Three-pointers: Nets dismantle the Knicks with ease in Monday matinee
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a celebration for the NBA, complete with an unusual matinee slate of nationally televised games. Kicking off this year’s ESPN-broadcast festivities were the Knicks and Nets — crosstown rivals both alike in mediocrity, from Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, only one of the teams could be troubled to show up for the early tip; Brooklyn trailed for all of a minute before taking the lead for good, inflating it all the way to 23 points while holding steady throughout. Joe Johnson — the prime beneficiary of New York’s defensive lapses — scored 25 points on just 15 shots, but Nets across the board chipped in to make this an easy 103-80 finish.
• Brooklyn’s offensive possessions had an unmistakable rhythm, one that played out in real time like a waltz. The first beat was a basic ball screen, carried out in a variety of fashions as to induce the Knicks to switch. The second was the draw of a double team; whether by pulling Tyson Chandler toward a ball handler or Raymond Felton to a bigger wing on the initial switch, Brooklyn was able to consistently put New York in a position of disadvantage. From there came the third and most emphatic beat: The exploitation of the double team through simple ball movement. On any given possession, the Nets were separated from an open shot only for as long as it took to swing the ball. It’s to their credit that they generated those good looks on an impressively frequent basis on Monday, in total shooting 49.3 percent from the field and sinking 14 three-pointers — almost twice as many as the three-happy Knicks.
Such controlled, patient ball movement was seen as a likely Nets strength coming into the season, though that has only played out of late. Still, that facility to break down defensive pressure is but one reason why the Nets still have hope. They may be missing Brook Lopez, coping with the decline of Kevin Garnett and dealing with an assortment of minor injuries (including to Deron Williams, who returned from ankle treatment on Monday) throughout the roster. But fundamentally this is still a roster capable of creating offensive advantages and routinely exploiting them, just as we saw the Nets do in brutal and repetitive fashion to the Knicks on Monday.
All of that said, let’s not pretend New York wasn’t party to all of this. It would be one thing if the Knicks were broken down despite sound execution, but their switch-happy surrender all but begged to be tangled. As soon as the ball began flying, so, too, did New York’s sense of defensive discipline. The switches — a default of Mike Woodson’s defense — seemed to drain the Knicks of all effort and responsibility, atop the team’s already miserable communication in coverage. Such a combination led to more than a few sequences like this one (courtesy of Eye on Basketball):
Andrea Bargnani was consistently and predictably terrible in defending space, Raymond Felton’s D was as scatterbrained as ever and even the Knicks’ better defenders were put in horrible positions by the team’s switching bent. There are recipes for disaster and then there are guarantees of it. This was the latter, punctuated by open jumper after open jumper after open jumper.
• Losses like this illustrate how stale the Knicks offense really is. Even New York’s better stretches came by way of its worst instincts: Blunt isolation sequences in which the player looking to score doesn’t even make an effort to create a position of advantage before hoisting up a shot. Points were drawn from a creative process that had little more involved than a series of jab steps and a pull-up jumper, all of which only made it more awkward to execute when the Knicks finally made an effort to move the ball against a set Nets defense. Brooklyn did a terrific job of throwing varied double teams at Anthony (in terms of their timing and angles) as the game progressed, effectively challenging New York’s scoring star to read the floor on the fly. That’s not exactly Anthony’s strength, but he was often able to put up a reasonable shot attempt or kick the ball out to a semi-open teammate.
It’s from there that the Knicks flatlined against the Nets’ recovery. With Brooklyn defenders scrambling back into place, New York couldn’t find the right passing angles and settled for contested shots rather than attack the basket. As a result, a harrowing 18.8 percent of New York’s possessions on the day were given away through turnovers. Of the possessions that the Knicks actually did see through to a shot, they made just 33.8 percent of their attempts. All of that comprised what is supposed to be the better side of the ball for the Knicks — the redeeming offense beside a failed defense. New York’s struggles on this particular day were far too global for that, as Brooklyn was consistently a few steps ahead of any given sequence.
I fear the Nets won’t quite get enough credit for that, if only because there’s often little reward for those who capitalize on disarray. Yet Brooklyn still did everything possible and necessary to win this game, including the execution of a complete defensive game plan. No single player anchored the defense and no single stratagem made it possible. The Nets on the whole just worked persistently and intelligently through their initial assignments and their help scheme, which drew up pressure in a way that didn’t compromise the defense on the whole. It was a great performance from a team that’s drawn heavy (and largely deserved) criticism this season for its coaching.
• For those of you tempted to give this game a pass as it sits recorded on your DVR, I’d implore you to reconsider. My only pitch: The Andray Blatche Show. Brooklyn’s resident wild card had an outstanding game on both ends of the floor, including a late-game rash of offense, oddly responsible defense and a game-high 12 rebounds. Even in a league that’s never short on spectacle, there’s something truly special in those moments where Blatche glows with the aura of a man self-actualized.