We Went There: The Knicks and Nets Circle the Drain at the Toilet BowlNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
The Nets came into last night’s Toilet Bowl having allowed 107.5 points per 100 possessions, the very worst mark in the league. They outdid themselves against the struggling Knicks, allowing the equivalent of 130 points per 100 possessions in a game that began as something of a snark spectacle and gradually became a serious embarrassment for a team with absolutely no clue right now on either end of the floor.
The Knicks did nothing special, though they did come out in the second half clearly committed to running more motion-based plays and generally playing the kind of offense an NBA team should play. They ran a few Carmelo Anthony–Andrea Bargnani pick-and-pops, and they thrived whenever they posted Anthony up against the game but overmatched Alan Anderson. Anthony loves to catch the ball, face up in one-on-one situations, and take midrange jumpers off the bounce. That is glamorous, highlight stuff.
But the Knicks are so, so much better when Anthony challenges himself to do the harder things — running pick-and-rolls that require him to read multiple layers of defense, and bullying smaller wings on the block. Those actions unleash his power as a passer by drawing multiple defenders at him in ways that almost force the ball from his hands.
And tonight the Nets just had no idea how to deal with that version of Melo, especially in the third quarter, when the game got out of hand quickly. If there’s a moment that encapsulates this version of the Nets, it might be here, midway through the third quarter, as Anthony posts up D-league star Toko Shengelia:
Melo has the ball on the left block. But check out Shaun Livingston in the center of the floor. He is pointing and yelling at Brook Lopez, indicating that it is Lopez’s job to scurry over and help poor Shengelia. The proper way to double Melo is presumably something the Nets had discussed at some point leading to this moment. But Lopez’s help was late, allowing Anthony to make his pass with clear sight lines all over the floor, and with Brooklyn’s defense in a chaotic state of midrotation:
With the Nets’ defense scrambling, Raymond Felton shoveled the ball to Iman Shumpert, who nailed an open 3-pointer before any Brooklynite could run at him. At least three or four of New York’s pre–garbage time triples came as a result of botched help-and-recover jobs on Melo post-ups — late initial help, blown rotations around the perimeter, etc.
• The atmosphere at Barclays is somewhere between unfriendly and toxic. Boos overwhelmed cheers when the Nets introduced their starting lineup, and not only because Knick fans comprised half the crowd. Kidd got the loudest boos of all. He also inspired this jersey work from an enterprising fan:
That’s right: This young man purchased a custom “Coach Kidd” Brooklyn jersey and has already grown so angry that he defaced it.
• Before the fourth quarter, David Diamante, the Nets’ in-arena emcee, urges the crowd to “Get behind our guys” and “Stand up, Brooklyn!” And for the second straight game, the crowd responded by raining boos on the team. Poor guy.
• Three conversations I’d like to have bugged:
1. Pablo Prigioni and Mirza Teletovic chatting pregame on the court. “Can you believe we came from halfway across the world for this crap?” “Didn’t you guys do really well when Woodson played you last season? Why doesn’t he play you now?”
2. Billy King, Deron Williams, and one of King’s top lieutenants (Frank Zanin, assistant GM) having a fairly animated conversation after the game in the bowels of the arena. They weren’t angry, but in the brief glimpse I got, Williams was gesturing about something or other. A bunch of writers saw them talking and kind of awkwardly slinked away.
3. King and Steve Mills, the Knicks’ new GM, chatting pregame. This is customary stuff between GMs, but, man. “We really need this one.” “I know you do, but we need it worse.”
• Speaking of Teletovic: The Nets of late have been playing him at small forward, a move that says, roughly, “Nothing is working, so why the hell not try this crazy thing?” And it worked for a while in the first half! Teletovic hit an open 3-pointer on a New York breakdown, Lopez made a couple of shots over a stout Andrea Bargnani, and the Knicks played defense like a 3-13 team.
