Players win and loss basketball games and the New York Knicks were dismal in their 93-82 Game 4 loss to the Indiana Pacers. They shot 35.6 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from behind the arc, while being outrebounded 54-36. However, it is incumbent upon a coach to put his players in a position to succeed, and in the biggest Knick game in 13 years, Mike Woodson failed miserably.
The Knicks coach panicked after New York lost Game 3 82-71 and inserted Kenyon Martin into the starting lineup in place of Pablo Prigioni. In doing so, Woodson abandoned the small-ball strategy that won 54 games for the Knicks this season, and ignored every piece of evidence regarding what has worked for his team.
New York had the third-most efficient offense in the league and set an NBA record for the most three-pointers in a season. Their recipe for success was to play Carmelo Anthony at the 4 and surround him with shooters to spread the floor. The spacing those shooters provided gave Anthony room to operate and opened up the lane for Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler to execute the high pick-and-roll.
Another key component to the Knicks’ offensive success was Woodson’s use of two point guards together, which helped facilitate the ball movement that led to so many open threes. Early in the season, it was Jason Kidd who started alongside Felton. Down the stretch and in the playoffs, Pablo Prigioni took over Kidd’s role.
After Indiana’s big, bruising front line led by Roy Hibbert and David West broke the Knicks’ back in Game 3 with 18 offensive boards, Woodson felt he needed to combat their size with a bigger starting lineup. The strategy was doomed to fail. As Dan Devine of Yahoo! sports tweeted, “Going away from what YOU do best to do what THEY do best rarely works well.”
The Knicks were struggling to score with their usual lineup against Indiana’s No. 1 ranked defense—they shot just 35 percent in Game 3. Adding the offensively challenged Kenyon Martin to the lineup could only make matters worse. Neither Martin nor Chandler are a threat to score beyond five feet, so they clogged the paint, which was devastating to the Knicks’ spacing.
It was also the first time that Chandler and Martin started a game together. Game 4 of the conference semifinals is not the best time to try and develop chemistry.
Ball movement is essential to creating good shots against Indiana’s stingy defense, and Woodson and the Knicks players bemoaned the team’s selfish play in the three days after Game 3. The coach’s response was to remove New York’s most unselfish player, Prigioni, from the starting lineup. Prior to Game 4, the Knicks’ postseason assist rate with Prigioni on the court was 61 percent, without him, 46.9 percent.
Shockingly, not only did Woodson bench Prigioni, the Knicks’ most consistent playoff performer played just three minutes. Jason Kidd 16 minutes who has 0 points on 0-16 shooting from the field and 0-10 from downtown in 177 minutes over his last eight games played 16 minutes. The Knicks had a plus/minus of -25 with Kidd in the game over that span. With Prigioni in the lineup, they were +6.4.
The Knicks’ big lineup did not even solve their rebounding woes. New York surrendered 16 offensive rebounds and allowed 17 second-chance points in the first half of Game 4, the most they gave in any half this season (regular season and playoffs). As TNT analyst Reggie Miller pointed out several times, the Pacers’ best scoring opportunities came off of offensive rebounds.
It should not have been a surprise to Woodson that adding Martin to the lineup would fail to address the problem. The Knicks’ defensive rebounding rate this season with Martin on the floor was 72.4 percent, without him it was 74.6.
The Pacers grabbed so many offensive rebounds in Game 3 and Game 4 for two reasons: Chandler did not get a box out Hibbert, and the Knicks’ perimeter players were out of position after doubling Indiana’s post players.
Hibbert grabbed eight offensive boards in Game 3 and six in Game 4. Martin had to block out his own man, another solid rebounder in West, and could not help out on Hibbert. Only Chandler could keep the Pacer center off the glass.
Since Indiana is a poor three-point shooting team, the Knicks sent hard double teams every time the Pacers threw the ball into the post, daring Indiana to kick it out and shoot outside shots. While the Pacers did not shoot particularly well from behind the arc (10-of-33 in Game 3 and 8-of-25 in Game 4) their missed threes often resulted in long rebounds, which the Knicks guards were not in position to grab because they were scrambling to the open man after doubling the post.
Woodson should have abandoned the hard double teams after Game 3 instead of playing a bigger lineup. Hibbert demonstrated a nice array of post moves in Game 3, though his 24 points represented a season-high. He is not Hakeem Olajuwon. The Knicks did not need to double him and West every time they touched the ball.
It is understandable that Woodson would make changes after the Knicks were pounded down low in Game 3. Typically, when bigger teams have exploited Anthony on the block like the Pacers did with West, Anthony has used his quickness to create a mismatch on the other end, but the Pacers negated that advantage by putting the lanky Paul George on Anthony instead of West.
Woodson needed to be creative and find other ways to utilize his team’s superior quickness. He could have run Shumpert, who was guarded by the slower West, off of screens or created more favorable matchups for Anthony by forcing the Pacers to switch on him in pick-and-roles. Instead, the coach discarded the offensive system that brought the Knicks their first division title in 19 years.
When Indiana coach Frank Vogel was asked about Woodson’s lineup change prior to the game, he said of his Pacers, “The beauty of this team is that we don’t adjust to other teams. We do what we do.” Mike Woodson should take note.