Despite changes in approach, Carmelo Anthony's offense stalls against Pacers
The long-standing criticism of Carmelo Anthony’s offensive game is that, for a player of his size and skills, he’s far too content to settle. He has the strength and speed to dominate in a variety of ways, but that world of offensive potential too often loses out to the allure of the pull-up jumper. Granted, it’s a shot that the Knicks' forward hits more than most, but those tough pull-ups make for a temperamental first-option offense and do a clear disservice to one of the league's most versatile scorers.
It was on these grounds that Anthony struggled against the Celtics in the first round, where tedious half-court execution pitted him against a defense leaning into his driving lanes and baiting him into that jumper. Anthony obliged, attempting 60 mid-range jumpers for the series (making 24, 71 percent of which came unassisted), and more generally shot 37.9 percent from the field. Some of those shots helped stave off Boston and keep New York alive in a trying series, but many more contributed to the malaise that rendered a once-potent offense shallow and solvable.
It took Anthony and Knicks coach Mike Woodson the better part of that first-round series to adjust, but the scoring champion and his team instantly embraced a radically different approach in Game 1 against the Pacers, albeit in the most ineffective way possible. His 10-for-28 shooting stands as evidence of the fact that even well-intended adjustments can go awry, which would seem the only fair way to characterize Anthony's reckless driving into the teeth of Indiana's defense.
New York turned away from isolations to focus more on pick-and-roll play -- a sensible shift given how efficient Anthony has been in that area of the game this season. Based on that strength (and the difficulty in general of guarding Anthony on the move), New York essentially doubled its use of the pick-and-roll compared with the regular season, according to Synergy Sports, and tasked Anthony with operating as the ball handler in many of those situations. But there's a world of difference between running pick-and-rolls and running them well, which became all too apparent with every one of Anthony's wild, full-speed drives into the expectant Roy Hibbert*:
*There's also something to be said about the role of officiating in Game 1, insofar as Hibbert's getting the benefit of the doubt on a number of calls that could have gone either way. I didn't find anything egregious in the way that Game 1 was officiated, but earlier and more frequent calls against Hibbert would have dramatically shaped the course of the game, and could well affect the course of the series moving forward. Every officiating crew has its own threshold for allowable contact, and some might choose to penalize the Pacers for their physicality.
In Game 1, Anthony attempted 12 shots in the restricted area -- just a few short of the 16 he attempted in the entire series against Boston. He isolated less and attacked the basket more, and still Anthony's offense was unmistakably transparent. His only plays seemed to involve pulling up off the dribble -- and playing into the Pacers' hands -- or driving headlong into Hibbert.
The former turned out to be the far more successful endeavor. In theory, Anthony did well in putting his head down and getting to the basket, but he converted just 25 percent of his tries around the rim compared with 54.5 percent (6-of-11) from mid-range. The Pacers conceded those intermediate looks by having Hibbert retreat to protect the basket as opposed to attacking Anthony at the point of the screen, a decision that also left Knicks center Tyson Chandler (No. 6) idle on the perimeter:
By tethering Hibbert to the basket, Indiana coach Frank Vogel eliminated the threat of Chandler's roll and simultaneously forced Anthony into a difficult position. Indiana didn't rank as the league's best defensive team by accident; Vogel has a roster with competent defenders at every position and understands of how to ensnare opponents with good, preventative schemes. Paul George and Hibbert are about as effective a defensive tandem against Anthony's skill set as you're likely to find, and the Pacers may well win this series on the basis of being able to cut off access to 'Melo's most reliable sources of efficient offense (post-ups, typical pick-and-roll play, focused access to those one-on-one advantages, off-the-catch shooting).
But the Knicks can obviously do better on the offensive end, starting with Anthony's half-court execution. His high pick-and-rolls may have backfired from a spacing perspective, but Anthony was still able to attack the basket and draw in the defense when Chandler was parked on the opposite block:
From this spot, the Pacers' perimeter defenders had little choice but to cheat in on Chandler once Hibbert rotated over to help against Anthony's drive, lest they surrender an easy chance for a lob or offensive rebound. As a result, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are left unattended on the weak side of the floor, capable of knocking down a timely kick-out if Anthony were paying more attention to his surroundings.
This, more than anything, has been Anthony's biggest fault of the postseason. Much of his growth as a player this year was predicated on simple trust -- that a pass out from the block would result in a re-post, that a kick-out would swing its way to the open man, that New York's ball handlers could make for fine caretakers of the offense while he works off the ball. But Anthony has been reluctant to pass out of double teams and help situations against Indiana and Boston in the playoffs, leaving the Knicks' role players to stand around on the perimeter without all that much to do or much means to help.
Anthony has the skill set -- both as a driver and post-up option -- to lure the Pacers out of their tight three-point coverage. But more than anything, he needs to read plays more effectively to find the open man and exploit the Pacers when they over-help against him. Plays like this one should not happen:
The underlying goal isn't to get Anthony shots, but to produce good looks for the offense. New York's cast of perimeter shooters serves a crucial function for the offense, and yet the team's 19 three-point attempts in Game 1 tied a season low. Again: Great, committed defense from the Pacers plays a big part in that, as Indiana generally did a fine job of staying glued to perimeter threats. But the vulnerabilities are there if Anthony would care to expose them, and if Raymond Felton -- who again seemed underused -- were given more of an opportunity.
Additionally, as Dylan Murphy noted in his breakdown of the Knicks' Game 1 performance for Posting and Toasting, New York's big men could stand to do far more effective work as off-ball screeners. Having Chandler set a high screen for Anthony may not do much good against Hibbert's conservative coverage, but that same Pacers strategy could work against them if Chandler sets more blind-side screens away from the ball. In those situations, Hibbert would typically be called on to help resolve the chaos created by a pick and subsequent cut, and ensure that the recovering defender isn't completely exposed by the situation. But Hibbert is often settled deep into the paint throughout most of New York's possessions, giving Chandler and Kenyon Martin the chance to free up flaring shooters without much help defense. With neither Knicks center a credible shooting threat, using more coordinated screening action would seem the most natural way to prevent the court-clogging listlessness we saw from both in Game 1 and help create value from what was a clear position of weakness.
That, too, could help to alleviate some of the pressure on Anthony, as the Knicks' offense will always come back to him. His wide-ranging game is a lever that can pry open the weaknesses of opponents if applied in the right ways, and the Knicks are closer to finding that ideal than they were a series ago. Anthony can, and should, look to create off the dribble as often as he did in Game 1. He rightly moved away from the stodgy isolation game that works against New York’s best interests and is smart to challenge Hibbert’s positioning and mobility by attacking the basket. But New York's best hope for consistent offense in this series is as it always was: to feature Anthony as a creator and a catalyst, rather than the end-all of every possession that swings his way.