what has become its signature  during this recent successful stretch — exceptional ball movement and solid team defense. It could have been a bigger margin, too, considering the Nets were just 3-of-10 shooting corner threes, and almost all of the attempts were wide-open looks. Deron Williams returned after a five-game injury-forced absence, and finished with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting, to go along with three assists in 27 minutes of action off the bench. Williams said afterward that the reserve role was his idea, and that he didn’t want to disrupt the team’s solid starting lineup. —BP

Pelicans 95, Grizzlies 92: Anthony Davis had 27 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and four blocks – becoming the youngest player by nearly two years to hit those totals since at least 1985. He shot 2-for-11 in the first half, but he still made a noticeable defensive impact. In the second half, he got it going on offense, shooting 7-for-11, and his defense didn’t slip. He’s growing into a superstar right in front of our eyes, helping New Orleans end its nine-game losing streak and snap Memphis’ five-game winning streak. – DF

Hawks 121, Heat 114: Though LeBron James had 30 points and six assists, Miami has lost four of six. Monday, defense was the main culprit. The Heat’s defense, still above average, has been at its worst since the Big Three came together. The 121 points allowed to Atlanta, which were led by Paul Millsap’s 26, weren’t even the most Miami has allowed this season. The Heat yielded 123 points to the Warriors earlier this month. I certainly expect Miami to get it together by the playoffs, but a chance at home-court advantage in the East is slipping away. The Heat now trail the Pacers by four games, and though that doesn’t seem insurmountable, Indiana is on pace to lose fewer than eight more games the rest of the season. – DF

Rockets 126, Trail Blazers 113: Portland’s leaky defense finally faced a flood not even its league-best offense could offset. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points and 20 rebounds), the Trail Blazers scored enough to win most nights. They just couldn’t stop the Rockets. Portland hasn’t allowed so many points in a game since 2007, and that’s why its win streak is over at five games. It’s no secret the Trail Blazers defense has been lacking. Of the NBA’s top eight teams – the group commonly accepted as true title contenders – only Portland (20th) ranks outside the top 11 in points allowed per possession. The Rockets, led tonight by Chandler Parsons (31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists), boast one of the NBA’s top offenses. But if the Trail Blazers want to win a playoff series or two in this stacked Western Conference, they must defend better. That starts on the defensive glass, where no Portland player besides Aldridge grabbed more than two defensive rebounds. Better contesting shots on the perimeter – Houston made 16-of-33 3-pointers (48.5 percent) – would be a good second step. — DF

Bulls 102, Lakers 100 (OT): Two teams that have had their seasons derailed by injuries played an entertaining and competitive game that required overtime to be decided. The Bulls probably should have won in regulation, but thanks no doubt to the league publicly reprimanding officials after non-calls with games on the line, Joakim Noah was whistled for a foul on Nick Young with four seconds remaining that sent Young to the line for three free throw attempts to tie it. Near the end of the overtime session, Young once again came through with a baseline jumper that tied it, and the Lakers were just 0.9 seconds away from heading to a second overtime period. But they couldn’t defend a simple baseline out of bounds play, and Manny Harris (recently signed from the D-League) horribly misplayed Taj Gibson, who sealed Harris and was able to get free for the game-winning layup as time expired. —BP

 Pacers 102, Warriors 94 : The second half of this game felt like a playoff game, down to the fired up crowd (got to love the people at Oracle) and the referees letting them play. The problem for Golden State was they were never able to dig out of the first quarter hole — behind Paul George’s 14 that quarter (23 for the game) the Pacers shot 64 percent for the quarter and led by 14 when it was done. Against a team that defends like the Pacers, that’s a huge hole. Indiana did a great job of chasing Stephen Curry off the three-point line — he was 3-of-11 from deep and that includes George Hill doing a great job on him late in the game. Indiana has won five in a row and looks every bit the team Miami should fear. Golden State got a taste of what it’s going to take to contend.

Chris Paul scores 33, Rockets topple Warriors 116-108

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden felt closer to normal after struggling in his first game back from a hamstring injury, and the Houston Rockets got a big game from Chris Paul to down the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.

