Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Knicks' Spectacular Offense Topples Spurs, And A Case For Raymond Felton

On a night when the chants of “Dee-fense” were little more than wishful thinking- 36-35 after the first quarter, 72-69 a the half and 101-95 at the start of the fourth- the Knicks treated the MSG crowd to virtuoso offensive performance against the best team in the NBA, beating the 29-4 (now 29-5) San Antonio Spurs, 128-115 Tuesday night.

The Spurs, who entered the game among the league’s elite at both ends of the floor, played a strong offensive game, shooting 53.7% (44-82) from the field and getting to the free throw line (22-30) en route to an offensive efficiency rating 118.6. Although they turned the ball over 16 times and had just 18 assists on 44 made shots (41%, compared with their season average of 61.8%), the Spurs played well enough with the ball in their hands to earn a victory. Uncharacteristically, however, it was their work at the defensive end that let them down.

As much success as the Spurs had on offense, they paled in comparison to the Knicks, who hung 128 on the NBA’s eighth most efficient defense. The Knicks connected on 55% (50-91) of their field goal attempts, 87% (20-23) of their free throws, dished out 26 assists on 50 made baskets and committed just 6 turnovers. They were undoubtedly red hot, but also extremely efficient, as evidenced by their astronomical efficiency rating of 132.

Admittedly the game didn’t mean as much to the Spurs- who may have been looking ahead to Wednesday night’s showdown in Boston against the East-leading Celtics, looked “tired and uninspired," according to Clyde Frazier- but don’t let that detract from the Knicks’ accomplishment. This is a great win for the Knicks, who went toe-to-toe with the NBA’s best, and played a fantastic game, improving to an unheard-of-this-decade 20-14. More importantly, after repeatedly hearing about how their record’s been inflated by a soft early-season schedule, the Knicks answered their critics by notching a signature win over an elite opponent.

The Knick were led by an exceptional performance by their starting five, which, in the absence of Danilo Gallinari, combined for 104 points, with each member hitting at least 50% of his shots. There was Ronny Turiaf, who had four points (2-2 FG), as well as second-round surprise and the Eastern Conference’s two-time reigning Rookie of the Month, Landry Fields, who had an excellent all-around game, scoring 13 (5-10 FG), grabbing six boards, handing out three assists and swiping three steals.

Meanwhile, the Knicks’ top three put together as good a game as you’re likely to see from any trio. Wilson Chandler led the way with 31 points, along with nine rebounds and four assists. He hit 13 of his 19 field goal attempts- including three of six from 3-point range- and otherwise managed to get to the basket at will. It’s not so much that Chandler was on fire (he very well may have been), it’s that it didn’t really matter. Of the 10 two-pointers he made, eight came from within 10 feet of the basket, and seven of them were from less than five feet out.

Amar’e Stoudemire, joined Chandler up front. Amar’e also turned in an extremely effective and efficient performance. He hit 11 of 17 shots, from both in the paint and mid-range, en route to 28 points, to which he added nine rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots.

And finally, we have Raymond Felton. Like the two aforementioned standouts, Felton had an outstanding game, scoring 28 of his own, on 10-of-17 from the field (and six-of-six from the line), and adding seven assists and four rebounds. As the Knicks protected (and built on) their lead in the fourth quarter, Felton was huge, scoring nine points, including a huge 3-pointer from right in front of the Spurs’ bench with 4:33 remaining, followed by a long two the next time down the floor.

Now, please allow me to digress. I think we need to talk a bit about Raymond Felton. The Knicks signed Felton to a two-year $15 million contract this summer, a deal that was initially panned as too much money per year for a player that was perceived to be nothing special. Signing Felton was clearly a stopgap measure, until the summer of 2012, when the object of the Knicks’ lead guard desires, Chris Paul, is eligible for free agency.

