The New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks have been circling each other for several weeks in the joust for the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot. After New York’s loss in Chicago last night, the Knicks are just one game up and they pay a visit to Milwaukee tonight (8 PM ET, ESPN). TheSportsNotebook takes a look at both teams with an eye toward the remaining big picture, as the end of the regular season is just two weeks out.
New York is built around its frontcourt, especially now that Jeremy Lin is out for the year. The point guard situation is a mess, with Baron Davis and Toney Douglas handling duties. Davis, who hits just 26 percent from three-point range needs to be permanently barred from ever launching a shot from behind the arc. Douglas is even worse, although he doesn’t push his luck as much as Davis. The two-guard slot isn’t quite as bad, but it’s still a blatant liability. Iman Shumpert is the best of a group that includes Landry Fields and J.R. Smith, but Shumpert is also four inches shorter than either guard and his presence on the floor creates matchup problems on the defensive end.
Milwaukee is not a team that can exploit height problems in an opposing guard, though the backcourt is clearly a strength, with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis being an explosive tandem that was put together at the trade deadline when Milwaukee shipped out center Andrew Bogut to Golden State in order to get Ellis. The Jennings-Ellis combo averages nearly 40 ppg, almost evenly split, so you can’t key on either player. They each pass the ball well, combining for 12 assists. If this were the NCAA Tournament, with the emphasis on guard play, the Bucks would be a live darkhorse.
Unfortunately for Scott Skiles’ team, life in the pros is often about muscle and it’s always about star power, and that’s where the New York frontcourt comes in. Carmelo Anthony is averaging 22 ppg, and there’s hope that his 43-point outburst and game-winning trey over Chicago on Sunday (the teams played a home-and-home on consecutive days) is a sign that Melo is finally ready to take the bull by the horns. What Anthony needs to do more of is rebound, as he leaves much of the dirty work to Amare Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler. Milwaukee won’t have to deal with Stoudamire, who’s still injured. But the power forward, who had been expected to miss the rest of the regular season, is starting to make noises about a return, enough so that I would expect to see him take the floor soon, even if it’s not tonight. Chandler is a big difference-maker down low, getting double-digit rebounds on a nightly basis and being a shotblocking presence. New York’s top forward off the bench is Steve Novak. He won’t get his hands dirty down low, but nor is that his job. What the 6’10” Novak does do astonishingly well for a big man is drain the trey—46 percent to be precise and any team defending the Knicks has to be conscious of him in the 20-25 minutes or so he’s on the floor.
Milwaukee’s frontcourt is as bad as New York’s backcourt. While the Bogut trade was a good one, it did create the short-term problem of making the Bucks a donut team with a hole in the middle. Drew Gooden is decent at power forward, with Mike Dunleavy and Ersan Ilyasova have nice shooting touches from the perimeter, but this team cannot get a rebound when it has to, as their #27 ranking in this category attests, nor do they have anyone they can dump the ball down low to for a basket or a kick-out.
One thing to remember about New York is that this is a defensive-oriented team, and not just since Mike Woodson stepped in as the interim head coach for Mike D’Antoni. New York’s up-and-down style of play had a way of obscuring that, but this is a team that ranks sixth in the league in defensive efficiency, which measures defensive ability after adjusting for tempo. And those stats are compiled over the course of the entire year, the bulk of which came with D’Antoni at the helm. Conversely, the Knicks are just 22nd in offensive efficiency, even with the games played during the Lin-Sanity craze. So let’s repeat our conclusion one more team for emphasis—New York is a defensive-oriented team.
The big X-factor in the New York-Milwaukee race for the last playoff spot is the complete collapse of Philadelphia, from runaway Atlantic leader, to borderline playoff team. The 76ers are only plus a game on the Knicks and plus two on the Bucks. It’s entirely possible that both New York and Milwaukee can make it in regardless of what happens tonight. The Knicks and Bucks come out of here to take on non-contending teams on Friday, Washington and Detroit respectively. The weekend is tough, with Milwaukee hosting Indiana on Saturday and New York having a big Madison Square Garden date with Miami on Sunday (1 PM ET, ABC). The Knicks then have a Tuesday home date with Boston. After that they finish with four of five games on the road, but with three of those trips being to New Jersey, Cleveland and Charlotte, it’s not a schedule New York shouldn’t manage. Milwaukee will have a little bit tougher road down the stretch with road trips to Indiana and Boston still ahead.
I think there’s a great chance both of tonight’s combatants will be playing basketball in early May, but there’s no denying that from talent to schedule, the Knicks are getting themselves in a good situation.