TEAM #6: NEW YORK KNICKS (Eastern 2nd seed: 54-28, SRS of 3.73)
- Series prediction: Knicks WIN in the first round, LOSE in the second round. ( • • • )
- Three most likely end results: 3-4 after 4-1 ( • • • ), 4-3 after 4-1 ( • • • ), 1-4 after 4-1 ( • • )
While the Knicks aren't a great team, predicting them to bow out to the Indiana Pacers would represent a slightly strange result for the league. After all, Carmelo Anthony is an MVP candidate that seems assured to get a top-5 spot in the voting. Mike Woodson is a coach of the year candidate with the greatest goatee in the history of the craft. Tyson Chandler is the reigning defensive player of the year. The Knicks won 5 more games in the regular season and enter the series with home court advantage. The Knicks are one of the best offenses in the league, and the Pacers defense has been collapsing over the season's final stretch. The Pacers offense is putrid. All of those things are true, at least in part, but they miss a few key caveats to each point that change the game.
First, yes, Carmelo Anthony IS an MVP candidate. He was virtually unguardable for a month to start the season and a month to finish the season. He was also
eminently easy to guard for several months of the season while he was working through injury and keyed on by good defenses. Those aren't mutually exclusive, and it points to the difference between the LeBron/Durant/Paul tier of MVP candidates and the lesser lights below them. Those three are legitimately impossible to consistently guard. They don't have any particular tells. You can't goad them into taking bad shots. You can't force them to a place of discomfort. Traditionally, when you slow the game down into a halfcourt contest? You can do that with Melo. You can goad him into bad shots, and you can keep him in check. He's an MVP candidate because he's having his best season -- he's not an MVP candidate because he's an impossible-to-guard force of nature with a chip on his shoulder. There's a difference. It's important.
Second, you have the coaching matchup -- Woodson IS a coach of the year candidate, but Indiana coach Frank Vogel's no chopped liver. He's shown himself to be an excellent tactician and a grade-A motivator. Woodson's proven that he's a decent coach, but the coaching matchup is a push at best. Tyson Chandler IS the reigning DPoY, but he's also had an incredibly disappointing season that's seen the New York defense take a furious nosedive into impotence and woe. Chandler's great, when he's healthy. He's not. He hasn't been all season, and New York's defense has essentially fallen apart in his absence. The Knicks DID win five more games, but that's a really misleading stat -- even after Indiana's late season slide and even considering their early season fog, the Pacers and Knicks have virtually identical overall efficiencies, and if you translate their efficiency differential to projected records, the Knicks would be projected a record of 53-29 and the Pacers would be projected a record of 52-29. They're simply not as far apart as the NBA standings would indicate. This is a wholly even matchup, star power be damned.
Finally, you have what I consider the most important part of my "Indiana beats New York" prediction. Yes, the New York offense is one of the best in the game, and the Indiana defense has looked a bit shaky lately. But if you watch the tape -- and I watched entirely too much to make this pick, let me tell you -- the Pacers defense simply isn't struggling as much as the numbers make it seem. It really isn't, and I think Frank Vogel understands that. Teams ended the season making an inordinate amount of tough shots against strong contests and strong rotations. Sure, the Pacers got a bit lazy -- and Vogel benched their best players a bit to freshen them up for the playoffs. But the fundamentals of Indiana's defense are absolutely still there, and their biggest fundamental strength (that is, the fact that everyone in their core rotation is monstrously huge and lengthy for their position) isn't going to evaporate just because a few opponents made tough shots to end the season.
More interesting, to me? Indiana's offense -- admittedly putrid for most of the year -- is finally starting to show some signs of life. All season, Indiana's had to run plays through David West and pray that things work out. Roy Hibbert has finally seen a return-to-form for his previously absent jump hook, Paul George has been getting open more successfully than he was in the early stretches of the season (although, to be fair, he's been missing a lot of open shots too), and the Pacers in a general sense look like a team whose play has been besieged by missed open shots on their end and made contested shots on the other end. Their struggles don't really resemble San Antonio's complete collapse in the last quarter of the season, at least not to me -- their struggles seem far easier to fix, and for that reason, I think the Pacers shock this Knicks team.
As for why things look grim on New York's end? They're a team that's reliant on Steve Novak getting the space to shoot in a playoff situation (Hey, look! It's Bonner 2.0!) against a stout defensive team, Melo/Cope/Shump shooting over 37% from three against the kind of length Indiana will show them on the perimeter, Jason Kidd shooting 35% from three against ANYONE, and their defense keeping West/Hibbert out of the paint and Paul George out of his comfortable spot-up shots. I just don't see it. (... Which is quite the shame, because New York going on a 2009 Magic-esque shooting streak is probably the only way the Heat bow out before the finals. But I'll get to that later.)
This is a team that seems to ebb and flow based purely on chance in the Melo Era. 2.5 years, and there is still no correlation between anything that happens. Linsanity happened, and then it didn't. Amar'e got injured and then he wasn't. Same with all the others. They'll probably at least
make a solid case to go to the ECF and with all their 3-point shooting (and Miami's), they at least have variance on their side for a Finals Run. They have a knack for looking like the best team in the league for stretches and a middling faux-contender for stretches. I don't know. I don't really like their chances, and I could see them, like, going scoreless for entire quarters
when Miami closes out on their shooters, I could also see them taking care of the ball, not allowing Miami to get into its deadly transition, and just flipping a coin ten times and having 9 of them come up heads.