Knicks have championship formula
They're good enough and deep enough -- and they showed it against the Spurs
Jason Kidd stopped on his way out of Madison Square Garden to measure the championship worth of the New York Knicks, a franchise that last won it all seven weeks after the prehistoric point guard was born.
It was the right night to do it, too, the night the Knicks again beat a San Antonio Spurs team that knows nothing about biblical NBA droughts. Only the 39-year-old Kidd wasn't asked about the Spurs' four titles over the past 14 years, four more than the Knicks have won since 1973. He was asked about the ring his Dallas Mavericks won two years back, and whether his current team could replicate the feat.
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J.R. Smith is one of many Knicks having a fabulous season thus far.
"This team might be deeper than that one," Kidd told ESPNNewYork.com.
Deeper than the Dallas team of Kidd, Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki that beat the Miami Heat in six.
Kidd used his beautiful basketball mind to break down the matchups, starting with Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony. "I mean, it's very similar," he said. "Melo and Dirk are your high-level players. You have J.R. [Smith] and Jason Terry. J.J. [Barea] is kind of like Pablo [Prigioni]. [Steve] Novak's like Peja [Stojakovic], a guy who can stretch the defense and knock down 3's. Tyson is Tyson."
And Kidd is Kidd, only two years smarter.
"Both teams can score and defend," he said. "Dirk defended, and that's what helped us win a championship, and that's what Melo's doing now. He's defending."
Kidd was asked if his Knicks could beat Miami and ultimately win the tournament like his Mavericks did.
"I hope so. That's the goal. That's what we're playing for," he said. "There's been a couple of stretches here that you can see as a very close reminder [of Dallas]. We had injuries that season, too, and nobody was thinking about a championship. We were just trying to figure out how to win a game without Dirk.
"We've faced the same problem here with Melo out. But with our depth and the guys we have who know how to play, we feel it's very similar. We'll see at the end."
In the end Thursday night, the Knicks made a tough, old military man named Gregg Popovich cry uncle. The Spurs coach benched his dynasty makers in the fourth quarter when he realized the Tim Duncans and Manu Ginobilis and Tony Parkers "were a little low on fuel." Together they watched as the Knicks, in Popovich's words, "kicked our butt" and finished off their 100-83 victory and first two-game sweep of the Spurs since 2003.
Enduring his fourth game in five nights, Popovich's substitutions won't earn him the $250,000 fine he absorbed after sending home his stars rather than put them through another four-in-five experience in Miami on national TV. But this surrender of a seven-game winning streak did speak to his newfound respect for the Knicks, who had come across as emotionally fragile and physically weak during so much of San Antonio's dominant run.
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Do you really think Pop would've been so quick to call it a night had the Knicks of Mike D'Antoni, Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, or Don Chaney been on the other side?
"They're obviously a totally different group," Popovich said before he watched Mike Woodson's Knicks pound the Spurs on the boards (48-35) and give his selfless-to-a-fault team a lesson in sharing the ball (26 assists for the home team, 14 for the losers).
"And by that I mean no matter what players have been added and changed or whatever, the mentality, the purposefulness with which they play, the attention to more defensive detail that I know Mike will demand day after day -- [the Knicks players] won't win that battle. They may try, but with Mike Woodson, he's going to demand it over and over again until people understand the value."
Woodson's commitment to defense, Popovich continued, "helped them become who they are. Offensively, they've got a lot of talent, but the defense is what makes you go some distance in the playoffs."
Popovich might not have tweaked D'Antoni as conspicuously as Amar'e Stoudemire did in declaring he'd "never been taught defense in my whole career," but Pop came close enough. Not that Woodson cared. He only knew he'd seen what he called "some major slippage" in his team's play, some D'Antoni-styled slippage on the more violent side of the ball, and so he showed his players some tape Thursday morning to remind them of how they opened the season.
The Knicks responded by blowing out an opponent Woodson called "the best team in basketball," and by extending their record to 10-0 when holding opponents to less than 90 points, 17-2 when holding them to less than 100.
"The Knicks have obviously changed a bit," Duncan said. "They're more defensive-minded."
From Popovich on down to the core players who built his team into a monument to smart, do-whatever-it-takes basketball, the Spurs talked about the Knicks as if they were talking about themselves.
Before the game, Popovich compared Kidd's dedication to Duncan's, and spoke of how the point guard infused the Knicks with "a real sense of what responsibility and professionalism is." After the game, Popovich referred to Kidd's relentless teammate in Dallas, Chandler, as "a monster who creates so many problems out on the floor and at the rim."
On his way out of the winners' locker room, Chandler notarized Kidd's comparison to their championship Mavericks team. "Especially with our depth," he said. "And with the talent and veterans we have on this team."
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No, these Knicks are not without their problems. Raymond Felton's injury has forced Kidd to cover the younger jets at the point, which is akin to asking an aging safety to play cornerback against a receiver who runs a 4.3 40. And if Stoudemire looked better off the bench in Game 2 than he did in Game 1, his reintegration into Melo's lineup remains an unsteady work in progress.
But after Iman Shumpert's return gives them the necessary athletic bounce, the Knicks will be a staggeringly deep and diversified team with enough pieces to win it all. Of course, that doesn't mean they will win it all.
It only means that should be their goal, not a respectable best-of-seven loss to LeBron James in the conference finals.
"The whole team," Popovich said of the Knicks, "Mike's got them being active, covering for each other, trusting each other."
The Knicks have size, a title-hungry superstar, lethal 3-point shooters, an absurdly high IQ at the point (Prigioni is a poor man's Kidd), an explosive bench player in the backcourt (Smith), a potentially explosive bench player in the frontcourt (Stoudemire), and a coach who's connecting on a human level with his players.
"We're pretty good," Chandler said.
They're better than pretty good. The Knicks have soundly beaten Miami with Melo and without him, and they've beaten San Antonio with Melo as a decoy on the road and with Melo as the leading man at home.
All in all, Kidd said, this team might just be deeper than his Dallas team that beat LeBron. That doesn't guarantee the Knicks a ticker-tape parade. It just guarantees them a shot at one.