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April 11, 2011
Trend Watch
Knicks Streak, Mr. April, Rookies Closing Strong

by Kevin Pelton

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Trending team: New York Knicks getting hot at right time

Not long after they were left for dead in the wake of a stretch of nine losses in 10 games, the Knicks have turned things around heading into the postseason. Sunday's hard-fought 110-109 win over the Indiana Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse was New York's seventh consecutive win. While four of those victories have come against teams playing out the string, the Knicks have shown their potential with a pair of road wins over playoff-bound teams (Indiana and the Philadelphia 76ers), as well as the home triumph over the Orlando Magic that kicked off the streak.

One big turnaround New York has made lately has been at the free throw line. During the 10-game down stretch, the Knicks gave up an average of 0.8 more free throws per game than they attempted. In the winning streak, New York has been spending more time at the line, averaging 3.3 more attempts per game than its opponents. Since adding Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks have excelled at drawing fouls, posting the league's fourth-best ratio of made free throws per field goal attempts.

The other major factor that was New York's undoing during the losing stretch was terrible shooting inside the arc. The Knicks made just 44.4 percent of their two-point attempts. Even the league's most inaccurate team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, makes 46.0 percent of its two-point tries, so New York was bound to bounce back. Feasting on poor defenses, the Knicks have made a sizzling 51.9 percent of twos during the winning streak.

Regardless of whether New York ends up facing the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat in the opening round of the playoffs, the hot shooting will be tested. The Celtics and Heat rank second and third, respectively, in the two-point percentage they allow opponents. In terms of the free throw line, however, there is a clear difference. Miami takes 4.0 more free throws per game than opponents, while the Celtics tend to be more prone to fouling and have a deficit of 0.8 free throw attempts per game this season. Despite Boston's edge in experience, the Celtics look like the more favorable opponent for the Knicks.

Trending player: Andray Blatche, PF, Washington Wizards

Just call Blatche "Mr. April." This time a year ago, Blatche played the best basketball of his career after the Wizards dealt leading scorers Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, making Blatche their go-to guy on offense. For most of this season, Blatche was unable to translate that breakout effort on a consistent basis. But once again, he's finishing the year strong for a Washington team with little to play for at this point. During six games this month, Blatche has averaged 25.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game, figures that would put him tied for fifth and fourth in the league, respectively. The production is not really a matter of playing time--Blatche's minutes have gone up just slightly from 33.9 per night to 36.5.

Just as last year, Blatche has taken on a leading role in the Wizards' offense. He's used nearly a third of the team's plays while on the court (32.0 percent), which is comparable only to high-usage stars like Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade. To make it work, Blatche has gone inside. According to Hoopdata.com, he averaged 6.4 field goals at the rim through Washington's first five games of the month, far above his usual average (3.8). A lot of those scores, presumably, are putbacks. Blatche has grabbed an incredible 19.1 percent of available offensive rebounds in April. That's nearly as many as the Boston Celtics (21.1 percent) collect as a team.

The way Blatche has performed lately will once again leave the Wizards wondering all offseason why he can't play at such a high level for a full 82 games. His usage rate and offensive rebounding are almost certainly too high to be sustained, but there's no reason Blatche can't continue to shoot a high percentage from the field and be an active box-score stuffer (he's also averaging 2.3 steals a night). Alas, Washington can't count on the light coming on any earlier next year.

League trend: Rookies finishing strong

Despite a big effort from Blatche, Tuesday's game between the Wizards and the Detroit Pistons was all about the rookies. John Wall led Washington to the win by scoring 16 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter and also handing out 12 assists. Meanwhile, Detroit's Greg Monroe countered with 22 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four steals.

Wall and Monroe weren't alone. Throughout the league, rookies had huge efforts on Tuesday. Evan Turner came off the bench to score 21 points and hand out five assists for the Philadelphia 76ers. Ed Davis of the Toronto Raptors put up 22 points and 13 rebounds. DeMarcus Cousins had 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and 15 boards as the Sacramento Kings knocked off the Houston Rockets. And, a night after his Butler Bulldogs lost in the NCAA championship game, Gordon Hayward stole the show by outplaying Kobe Bryant head-to-head and finishing with career highs of 22 points and five assists in the Utah Jazz's upset win over the L.A. Lakers.

While some of the performances came out of nowhere, like Turner's, this is the time of the year when rookies are getting an increased chance to show their wares and many of them are responding. Of the 15 rookies who have played the most minutes in the past 10 games, nine of them have improved their per-minute rating as compared to their season-long performance. So much for wearing down over the course of the season.

Hayward is a prime example. He's averaging 13.4 points in April and has shot 48.6 percent on 3s since the All-Star break. His teammate Derrick Favors has been impressive since joining the Jazz, averaging 16.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes. The Wizards' Jordan Crawford is still learning to score efficiently, but he's averaged 20.9 points in his past 10 games while handing out 4.8 assists a night, demonstrating his potential. And Monroe, solid all season, has found a new level lately. He's shooting 58.8 percent from the field in the past 10 games and has recorded eight double-doubles since March 1.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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