Thing is, for now, at less than half of Paul’s annual price tag, Felton’s turned out to be pretty good. In 34 games as a Knick, he’s averaging 18.2 ppg, 8.7 apg (v. 3.4 TO/game), 3.7 rpg and 1.9 apg in 39 minutes. Not only that, he’s come up big for the Knicks in big moments and against strong opposition. In addition to his stellar fourth quarter work on Tuesday, Felton had 20 points and 12 assists in the Knicks’ Christmas Day win over the Bulls; he had 26-14 in the team’s 118-116 near-miss against the Celtics; and he buried a 3-pointer with :02 left on December 8 to give the Knicks a three-point home win over the Raptors- a game in which he had 28 points and 11 assists. That’s a pretty solid contribution to a team that’s enjoying success for the first time in a decade.

It’s worth noting that the Knicks’ coach Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo style of play has inflated a stat line or two in its day, so we can also turn to some more advanced metrics to assess Felton’s play. According to 82games.com, in 2010-11 the point guard position (of which 80% of the minutes are going to Felton) has easily been the Knicks’ most efficient.

Relative to his peers, Felton’s performed admirably as well. In terms of Win Shares, Adjusted Win Shares and “Assists+” (adjusted for assists leading to 3-pointers), he ranks fifth among point guards, behind Paul, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Steve Nash. In terms of offensive efficiency among point guards, Felton ranks seventh in the NBA, behind the four guys mentioned above, as well as Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. For an NBA lead guard, that’s not bad company to be keeping.

This isn’t to say that Felton is as good or better than the other players named above, but statistically, he’s contributing comparably to his team’s success. Sadly, however, rather than focusing on the solid play the Knicks are getting from the point guard position, a disproportionate amount of media attention is being focused on guys not running the point for the Knicks.

For Raymond’s sake, can we at least let him have these two years?

It’s pretty much universally believed that Paul, one of the two best point guards on the planet, is as smitten with the Knicks as they are with him, so the idea that his possible arrival would get plenty of back page play is not terribly farfetched.

One potential area of concern with Paul is the condition of his left knee, on which he’s had surgery and now wears a brace that’s been described by ESPN’s Ric Bucher as a “flack jacket.” There are a number of varying reports as to the exact procedure performed on the knee, and the prevailing condition of Paul’s meniscus, the knee’s shock absorber. The main reason for concern here is the case study of Portland’s Brandon Roy, who is at risk of losing the remainder of his 2010-11 season. Roy has had the meniscus in each of his knees removed (each knee is now bone-on-bone) and has effectively stated that he’ll never be the same athlete that he’s been in the past.

However, according to the more credible of online sources, Paul has not had his meniscus removed, simply repaired, and that even if the meniscus had been removed, it would be the better part of a decade before any serious issues would pop up. Given this, and based anecdotally on what we’ve seen watching Chris Paul play this year… go to town, Knicks fans!

But now, Steve Nash?

I love Steve Nash. Both in terms of his on-court style and what we’ve seen of his personality, Nash is one of the best and most likable players in the NBA. Despite Suns’ owner Robert Sarver’s unabashed cheapness, and the Suns seemingly inching toward an overhaul/rebuild, Nash continues to soldier on. Out of incredible loyalty to the fans of Phoenix, Nash has refused to ask for a trade to contender, which he’d be more than justified in doing. I love Steve Nash and sincerely hope he ‘s able to win the championship ring that has eluded him before his career is over.

I also realize that best years of Nash’s Hall of Fame career came when he played for D’Antoni, and alongside Stoudemire. On paper, it seems like a perfect match, but with Nash about to turn 37 (February 7) and the Knicks not in a position to win a title this season or next, he’s nothing more than an upgraded version of the two-year stopgap that Raymond Felton was acquired to be.

Rather than paying to upgrade a position that they’re already planning to upgrade in 18 months, the Knicks are better served hanging on to the top-10 point guard they’ve already got and focusing their energy on adding a top-tier rebounder and/or defender- a move they certainly won’t regret when they’re courting Chris Paul.

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