But it’s unlikely to work well over the long term. Teletovic just doesn’t have the quicks to stay with wing players; he came here as a stretch power forward. He had no shot guarding Melo on the perimeter, yielding way too much space in (very justified) fear of a Melo blow-by. And when Melo was resting early in the second quarter, the Knicks had Teletovic’s man, Tim Hardaway Jr., run around the baseline until Teletovic fell hopelessly behind. The Nets eventually had to switch to an even worse matchup, and the trickle-down from that switch — all the help and warping of the defense — led to an open triple for Hardaway.
“I’m just doing what’s needed,” Teletovic told me after the game, “and what’s asked of me. I think I did a pretty good job, at least in the first half. In the third quarter, it was a little bit different.”
The fact that we’re even talking about Teletovic highlights the Nets’ dire health situation, and that we have to slow-pedal it in trumpeting their demise. The Nets probably didn’t envision playing, say, Teletovic, Taylor, and Mason Plumlee together for a single minute of meaningful basketball all season. Those three played 12 minutes together tonight, and the Shengelia-Teletovic pairing logged 11 minutes. The Nets are playing, and even starting, guys they envisioned as D-leaguers. Three of their six best players are injured. Their best, Brook Lopez, has only recently returned from injury. Andrei Kirilenko, if he’s alive, would change the entire dynamic of this team — injecting a dose of speed and crazy the Nets badly need, especially if he can do so at power forward in smaller lineups.
Patience is running thin, but it’s still necessary.
• Speaking of Hardaway Jr.: After the hilariously predictable Bargnani-Garnett scuffle early in the fourth quarter, Hardaway Jr. noticed a huge pocket of Knicks fans behind the Knicks bench, near the corner of the floor where the sideline meets the baseline. He ran to that corner and began raising his arms, telling the New York fans to get louder. He reminded me of Stone Cold Steve Austin, climbing a corner turnbuckle and interacting with a specific slice of the audience in the arena. It worked. The fans in that corner stood and cheered. They also started a “Garnett sucks!” chant, which Brooklyn fans did not exactly shout down feverishly.
• The Nets supplied media and scouts with cake pops. I had never eaten a cake pop before. They are delicious.
• They are so delicious that I wanted another one at halftime. As I was walking down the stairs toward the tunnel, a New York fan stopped me, handed me his phone, and asked if I’d take a photo of him as he kissed his girlfriend. OK! I took the photo. He asked me, “Is it notebook quality?” I had no clue what he meant. “Is it notebook quality?” he asked again. I just shrugged, and he laughed, and I walked away. Good times.
The cake pops were gone, though.
• Kidd and Garnett said after the game that the Nets have recently been installing new stuff on both ends of the floor, and that the process has accelerated since Kidd dumped Lawrence Frank. Brooklyn wants to install more continuity-based sets in its offense — typical NBA sets that start with the floor aligned a certain way and proceed into a series of read-and-react screens and cuts. This will be a long process, especially since it is at odds, at least to some extent, with Brooklyn’s strength as a post-up team at almost every position.
On defense, Teletovic says the Nets want to defend pick-and-rolls more aggressively, with the big man guarding the screener sliding up an extra step or two in containing opposing point guards. This will be interesting to watch. Brook Lopez has made great strides on defense, but he is not the most mobile guy, and he’s never been super-comfortable chasing smaller dudes 25 feet from the floor.
The Knicks took advantage of this in the third quarter by running Anthony-Bargnani pick-and-rolls, with Lopez guarding Bargnani. Lopez prefers to drop down toward the foul line in corralling opposing ball handlers on the pick-and-roll. Bargnani likes to pop out for 3-point shots. That contrast — I go down, you go up — creates situations like this:
This is the end stage of a Melo-Bargnani pick-and-pop, with Bargs having just caught Melo’s kickout pass. Lopez has dropped down to stop Anthony’s drive, and as you can see, that has left him with an impossibly large space to cover if he wishes to contest Bargnani’s 3-pointer.
You can already see Joe Johnson, No. 7 in the paint, scrambling over to rotate into Lopez’s place.
And guess what happened from there? Bargnani saw Johnson coming and swung the ball to Johnson’s guy — Iman Shumpert, No. 21 at the bottom. Guess who rotated to Shumpert? If you said, “No one,” congrats! You win a cake pop.
