NBA PM: Knicks, Bulls & the Anatomy of an Upset
HOOPSWORLD executive editor Jason Fleming inadvertently stumbled upon the main topic for today’s NBA PM when he tweeted, “Playing with ESPN’s NBA playoff predictor and the Knicks upset the Bulls disturbingly often.”
ESPN’s Playoff Simulator is a fun little toy where you can run different playoff scenarios, and Jason was right. It’s somewhat peculiar how often the Knicks—who are currently seeded eighth in the Eastern Conference Playoff picture—upset the would-be top-seeded Bulls. The two teams are separated by 14 and a half games in the standings, after all.
The simulator may not be accounting for Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire’s back injury, which will keep him out indefinitely and may require surgery. It also may omit the fact that Jeremy Lin has a bad knee, which has left him day to day. But all that doesn’t mean the simulator is wrong.
In truth, this is a topic that I’ve been considering in one form or another for some time and now, with Jason’s accidental prompting, I’m happy to delve into further.
Remember the Memphis Grizzlies’ upset of the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in last year’s playoffs? Lionel Hollins’ team was thought to be overmatched as it was playing without injured small forward Rudy Gay against a San Antonio team that was coming off a 61-win season.
Well there are quite a few similarities between that six-game series and the theoretical one the Bulls and Knicks would take part in if the standings stay constant through the regular season’s final month.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about a potential Bulls-Knicks series:
The most-recent development is the injury to Stoudemire and that’s nothing to take lightly. Under no circumstances is that an advantage for the Knicks just as losing Gay wasn’t an advantage for the Grizzlies. But what makes New York a dangerous underdog is the efficient way interim coach Mike Woodson can adjust the offense. Just as Hollins turned to Zach Randolph, who made 50% of his field goals in the Spurs series, Woodson can move Carmelo Anthony to the post where he’s a far more efficient player.
Don’t believe me?
Before Woodson moved Anthony to power forward in Stoudemire’s absence in Monday’s win over the Bucks, the All-Star had attempted just seven free throws over his previous three games (he also made just 16 of 42 field goals during that stretch, mostly relying on perimeter shots). But playing closer to the basket on offense against Milwaukee allowed Anthony to make 8 of 20 field goals and get to the line where he made all 12 free throw attempts. The result was arguably Anthony’s best game since joining the Knicks: 28 points, 12 boards, one block, one steal.
And Anthony’s move to the post wasn’t just about Stoudemire’s absence. It was really Woodson’s effort to get Anthony to play to his strengths.
“Tonight, and even last game, for me, I wanted to get stuff close to the basket,” said Anthony, who last scored over 20 points in a game back on Jan. 20th. “My shot hasn’t been falling as of late, get some easy baskets, get to the post, get fouled, get to the foul line and then start working inside out. That’s something I’ve been doing, you know, my whole career. I just started back doing that these last couple of games.”
Another connection between this year’s Knicks team and last season’s Grizzlies is the brand of defense they play. New York currently ranks fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency and the team has gotten only stingier since Woodson’s promotion (it ranked seventh when former coach Mike D’Antoni stepped down). Memphis ranked eighth in defensive efficiency a year ago and with Gay out of the lineup against the Spurs, Hollins turned to a more defensive rotation, giving significant minutes to Sam Young, Tony Allen, Shane Battier and Greivis Vasquez (who, at 6-6, is a decent defensive point guard for his size alone).
The Knicks’ defense has relied on center Tyson Chandler and injured forward Jared Jeffries, but Woodson has also gotten players like Anthony and J.R. Smith—who were never thought of as great defenders—to give full effort on that end of the floor.
New York also has a special defensive advantage over Chicago.
Since the Bulls never added a threat at shooting guard—geriatric Richard Hamilton (who is battling a shoulder injury) averages 11.3 PPG, but has his lowest Player Efficiency Rating (12.78) since his first years in the league—the Knicks won’t be punished for keeping perimeter defensive ace Iman Shumpert on reigning MVP Derrick Rose. Lin can guard Hamilton or Ronnie Brewer without fear of giving up too much while the 6-6 Shumpert can focus his talents on Rose.
Remember, Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel gave the league a blueprint for defending Rose in the first round of last year’s playoffs when he put 6-9 swingman Paul George on the All-Star. Rose finished the series shooting 37.1 percent from the field. He still scored 27.6 PPG and the Bulls won in five games, but Rose had to take 21 shots per game to get to that average and a better all-around team than last season’s Indiana squad likely would have made Chicago pay for its overreliance on Rose.
The Knicks didn’t really implement that strategy in their two losses to the Bulls so far this season, but that was an eternity ago for this team. New York is 7-1 since Woodson’s promotion and has played far more efficiently on both sides of the floor in the last few weeks.
One similarity these Bulls have with last year’s Spurs is age. The 34-year-old Hamilton and 30-year-old Carlos Boozer have each logged between 25 and 30 minutes per game this season and it’s not difficult to envision them slowing down in a seven-game series just as Tim Duncan (12.7 PPG, 62.5% from the line, 47.8% from the field in that series) and Antonio McDyess (5.7 PPG, 41.7% from the field) did against Randolph (21.5 PPG, 9.2 rpg) and Marc Gasol (14.2 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 53.3% from the field) last April.
Lastly, these Knicks are built like last season’s Grizzlies. Both teams had a lot of depth, which kept them fresher for the postseason. New York relies heavily on backups Smith, Shumpert, Jeffries and Baron Davis. Assuming Davis (who has a hamstring issue) and Jeffries (knee) can still play in May, this unit poses a definite threat to any opponent in a best-of-seven series.
The Knicks depth is one reason they have a +2.3 point differential this season. Often times eighth seeds come in with negative differentials or differentials of less than a point. But just as Memphis had last season (+2.3) this Knicks team outscored its opponents by a significant amount this year. Yes, they had a few losing streaks (just as the 2010-2011 Grizzlies had) but on average, Woodson’s squad is particularly potent—especially for an eighth seed.
Could the Knicks Get Deeper?
MSG analyst and former Newsday beat writer Alan Hahn made a bold suggestion that warrants mentioning. If the Knicks are worried about depth without Stoudemire, they could sign Rasheed Wallace who is rumored to be on the verge of a comeback and looked to be in good shape at several recent charity games.
Wallace and Woodson worked together in Detroit when Woodson was an assistant under Larry Brown.
Spurs Continue Adding to Bench
After signing veteran forward Boris Diaw, who was waived by the Bobcats, and Stephen Jackson, who was recently with the Bucks, the Spurs have added point guard Patty Mills to the roster, according to a report by the Associated Press.
San Antonio was looking for a point guard after T.J. Ford’s retirement, and now with Mills, who recently played in China, they’ve added one with a very respectable outside shot. Now the Spurs go a couple deep at every single position.
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