By Ben Golliver
The New York Knicks easily dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers 100-84 in a noon matinée at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The Knicks played so well, especially early, that their been-around-the-block fan base understandably felt both joy and anxiety afterwards. Ball movement, help defense, extra effort plays and good shot selection. Beautiful stuff, but will it last? Please, will it last?
• The central force in this contrast of emotions is Carmelo Anthony, who would find himself in the discussion as a top-3 player in the league if he played like this 82 nights a year. Anthony proved to be an unsolvable riddle for the Sixers defense, burning them from the power forward position no matter how they chose to defend him. Single coverage? He froze Thaddeus Young in time with a spin move, before finishing an and-one play at the rim. Send a hard double? Anthony kicked out repeatedly to the perimeter, where the Knicks guards looked eager, at least for now, to skip it around the arc until an open man was located. Five different Knicks hit threes in the first half. Flash a double at Anthony or send soft help? He went to work, and quickly, finishing with 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting, finding the touch on his mid-range shot without over-indulging.
The icing, though, was Anthony's effort level on defense. In total, he finished with five rebounds, two blocks and a steal, a nice line, but one that understates his impact. Known as a player content to let others do the little things, Anthony brought a May intensity to a November game. The signature play came when Anthony blocked a shot and then chased the loose ball into the stands, leaping into the sideline crowd, sending a fan's beer splashing to the crowd. That was not the only sequence of its kind. As the first half closed, Anthony jumped Dorell Wright near mid-court, forcing an errant pass intercepted by Knicks guard Jason Kidd. Anthony then wisely leaked out and finished an uncontested lay-up to seal a 13-point halftime lead. In the second half, he caught Wright again, forcing another turnover near halfcourt with quick hands, diving to the hardwood to help prevent the Sixers from retaining possession.
In these and other moments, Anthony works against his own long-standing reputation as a player whose commitment to scoring far exceeds his commitment to everything else. The fully committed Anthony, though, is a fearsome one. Contagious too, as teammates J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton, in particular, seem particularly motivated so far in the early season.
• With Amar'e Stoudemire out for the foreseeable future due to a balky left knee, Knicks coach Mike Woodson has opted to use three guards in his starting lineup -- Felton, Jason Kidd and Ronnie Brewer -- alongside Anthony at the power forward position. Woodson stays small as he works through his rotation, leaning heavily on Smith, Pablo Prigioni and Steve Novak, all perimeter-oriented players. These personnel and lineup combinations demand ball movement and shot-making. The Knicks have hit 30-for-63 (47.6 percent) from deep through two games this season, a figure that is both eye-popping and unsustainable. Felton and Kidd will become increasingly important when the shots stop dropping; their decision-making, particularly late in the clock and off-the-dribble, will decide wins and losses. So far, the Knicks are taking care of the ball well, although Felton got a little home-run happy at times against the Sixers, forcing two lob plays that weren't there.
The Knicks' current small ball orientation -- lots of distributors, willingly making passes around the perimeter -- makes the unselfishness of their individual players difficult to judge in box score format. Anthony was credited with one assist, but he read the defense well throughout this game. Felton had just one assist to four turnovers but he wasn't ball-stopping or totally careless, just a bit over-eager in hitting the lob and calling his own number for three-point attempts on a few occasions. The number to track during Stoudemire's absence, given this somewhat unconventional distribution, is assist percentage. So far on the season, 60 percent (45 of 75) of New York's field goals have been assisted. For comparison's sake, the San Antonio Spurs assisted on 58.5 percent of field goals last season; the Miami Heat assisted on 53.8 percent of their field goals last season. The Knicks are off to a blistering start that they can't reasonably be expected to maintain; the key point for Woodson is that ball movement is benefiting everyone here, including players like Anthony and Smith who might be accustomed to a more rigid, less free-flowing approach.
• The Sixers, playing without injured center Andrew Bynum, struggled to keep pace offensively throughout. They trailed by double-digits for a vast majority of the second half and never found a second scorer; Jrue Holiday's 27 points, seven assists, and two rebounds was the sole standout performance, and it was brought back to earth by his six turnovers. He can't be blamed; he was being asked to do too much. Philadelphia will leave MSG feeling wronged by the basketball gods, as starting two guard Jason Richardson was lost less than two minutes into the game with a fluke left ankle sprain. The injury occurred as Richardson innocuously backed up on the baseline, catching his foot on the foot of a cameraman and severely rolling his ankle. Philly's backcourt play in his absence was non-existent. Evan Turner, Nick Young, Royal Ivey and Maalik Wayns combined to shoot 4-for-25 (16 percent) in 79 combined minutes. J.R. Smith, who finished with 20 points, nearly outscored Philadelphia's bench (24 points total ) by himself and he was just one of seven Knicks reserves who got on the scoreboard. If there's a particular cause for concern here it's Turner, who Philadelphia desperately needs to make a leap following the Andre Iguodala trade. That said, judging Turner, and the rest of Philadelphia's wings, will be a more meaningful process once the Sixers have Bynum, and not the Lavoy Allen/Spencer Hawes duo, filling minutes at the five.