• There were so many terrible sequences in this game. These teams are just not very good. With about four minutes left in the second quarter, New York ran some stuff that didn’t work, leaving Kenyon Martin with the ball at the top of the key with 11 seconds left on the shot clock. Breaking news from 2004: Kenyon Martin isn’t really equipped to do stuff from the top of the key. But he said, “Eh, screw it,” drove hard to the hoop, and attempted a lefty “layup” that hit only the backboard.
Teletovic rebounded the ball and kicked it ahead to Tyshawn Taylor, who flew by Bargnani for a 1-on-0 fast-break layup. He missed.
• Lopez had one of the worst misses of the season with about 9:22 left in the third quarter, when he lofted — and I mean lofted — a turnaround jumper over Bargnani from the right baseline. Please take note of the location of the ball here:
The shot went over the rim, an air ball.
• Another good one for the follies reel came three minutes later, starting when Raymond Felton tried to drive through Livingston’s body. Felton can’t jump. Livingston is tall. Livingston blocked the shot before it even left Felton’s hand.
And here come the Nets, down just 11, looking to get back in the game before a (not really) raucous home crowd! Joe Johnson pushed the ball hard, kicked it to Alan Anderson, and Anderson rose for a transition pull-up 3-pointer that would surely rouse the crowd. It grazed the bottom of the net — another air ball.
But wait! Andray Blatche has the rebound under the rim! He’s going to put it back in and cut the lead to single digits! And … Blatche shuffles his feet, a traveling violation. The entire sequence took nine seconds.
• Anderson played Anthony well for much of the game, fronting him in the post and jostling with him all over the floor. But Brooklyn’s defense fell apart late in the third quarter when the Knicks cleared the left side of the floor on four straight possessions for an Anthony–Amar’e Stoudemire pick-and-roll. They scored all four times — two Stoudemire layups, a shooting foul, and a Melo jumper.
The Nets just had no idea how to defend the play, or how to execute whatever plan they had. Both Stoudemire layups came because Anthony worked his way to the middle of the floor, drawing Stoudemire’s man, Lopez, into the paint, and opening up the pocket pass back to Amar’e:
And here’s Melo mid-pass:
This is a terrible situation for a defense, one most teams work to avoid. Amar’e can catch this pass and squeeze along the baseline to the basket before Lopez can recover, or before a third defender can sprint over from the weak side.
Anderson confirmed to me after the game that these plays represented breakdowns in Brooklyn’s strategy. The Nets wanted to defend the play like this:
This is good defense. Anderson is blocking Melo’s path to Stoudemire’s pick, in effect keeping Melo, the ball, and Stoudemire in a tight space on the left side of the floor. Yay! Melo responded by pulling up for a jumper in Lopez’s face. Oh well. “We did it early on,” Anderson told me after the game. “But that’s been our problem — sustaining and being consistent.”
• Garnett still looks slow. He cannot contain point guards on the pick-and-roll, and Bargnani blew by him — you read that right — for a dunk along the baseline in the first quarter. It has been depressing.
• The Knicks started both halves with Shumpert, and not Melo, guarding the bulkier Joe Johnson — a nod to Melo’s need to, umm, not exert himself so much on defense. It didn’t work, and Melo eventually had to shift over to Johnson.
• Look, the Knicks did not play well in this game. They were sloppy defensively for the entire first half, and on offense, they subsisted on crazy jumpers that came via broken plays and stagnant offense. They looked much more like the good version of themselves in the second half, posting Melo, running pick-and-rolls, and breaking out a weave-style pitch play that always seems to work well for them. That’s a good sign. They exploded when Woodson went small, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, something they should do for at least half of every game once Tyson Chandler returns.
They roasted a very, very bad team. The Knicks will have to play this way against better competition. The Nets? They have to get healthy, find some chemistry, and develop a coherent system on both ends of the floor. It’s still early, and the Eastern Conference stinks. But a season can slip away fast.