By Jared Zwerling | ESPNNewYork.com
When the Knicks got off to a 7-1 start, holding opponents to an NBA-best 90.0 points per game, they did it with their team defense. More specifically, their defensive rotations, communicating and moving strategically to guard shooters.
One reason the Knicks were so effective with their rotations was because their opponents ran more pick-and-roll/spread-out schemes. But something significant changed in their past two games against the Mavericks and Rockets, leading to back-to-back losses.
The Mavericks and Rockets ran more isolation plays -- and the Knicks couldn't defend them. In fact, they're allowing a league-high 1.04 points per isolation, the worst mark in the league.
The Rockets ran isolations on 12.2 percent of their plays Friday night, the third-highest percentage by a Knicks opponent this season. James Harden and Chandler Parsons did their most damage in isolations. Of the four Knicks opponents to run isolations on at least 10 percent of their plays -- the Rockets, Mavericks and 76ers twice -- Houston was the most efficient on those plays, scoring 1.21 points per isolation.
Here's how the Knicks' prominent isolation defenders have stacked up this season, in order of rank (there have been 171 players who have guarded at least 10 isolations):
• Carmelo Anthony: 6-for-8, one turnover, one foul; ranks 171 of 171
• Jason Kidd: 5-for-11, no turnovers, one foul; ranks 165 of 171
• J.R. Smith: 7-for-14, four turnovers, two fouls; ranks 148 of 171
• Pablo Prigioni: 4-for-10, no turnovers, one foul; ranks 145 of 171
• Raymond Felton: 2-for-6, two turnovers, three fouls; ranks 116 of 171
• Steve Novak: 4-for-12, two turnovers, no fouls; ranks 57 of 171
Interestingly, Ronnie Brewer, a perimeter player, has only defended four isolations all season.
The Knicks have run isolations more often than each of their opponents this season. But five of their last six opponents have scored more points per isolation than the Knicks
(the Hornets are the only exception).
By comparison, when defending non-isolation, half-court plays this season, the Knicks have been more effective. Here's how opponents are shooting against individual Knicks players, in order of attempts:
• Felton: 32-for-98
• Anthony: 30-for-80
• Smith: 28-for-76
• Kidd: 25-for-54
• Novak: 18-for-45
• Prigioni: 20-for-41
The Knicks won't be facing star slashers like Harden every night, but even Parsons, a second-year forward, got in on the action. Now opponents have added "weaker defending isolations" on their scouting report on the Knicks. The Rockets represent the plenty of young legs around the league that will want to run on and attack the older Knicks.
The Knicks face the lowly Pistons on Sunday afternoon, but on Monday they'll face two star isolation players in Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
A big test awaits.