New York Knicks looking like 2004-05 Phoenix Suns
Amar’e Stoudemire led his New York Knicks into Phoenix Jan. 7 for the first time since leaving the team that drafted him in 2002. It was his homecoming, and a better one it couldn’t have been.
Stoudemire had 23 points and nine rebounds but played just 31 minutes in a game that was mostly academic midway through the third quarter as the Knicks won 121-96.
Meanwhile, the Suns once-efficient offensive attack looked about as well oiled as the Tin Man before Dorothy came along, mustering just 25 percent 3-point shooting and getting outrebounded 59-34 as well.
Clearly the day belonged to Stoudemire and his 21-14 Knicks squad, and as the game progressed, one couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this team and the 2004-05 Suns team that went 62-20 and that both Stoudemire and Coach Mike D’Antoni were a part of.
Both teams made big free agent acquisitions after down years (Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson for Phoenix, Stoudemire and Raymond Felton for New York).
Both teams shot/shoot the three pointer well (Phoenix: 39.3 percent, New York: 37.5 percent).
Both teams led/lead the league in scoring (Phoenix: 110.4, New York: 108.1).
And both teams were/are the talk of the league as people slowly began jumping on their bandwagons.
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This Knicks team is no joke, no fluke. They are for real with or without Carmelo Anthony in the fold. With solid role players like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Ronny Turiaf, and Landry Fields, this team has proven it can beat anyone on any given night.
But the 2004-05 Suns team was much more talented than this current Knicks team, with a starting five of Nash, Joe Johnson, Richardson, Shawn Marion, and Stoudemire and Jim Jackson, Leandro Barbosa, and Steven Hunter off the bench.
And it didn’t win it all.
Phoenix allowed just 103.3 points on 44.5 percent shooting to opponents that season while these Knicks are allowing 106.2 points on 46.8 percent shooting. And that Suns squad even rebounded better than these Knicks. Phoenix was outrebounded by opponents 46.1 to 44.1 while the Knicks are being outrebounded 43.9 to 41.3.
So with history serving as a guide, it will now be up to these players to succeed where the 2004-05 Suns did not.
First off, they must find a way to score if their three-point shots are not falling or being taken away by the defense.
The San Antonio Spurs turned defending the Suns into a science, negating the three and forcing the Suns to turn to Stoudemire as its sole offensive option. And while Stoudemire may have averaged 37 points against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals in 2005, San Antonio still won the series in five games.
This Knicks team doesn’t have that defensive juggernaut San Antonio team to content with, but teams like the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks can all pose similar threats. Teams with strong defenses that have big players and can defend the pick and roll between Stoudemire and Felton won’t have to leave shooters open for threes. This will lead to Felton and Stoudemire becoming the focal points of the offense with three Knicks standing around the three-point line, disengaged from the offense.
The only way to thwart this is to have the players not involved in the pick and roll to be in constant motion, cutting and setting picks to free up shooters. If the offense becomes stagnant and bogged down, then New York will be out of the game quickly.
Second, D’Antoni must trust his bench.
In Phoenix, he had little patience for developing a bench unit, often playing seven- or eight-man rotations and leaning on the starters for heavy minutes. His rotations became even tighter in the playoffs, where Jackson was usually the only reserve to get significant minutes.
This can’t be the case if New York plans on emerging in the East. Both Boston and Orlando have strong benches and can use them to rest their key players, enabling those players to be fresh in the final minutes of games. New York will need the same thing, or they will be bounced quickly once the game gets mucked up by playoff defense.
That will require D’Antoni to trust his players. No one on D’Antoni’s bench in Phoenix could replicate what Nash or Marion or Stoudemire did on the court, so he refused to take those players out of games, drawing criticism for burning players out.
In New York, he will need to trust players whom he may not ordinarily trust to make plays and provide solid minutes to spell his stars for short stretches of games, allowing them to be fresh when it comes time to close out games. After all, you don’t want players shooting threes with heavy legs.
And finally, the Knicks must be able to play playoff-intensity defense.
The Suns, for all the offensive talent that team (and ensuing incarnations) had, it never played great team defense. Rather, D’Antoni’s philosophy dictated that the Suns just outscore the opponent. This tactic can work in the regular season, but it simply does not work in the playoffs. The Suns had solid defenders in Marion and Johnson to mitigate damage but never could get enough stops to beat the elite teams in the NBA.
This will be New York’s greatest challenge. The Knicks do not have a single lockdown defender, and D’Antoni is not exactly a defensive guru. The acquisition of a player such as Anthony (who also is not known as a defender) would undoubtedly cost the Knicks a player like Landry Fields, who gives them all-out hustle.
So how will they get enough stops in the playoffs to be a factor? The only way New York can do it is for every player to be on the same page defensively every play, playing actively, denying the ball, getting in passing lanes, and just being a general nuisance to the opposing team without overextending on defense, which will allow easy looks at the basket.
They can do it. These players have the same enthusiasm for playing that the Suns had seven years ago. Everything is fresh for them — the winning, the adulation, the raised expectations. But if they make the playoffs only to fall victim to a more fundamentally sound team, then the Knicks players and coaching staff will get a taste of a couple more fresh items to start next season — the pressure, the questions.
And those are not nearly as enjoyable.
By: Eric Lorenz
Pro Basketball Fans Staff Writer
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