The Knicks no longer have identity crisis.
For the last decade or so there hasn’t been much to cheer about in the “World’s Most Famous Arena” but, the Knicks are now the last undefeated team in the Association; doing so for the first time since the 1958-1959 campaign.
In the season opener they dismantled the defending champion Miami Heat by 20. They then blasted Philly at home on Sunday by 16, and completed the home-and-home sweep of the Sixers with a 110-88 onslaught the following night.
The fast start is the first in team history where they won the first three games by double digits. The Knickerbockers are 3-0 for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, and for the first time seem to have an identity behind head coach Mike Woodson.
The last time they won their first three games, Patrick Ewing was playing out his last season in the Garden, and that Jeff Van Gundy squad was the last to win a playoff series. In the twelve seasons since Ewing’s departure the franchise has made only four cameo playoff appearances, and has a combined postseason record of 3-15.
After dropping 13 straight spring contests, the Knicks finally won a playoff game under Woodson, beating the Heat in Game 4 of the First Round. The long awaited victory was the team’s first in the postseason since they defeated the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the opening round back on April 29. 2001.
In years following, the Knicks became the laughing stock of the league, until Donnie Walsh came in and cleaned the whole mess up. After Van Gundy abruptly resigned the franchise missed the postseason eight of 9 seasons, and the coaching carousel consisted of Don Chaney, Herb Williams, Lenny Wilkens, back to Williams, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, Mike D’Antoni, and now Woodson.
Some notable, big-money names came in but, they all failed, and failed miserably. Woodson, the Knicks first round pick in 1980 out of Indiana was given the dubious task of bringing this storied franchise back to relevancy, and so far he has embraced the challenge.
Up to this point he has bucked the trend, going 21-6 since replacing D’Antoni on the bench in March. In fact, he became the quickest Knick coach to ever hit 20 wins, surpassing the 29-game mark of Pat Riley. Sure it’s only a 27-game sample size but, the record is certainly a testament to the fine work done by Coach Woody.
He is as old-school as it gets and he wanted to mold a tough, defensive minded team. He also wanted a veteran group, and General Manager Glen Grundwald provided him with greybeards Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, and Pablo Prigioni. The aging group may be old but, they can still play – especially on the defensive end. He also brought in defensive ace Ronnie Brewer, and scrappy Raymond Felton to run the point.
The old adage is defense wins Championships, and ‘Sheed’ knows all about that dating back to his days with Woodson in Detroit. “Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships,” he said in the Knicks’ locker room after they drubbed Philly in Sunday’s matinee.
Since Woodson took over the reins he has instilled and preached defense to his group, hoping to get results like this. The Knicks are allowing an average of only 85 points and 41 percent shooting over these first three games. After each win Woodson has written these numbers on the board in the locker room, because numbers like these are indeed the building blocks of a Championship contender.
However, for an offense that isn’t coached anymore by the offensive mastermind D’Antoni, they are filling it up. During the nearly perfect stretch the team is shooting 45.3 percent from 3-point range, and their 43 makes are the most in NBA history through a team’s first three games.
They have averaged 104.7 points a game, while shooting 82.7 percent from the foul line, which includes the 19-for-19 night they had on Monday. With the hounding defense, and accurate shooting they have breezed through their opponents by an average of 19.3 points.
Amazingly, this has all been done without Stoudemire, Camby, and 22-year old Iman Shumpert, who is arguably one of the best young perimeter defenders in the game. In the six previous times the franchise started 3-0, they have won at least 50 games five times and averaged 53.7 wins.
On Friday they go up against the Dallas Mavericks in the Garden, and have a good chance of hitting the 4-0 mark, with the Mavs without both Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. History says in the previous two times that they Knicks started 3-0 they won the Championship in 1969-70, and lost in the finals in 1993-94.
Those teams prided themselves on defense and this group is looking more, and more like Riley’s hardnosed group of the 90’s. Opposing teams knew that if they were coming into the paint they were going to get hit by either Ewing, Charles Oakley, or Anthony Mason.
Now teams in the East have to worry about the Knicks beefy front line of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, Camby who won the same award in 2007, a 6-11 Wallace, Thomas, and Amare Stoudemire, when he eventually returns.
So far the help defense and rotations have been aggressive and tight, which is a reflection on the slew of additions, and the great coaching by Woodson. Brewer, Kidd, and Prigioni are solid perimeter defenders, who like to get into passing lanes, and they have already caused plenty of havoc, helping the Knicks average a monstrous 10 steals a game.
Ironically though, some of the biggest defensive contributions have come from Carmello Anthony, who is playing inspiring ball on both end of the floor. After shedding roughly 15 pounds in the summer, and winning a Gold Medal in the Olympics, he is playing some of the best basketball in what is now his tenth season in the league.
When Woodson stepped in he didn’t try to only teach defense, but he brought in a new level of accountability. A lot of that responsibility he rightfully put on the shoulders of Anthony, and he has been in the All-Star’s ear ever since arriving.
The 28-year old not only listened but, has made a conscious effort in trying to become a better complete player. He has seemed to mature under Woodson, and his buying into the system is crucial to the team’s success.
Just the other night he dove into the seats trying to save a loose ball, made hard fouls to deny opponents easy buckets, and supported his teammates with crisp help defense. His spirited play has been contagious, and everyone has followed their leader’s way.
If we have learned anything about this team over the past week, it’s that if they do go down, they’re going down swinging. Experience goes a long-way in this league, and this is a battle-tested bunch like no other.
The big knock on the Knicks heading into the season was that they're old, and there’s no denying that. “We’re an old team. We can't escape it; we're not running from it. That's who we are," Camby said a few weeks ago.
The roster’s average age is 31.6 years old, believed to be the second-oldest in N.B.A. history. With age, however, comes experience and leadership; crucial ingredients in getting to the top. To put it in perspective, the roster has a combined 777 games of playoff experience.
Woodson has the task of making all these egos work, and so far everyone has bought into his system. A good team is where the players play for one another, and this team is having a blast together.
“Guys are laughing, having a good time out there, making the game easy for one another, and that's the way the game should be played,” Camby said. "We're all playing for one. We don't really care who gets the shine or gets the credit. We're all buying into the common goal thus far this season, so the most important thing for us right now is to be consistent."
While some Knick fans are floating on cloud nine, the reality is there is a long way to go, and they can’t get ahead of themselves with 79 games left on the calendar. But, the thing is, this group knows who they are, and they are building quite an identity for themselves.
In the last week alone, they have not only shown their defensive prowess but they have moved atop most Power Rankings and showed that they will be a force in the Eastern Conference. They have been fun to watch over these past few days, and the Knick faithful can only hope that the cheering lasts deep into the summer.