NEW YORK — On the very first possession of the game, after the Knicks won the opening tip, the ball landed with Carmelo Anthony about 30 feet from the basket. Paul Pierce, savvy veteran that he is, was right there with him, refusing to allow even an ounce of space for Anthony to operate.
It was a wise maneuver, given the way that the Knicks have conducted themselves in the early part of this season, and one that would be a sign of things to come. The Wizards applied constant perimeter pressure defensively, especially in the second half, which disrupted New York’s new-look offense and resulted in the Knicks suffering a 15-point loss.
“They just pressured us,” Iman Shumpert said afterward. “Nothing special. They just pressured us.”
Pressure was the word used over and over by the Knicks to describe what the issue was, but it’s one that both Washington and Chicago have used in the early part of the season to completely stifle New York’s offensive plans. The team is in the early stages of learning and attempting to execute the Triangle Offense, and when the defense overplays the ball without the proper counters being used, the results can be disastrous.
“They upped their pressure,” said Knicks head coach Derek Fisher. “They got more aggressive in the third quarter, and really got into our guys even more. They started the game that way the first few minutes, kind of caused us some problems but we settled into the first quarter, and we were still able to get some things done.”
Getting things done on the offensive end of the floor for the Knicks this season has meant knocking down a high percentage of traditionally inefficient midrange shots. In a first half against Washington where New York led by five at the intermission, 21 of the team’s 40 shots came from outside the paint, but the Knicks went 7-of-14 from midrange and 4-of-7 from three-point distance.
The Wizards didn’t cause this; these are the shots the Knicks have been comfortable taking through the first four games of the season. New York ranks second in the league in field goal attempts 15-19 feet from the basket, and fifth in the league in attempts from 10-14 feet out.
The Knicks have plenty of guys who can make them, which has been both a blessing and a curse; Carmelo Anthony, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Jason Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire have all shown consistency from there at times this season. But when the opposing teams know that’s what you’re looking for, and you have no means to create with dribble penetration or with motion to relieve some of the defensive pressure, you get what happened Tuesday — stifling perimeter defense that worked to perfection.
“We’ve just got to get better with our pressure releases,” Carmelo Anthony said afterward. “Teams are going to try to start doing that all the time now — getting in the passing lane, denying. So I think we’ve just got to trust it, and not let the other team speed us up at times throughout the game.”
Easier said than done, obviously. And Fisher knows there’s a temptation for his players to abandon the offense when things aren’t going as planned, especially in the season’s early stages.
“That’s the toughest part of this,” Fisher said. “Early on, when you’re still trying to figure out who you are within what we do, is to still trust it and have faith that things will work out without reverting back to what you normally do in these situations. And that’s tough for guys to do. When the game’s getting away from you, the feeling for each guy is to feel like, ‘I can do it. I can help us get this back.’ It’s actually the reverse. You have to stay together even more.
“Their pressure caused us some problems in terms of our execution,” he said. “I think it got frustrating for all of our guys out there tonight, not to be able to execute the things that we’re capable of doing, but the Wizards took us out of a lot of it.”
Despite the evident struggles, there have been some positives to come out of the new offensive system. Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal notes that fewer of the shots are coming from isolation sets, the team’s percentage of assisted baskets is up significantly, and Anthony has fewer pull-up jumpers and more catch-and-shoot attempts that he did last season — all of which means that the ball is moving, which will eventually create the desired results.
The players, however, will need to stick with it, even when things are at their darkest. And that can be counterintuitive at times.
“It’s not about going to ISOs and things like that,” Anthony said, when asked about whether it was difficult to stay the course offensively. “But I think as players out there, when you see something that’s not working at the time, your first instinct is to use another option. Whether that option is to break out of the system, the offense — sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t. And tonight was one of those nights that it didn’t work.”