LOS ANGELES — If the playoffs started today, the Knicks wouldn’t just be a playoff team, they’d have home court in the first round.
More importantly, after winning five-of-six and four in a row on the road, they believe they are that good, that they are figuring it out. Together.
“I love the camaraderie of this team,” Joakim Noah said Sunday night. “From the beginning, no matter what’s thrown at us, no matter what people are saying, I think it’s really important, especially in New York, that the camaraderie stays tight. Because, when you win it’s like they put you on a pedestal, and when you lose it’s the end of the world, they try to find anything to make a headline out of, and it’s just the nature of playing for the Knicks. It’s not like that anywhere else.”
The Knicks will be on a pedestal, at least a small one, after a 118-112 win over the Lakers Sunday night. The win improved them to 14-10 on the season, and they are the current four seed in the East. It’s too early to celebrate, but the Knicks feel optimistic that they are on the right track.
The right track would mean getting the ball to their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, more often. Porzingis had a monster night — 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 blocked shots — and he got help from a hot shooting Derrick Rose, who started the game 8-of-8 from the floor and finished with 25 points on 12-of-15 shooting.
“I was just taking what the defense was giving me, and they were giving me the lane,” Rose said.
To a man after the game, the Knicks talked about this latest run being a function of team chemistry.
“We want to build a culture of winning, and I think we’re taking baby steps toward that,” Porzingis said.
“Trusting, just trusting one another, just believing in what we’re doing, our schemes offensively and defensively, guys feeling comfortable,” Carmelo Anthony said.
“In the first half, they were doubling Carmelo,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We did a good job of passing the ball and he had about five or six assists at halftime (it was five). That’s how you know you have a good team, when a guy gets doubled, kicks out of there and you get easy shots and easy looks.”
“I figured out the double team early, we were spacing out… just kind of making the right play,” Anthony said.
Have the Knicks figured it out? Time will tell, but there is still one big reason for concern that these Knicks are not as good as their record: Defense.
The Knicks are winning in spite of their defense, and that could ultimately be their undoing. It almost was against the Lakers, except Los Angeles’ defense was worse.
“Well, you know I think we really stopped them in the fourth quarter…” Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek tried to say with a straight face. Then he laughed. “We gave up 37 points in the fourth quarter. Good thing we had a couple of guys — Derrick (Rose) was great, Brandon (Jennings) got hot there and hit a couple threes, Courtney (Lee) hit some big threes for us in the fourth quarter.”
The Knicks have the 26th ranked defense in the NBA this season, and it has been two points per 100 possessions worse during this six-game streak. The Knicks are running and shooting their way to wins in spite of the defense, but that only works for so long.
“We have to stop fouling…” Rose said. “The way the NBA is, if you go down big, the first thing you do is start shooting threes. We just have to contest the shots a little bit harder and communicate while we’re out there.”
Rose — who returned after missing two games with back spasms — was impressive, pushing the pace in transition, and he was fearless going at the Lakers bigs knowing that there was no shot blocking to slow him.
“He’s been moving really well all year,” Noah said. “He’s getting more and more confident in his game, the way he’s moving, his floater is coming back — his floater game was really on tonight.”
The Lakers got D’Angelo Russell back on the court Sunday (in limited minutes), as well as Nick Young. Lou Williams continues to look like a sixth man of the year candidate, he comes in and not only gets buckets by attacking, but does little things such as getting in Derrick Rose’s way the second he got the outlet pass to prevent a break and force the Knicks to come up and run a half court. He finished with 24 points.
The Lakers can get credit for coming from behind in the second half to make the game close for a stretch, but as bad as the Knicks’ defense can be the Lakers defense makes it look like the 2004 Pistons. The Knicks had the players to make the Lakers pay for that, even on a night ‘Melo was off (4-of-15 shooting). The Knicks have depth and can score a variety of ways.
Whether they are a four seed — or for that matter, are even in the playoffs — come late April will be about the other end of the floor. They need to find some defense.
At least they’ve found some chemistry. It’s a start.