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Improbably, Knicks’ Role Players Step Up
Posted By Tommy Beer On May 10, 2013 @ 12:00 pm In NBA | No Comments
Carmelo Anthony is the NBA’s reigning scoring champion. J.R. Smith won the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year Award. Tyson Chandler took home Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. And Jason Kidd is one of the most decorated and accomplished postseason performers in NBA playoff history.
Conventional wisdom dictated that the New York Knicks’ offensive success this postseason would be overly reliant on their two top scorers – Anthony and Smith. Similarly, Chandler would need to fiercely patrol the paint and control the boards if the Knicks had any hope of defending well enough to make significant noise this postseason.
Yet, the aforementioned stars have been only sporadically effective and often inefficient. However, a band of lesser-known Knicks have played crucial roles in helping carry New York into the second round for the first time this century, and evening their current Conference Semifinals series against the Indiana Pacers at one game apiece. Raymond Felton, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert and Kenyon Martin have exceeded even optimistic Knicks fans’ extreme expectations. The feats of these role players over the past few weeks are even more incredible when you consider the journey they each have traveled over the previous 12 months.
Felton was coming off a disastrous season in Portland. After showing up to camp out of shape, he quickly butted heads with Blazers head coach Nate McMillan and things only got worse from there. He retreated home to South Carolina, hoping for an opportunity to reclaim his name and his game. He would soon get that chance.
Shockingly, the Knicks decided to part ways with Jeremy Lin in July, and New York then choose to bring back Felton, who had played the best basketball of his pro career in NYC under Mike D’Antoni back in 2010. Due to question marks surrounding him following his nightmare campaign in Portland, the Knicks were able to sign Felton at a discount. He started off the 2012-13 regular season playing terrifically for Knicks head coach Mike Woodson, before hand injuries and a shooting slump derailed his hot start. Felton returned in late January and closed out the season in fine fashion. Nonetheless, no one could have expected just how solidly he would play once the postseason began.
It could easily be argued that Felton was New York’s MVP in their first round victory over the Boston Celtics. Not only did he run the offense with precision, he was often tasked with the assignment of guarding Paul Pierce. Felton excelled on both ends of the floor, as the Knicks’ most reliable and consistent performer in round one. In fact, Felton is one of just three players that have averaged over 4.5 assists per game, but fewer than two turnovers this post season (Chris Paul and Mike Conley are the other two). Felton is also averaging nearly 17 points per contest, while shooting 49.6 percent from the floor.
At this time last year, Prigioni was in Spain, preparing for the Liga ACB Playoffs as an occasional starter for Caja Laboral. After his club was eliminated by Real Madrid, the veteran point guard was keenly aware that the end of his professional career was rapidly approaching. Despite having spent his entire career overseas, Prigioni was persuaded by fellow countryman and good friend Luis Scola to finally take the plunge and spend a season in America. The Knicks, looking to solidify the point guard position, took a flier on Prigioni. At 35 years of age, he became the oldest rookie in modern NBA history.
Last summer, when he inked a deal with the Knicks, most stateside pundits assumed he would only play sparingly, if at all. There were simply too many obstacles for an ancient rookie to overcome, right? Fast forward to late March. After the Knicks had lost their first four games on a brutal West Coast road trip, Coach Woodson decided to “go small” and start Prigioni alongside Felton in the backcourt. The Knicks beat the Utah Jazz that night, and went on to amazingly win each of their next 12 games. In the process, Prigioni would become the first rookie in over 20 years (since Boston’s Danny Ainge) to win each of his first 13 career NBA starts.
His consistent and reliable production has carried over into the postseason as well, including an incredible display of confidence in the clutch by knocking down a career-high four three-pointers in the Knicks’ Game 6 victory in Boston.
Overall, Prigioni’s plus/minus numbers this postseason are staggering. With Prigioni on the floor, the Knicks are scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions, and allowing just 85.4 points per 100 possessions. That net rating of +24 is the highest on the team. When Prigioni is not on the court, New York’s offensive production drops to 94.2 and they allow over 98 points per 100 possessions.
From “afterthought” to starter and crucial contributor in a matter of months.
After tearing his left ACL and lateral meniscus in a game against the Miami HEAT during the 2012 playoffs, Shumpert underwent surgery in early May. After enduring a grueling rehab, he returned to game action in mid-January. Then, as he was trying to re-acclimate himself both physically and mentally, Shumpert’s name was bandied about in persistent trade rumors leading up the trade deadline in February. The thinking was the Knicks would be willing to trade to Shumpert because he was still working his way back and wasn’t close to 100 percent. New York – clearly in “win now” mode – would be willing to sacrifice Shumpert’s long-term potential in order to get a player ready to help right away. Well, Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald and the front office chose to sit tight and stick with him. In retrospect, that decision looks more brilliant by the day.
Coming into the NBA out of Georgia Tech, defense and athleticism were Shumpert’s calling cards. His playmaking and shooting ability were major questions marks. Now, 13 months removed from major knee surgery, his athleticism and, in turn, his hounding perimeter defense is slowly but surely returning. Moreover, he is shooting the ball better than ever.
Shumpert has explained that during the majority of his rehab, he was limited to shooting drills, as he couldn’t run or jump for months. The extra work spent perfecting his form has clearly paid dividends. Through the Knicks’ first eight games this postseason, Shumpert is shooting a sizzling 46.9 percent from the floor, 46.2 percent from three-point territory and 80 percent from the free-throw stripe. Consider this: Shumpert is one of just six players still playing this postseason that are shooting above 41 percent on threes, 46 percent from the field and 80 percent from the charity stripe. The other five are Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Matt Bonner, Derek Fisher and Ray Allen. Obviously a small sample size, but not bad company to keep for a kid they said couldn’t shoot coming out of college.
At this time last year, Kenyon Martin was in Los Angeles, playing meaningful minutes off the bench for the L.A. Clippers in their Western Conference Semifinals series against the San Antonio Spurs. What Martin didn’t know at the time – what he certainly didn’t expect – was that he wouldn’t play another meaningful basketball game for 10 months.
Martin became a free-agent at the end of the 2011-12 season. Considering he played well for a competitive Clippers team, Martin and his representatives anticipated fielding plenty of offers from teams looking for a proven veteran who would provide immediate toughness and defense. But the phone stayed silent. Even as training camps opened across the country, the calls never came. He sat on the sidelines, with nary a nibble, until the Knicks finally signed him off the street in late February. The signing was actually historical, as Martin became first former No. 1 overall pick to ever sign a 10-day contract.
Martin played only once in his first six games with New York, but was inked to another 10-day contract and then signed for the season after Amar’e Stoudemire suffered a another knee injury. Martin ended up playing incredibly important minutes, as Chandler dealt with a neck injury and eventually joined the inured Stoudemire (and Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby) on the sideline. Jason Kidd is on record as saying Martin saved the Knicks’ season.
Martin has clearly secured Woodson’s trust by supplying much needed aggression and intensity on the defensive end. He has blocked 13 shots already this postseason, by far the most on the team. He’s also scored in double-figures in back-to-back games against Indiana.
These four players have seen their career’s take some incredibly unexpected twists and turns over the last 12 months. They undoubtedly hope the magical ride lasts for at least a few more weeks, and that they are all still playing at this time next month.
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