Paul scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, Harden bested Stephen Curry twice in the final seconds and the Rockets held off the Warriors 116-108 to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

The victory gives Houston a 2-1 series advantage over Golden State after the reigning NBA champions had won the series the previous three seasons.

“Obviously they’re a championship caliber team for the past four years … and that’s what we’re trying to build our way up to,” Harden said.

Harden stepped back from Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left, then blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt after a timeout.

Harden finished with 22 points. Paul added two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

“It’s been a good streak, disappointing end to it,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we didn’t deserve to win tonight. We played pretty poorly, did a lot of things to hurt ourselves and we’re playing a great team. Can’t get away with it.”

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the performance of the 32-year-old Paul .

“The guy is a winner, he’s been a winner, he’s going to win,” D’Antoni said.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts and 6 of 20 overall. It was just the sixth time in his career that he’d attempted 20 or more shots while making six or fewer.

“It was just one of those nights where I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor,” he said. “So I’ve got to take that responsibility for that one. It was pretty bad.”

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half.

It was Harden’s second game back after missing seven with a strained hamstring. He was in a much better rhythm than in his return Thursday night, when he scored a season-low 10 points. He had eight assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday.

The Rockets got the victory despite missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, who were both serving the second game of a two-game suspension for an altercation with the Clippers. Clint Capela added 18 points for Houston on a night when top reserve Eric Gordon went 0 for 9 from 3-point range and finished with just six points.

Golden State led by four before Houston went on a 9-2 run, with the first five points from Paul, to take a 109-106 lead with about three minutes left.

 

Report: NBA’s minor league won’t allow potentially eligible college players

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USC’s De’Anthony Melton, Louisville’s Brian Bowen and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy haven’t played this season due to the FBI’s probe into college basketball. Mitchell Robinson left Western Kentucky before his freshmen season started to train for the NBA draft.

But they’re all potentially eligible to play college basketball again someday.

So, they can’t play in the NBA’s minor league.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

That ineligibility stems from a rule that prevents players who were enrolled in college during an academic calendar year from being offered a contract in the same season, unless they have been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA with no opportunity of being reinstated (as was the case with P.J. Hairston in 2013).

“We’re not looking to compete with college basketball for their players,” a G League source said. “The NBA, specifically NBA lawyers, are concerned about the optics of NCAA players being disgruntled with minutes or coaching decisions and leaving college with the hopes of joining the G League. This is a blanket rule unfortunately that applies to all players. Like all of our rules, we are open to revisiting them if needed, but at the moment any player that was enrolled in a college this season is ineligible to play in our League.”

NBA executives and scouts are griping because they can’t evaluate these prospects in games. I don’t care about that.

This is an affront to capitalism. The basis of our economy should be competition, and the NBA is handing the NCAA – a cartel – a monopoly in this level of basketball. And it’s the workers (players) who lose.

So what if a freshman is disgruntled with his minutes and wants to turn pro during the season? He can’t join the NBA due to the age minimum. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to at least enter the NBA’s minor league, for which he’s old enough? We should trust him to manage his future, not protect the almighty college coach from facing consequences to his rotation.

I don’t know whether or not the NBA and NCAA colluded, but the NBA’s stance is the exact one it would take if it colluded. The NBA has worked to improve the quality of play in its minor league by increasing salary to compete against foreign leagues for players. It’s strange to just willingly take a backseat to college basketball when there’s a great opportunity to compete for top talent.

The players could legally challenge the policy, but they’ll be eligible for the NBA draft in June, and there’s risk in upsetting a potential future employer. And would anything be decided quickly enough in court to matter for the challenging player?

Players like Melton, Bowen, Wiley, Purifoy and Robinson aren’t allowed to let the market set their compensation as college basketball players, because NCAA schools have colluded to cap wages. Those players aren’t allowed to seek employment in the comparable American professional league, because that league doesn’t want to compete with the NBA.

It’s a travesty for capitalism and these workers.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safety

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?