Over the last five years, the Atlantic Division has belonged to the Boston Celtics. They haven’t just won the division. They’ve owned the division.
The Celtics re-loaded over the summer and figured a sixth straight division title was, basically, de rigeur. Sure, the Knicks and Nets were making noise in the Big Apple. Yes, the Sixers got Andrew Bynum. But there was still a quiet confidence in Boston as the 2012-13 season opened, with Celtics’ owner Wyc Grousbeck telling the New York Times, “we view that as our division.”
As Thanksgiving fast approaches, one thing seems to be coming to an abrupt end: the Celtics’ relative ease in winning the division (by an average of more than 10 games in non-lockout seasons) since Kevin Garnett arrived. That is because the noise out of New York is real. It’s Carmelo Anthony playing like an MVP candidate, venerable Jason Kidd providing leadership and crisp passes and the New York Knicks suddenly defending like their per diem depended on it.
OK, it’s still way too early to anoint the Knicks as the Celtics’ logical and inevitable successor atop the division. JR Smith hasn’t messed up – yet. The age factor hasn’t caught up with the team – yet. Amare Stoudemire hasn’t come back and ruined a good thing – yet. All of the above, by the way, could happen. Just ask any Knicks loyalist.
But there is so much more good news surrounding the Knicks that it is impossible to dismiss them as just a collection of Mr. Novembers (we think.) They got off to a 6-0 start (spanking the Heat at home and the Spurs on the road) and had only one loss (to Memphis, on the road, no sin) in their first eight games. That start pushed them to the top of the NBA standings.
Anthony has been spectacular. He averaged nearly 24 points and eight rebounds a game over the first eight games, taking advantage of his quickness at the power forward position. The Sixers’ head coach, Doug Collins, said Anthony, normally a small forward, is playing “in his spot.” That may come as news to Stoudemire, but, for now, it is the hard-to-ignore truth.
Kidd has been terrific. Coach Mike Woodson (another great storyline) has installed Kidd and Raymond Felton as his starting guards. Both are point guards by trade. The two have made Knicks fans (some of them, anyway) forget Jeremy Lin, one of the bright spots last season.
Woodson, who took over for Mike D’Antoni last season, has gone for experience and defense, both wildly successful moves to date. NBA observers scratched their collective noggins as the Knicks continued to add graybeards to their roster over the summer and fall: Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Argentine rookie Pablo Prigioni. Woodson had had enough of the callow knuckleheads while coaching the Hawks. He wanted veterans. He got them and they’ve helped. Wallace, who had been out of the NBA the last two years, has the third highest player efficiency rating on the team.
Woodson also got the Knicks to start thinking about defense as more than just a concept. It’s not a bad start when your center (Tyson Chandler) is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Kidd has always been a solid defender. Anthony, well, not so much. OK, not at all. But whatever Woodson is selling, his players are buying it. Big time.
Through their first eight games, the Knicks led the NBA in points allowed (90 per game) as well as point differential (10.5 a game.) They were sixth in defensive field goal percentage. They were also bombarding the opposition with three-point shots, hoisting 26.3 a game, second only to Houston. They made 10.4 a game, tops in the NBA.
Woodson also has New York taking care of the basketball. New York commits the fewest turnovers per game (10.4) in the league while forcing opponents to cough it up 17.3 times a game, a whopping differential of 6.9. The next best turnover differential is 3.3 (Toronto.)
They’ve benefitted from a favorable schedule as well. They caught the Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, the Sixers twice without Bynum, and the emotional victory over Miami came as the city of New York was recovering from Hurricane Sandy. The win at San Antonio was the Spurs’ first home game after a four-game Western swing, capped by a big win over the Lakers.
So if all is well for now, what happens down the road when Stoudemire returns? He hasn’t played a minute yet following left knee surgery to remove a cyst. You can almost envision Woodson telling Stoudemire to take his time, not hurry back, but the day will come. What then?
Stoudemire is the natural power forward, not Anthony. Stoudemire could play center, which he has done for a lot of his career, but what would that do to Chandler and how would that impact the Knicks’ defense? Stoudemire has never been known for his defense and he and Anthony have had their troubles finding their niches on offense when playing together.
Would Stoudemire agree to come off the bench? You’d like to think it wouldn’t matter, especially on a good team. But we all thought Ray Allen wouldn’t mind, either. He did in Boston. He doesn’t in Miami. This could end up being Woodson’s greatest coaching challenge.
Can the Gerontion Set (apologies to TS Eliot) keep it up and, more to the point, stay on the floor? Kidd is averaging nearly 25 minutes a game and showing no sign of impending decrepitude. He has ceded the point guard duties to Felton, who has handled them well after a down year for Portland. (Felton is, as they like to say, fantasy viable again.) The other golden oldies are all bit players. However it bears watching Wallace, who has a history of conditioning issues. He was pretty much on fumes in his last meaningful game, a start in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.
Former Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh, now back with the Pacers, said he thought New York had “all the bases covered.” Collins pointed to the many gold medals and other titles won by team members (Kidd is 56-0 playing for USA Basketball with five gold medals) and said that meant the players had a history of playing and winning so-called “big games.”
When Celtics owner Grousbeck said his team viewed the Atlantic Division as its own, he then offered a thought on the Knicks, mentioning as an aside that he finds no greater joy then winning in Madison Square Garden.
“They are going to have to come right after us,’’ he said of Carmelo & Co. “They’re coming as hard as they can. That’s exactly right. That’s how it should be.”
That’s how it is. Then again, there’s the Nets, only a game behind the Knicks. Ah, but that’s another story. The Knicks are atop the Atlantic Division with the best record in the NBA. Let them enjoy the view for as long as they’re there.