(Editor’s Note: “What Knicks Must Do To Beat Celtics!” is a multi-part series featuring Fanatics’ thoughts regarding what it will take the Knicks to win playoff series. In this article, I discuss what Coach Mike D’Antoni must do in order to beat Doc Rivers’ squad. Next we expect to discuss defense and superstar matchups.)
The playoffs differ from the regular season in that how the game is played beyond the baseline, from the bench between opposing coaches, grows in significance. Strategy, planning, team preparation and in-series adjustments make the post-regular season games more chess-like than the previous eighty-two contests. The competition between the coaches is as intense and important as the on-court matchups when the teams are closely matched as they appear to be in the Knicks-Celtics series.
Coach Mike D’Antoni has enough play-off experience to understand how critical it is for him to prepare his team well enough that adjustments and readjustments can be made effectively in a matter of hours. While he is at a distinct disadvantage because his current team has not had sufficient time, only 28 games, to develop a team identity consistent with the personality, principles and philosophy of the coaching staff, D’Antoni has Chauncey Billups to help him guide the team. D’Antoni must successfully juggle a collaboration with Billups while putting the aging but brilliant point guard in a position to excel and win.
Solving this riddle will be the key for D’Antoni and the Knicks. D’Antoni will be forced to find combinations that work with the only real on-ball general he has in Billups. He will need to figure out who Billups can match up with defensively when Rondo and Ray Allen are on the floor together, which will be very often. Theoretically, Billups can punish and muscle Rondo in the post and on drives on the offensive end to compensate for Rondo controlling the game with double digit assists on the other end. However, Billups loses any one-on-one, butt to hip advantage if the Knicks lose the rebound contest and they are not constantly in motion towards the ball on loose balls. Rondo will cherry pick the Knicks to death as he cheats on D in favor of early initiation of the fast break, forcing what little defense remains to be on its heels.
D’Antoni currently favors a rotation of Billups/Fields/Anthony/Stoudemire/Turiaf which has not been as efficient in terms of +/- as units including Jeffries over Turiaf. D’Antoni is likely to try Jeffries against Rondo, but that move disrupts his offensive philosophy even more than Billups half court game. Billups-Douglas seems to be a relatively successful combination, but it raises concerns about who will lead the bench for D’Antoni. D’Antoni may need to figure out how to sit Billups for extended periods while the more energetic defensive combinations which include Jeffries and Douglas provide more defensive pressure on the guards which will be able to disrupt the Celts shooting rhythm.
D’Antoni is in a difficult position because he must exude confidence which he doesn’t seem to have in his bench players and rotations. He must be willing to fight his own tendency towards coaching largely by feel, player loyalty and with a disregard to key resources in his toolbox. In other words, his players’ confidence will rise with clarity and defined roles; his advantages will increase with a willingness to de-emphasize shooting shots and tres in favor of ball movement and driving to the basket by Stat, Melo, Billups, Fields and Douglas in order to pile up free points in a half-court game and to have the opportunity to take advantage of quarter-ending penalty situations.
D’Antoni can be expected to limit is rotation to about nine – that is his tendency – but he will proably need to go 11 deep to take advantage of the energy of Bill Walker, Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter. Their energy and three point shooting are essential simply because the Knicks, without a clear defensive philosophy, are at their best when their hustle players make instinctive ball-hawking plays which are effective regardless of the level of team communication and connectivity on defense.
D’Antoni must also regain his positive energy. Honestly, he does not seem nearly as energized as he was when he first came to New York. Then he was funny, confident and defiant towards anyone questioning his philosophy. After losing a team which he shaped to put the Knicks in playoff position to obtain Carmelo, he had to battle with Anthony who was reluctant to show faith in a system with less isos and post-ups for him. With significant help from Amar’e, Anthony figured out that he needed to work in a system which allowed others to shoot, required ball movement, and off-ball activity and contributions. Still, it seems that Melo has not totally bought in as he refers to the coach’s philosophy as the “so-called D’Antoni system,” which although may be accurate does not confer the deference everyone wants to give the “offensive genius.” This is unfortunate because one of D’Antoni’s strengths is his positive approach to the game.
Doc Rivers is very confident that his squad can get what it wants from the Knicks from an offensive stand point. He will try to force the game inside out and if he has Shaq available is likely to have some success. Shaq can be a championship deal breaker for the Knicks on both ends. Offensively, the Knicks will benefit from more emphasis on the pick and roll which seems to have gone to Denver with Raymond Felton who had finally figured out how to make it work overall. Still, the addition of either Shaq or Kristic to the “Core Four” has worked well for Doc. Even with recently poor shooting Davis joining Rondo/Garnett/Pierce/Allen, the unit’s +/- is astounding.
Doc has the same problem as D’Antoni in terms of deciding which bench combinations will be the most effective as Delonte West still is more promise than production and Jeff Green is just starting to fit in.
The coaching battle can be won by D’Antoni, but he must fight his tendencies and biases, especially since he is not presently working his system the way he would if he had started with this particular roster in training camp. Now he must confidently use what he has in order to have a chance of getting into the second round.