A lot of things had to go right for the New York Knicks to rally from deficits in both the fourth quarter and overtime to defeat the Chicago Bulls in front of a national TV audience Sunday on ABC. Most notably, Carmelo Anthony had to knock down a pair of contested three-pointers to tie and to win. However, Anthony never would have been in position to play hero if not for the Knicks' lockdown defense at the end of both periods. After taking a 91-81 lead with 3:45 to play in regulation, Chicago never scored again. The Bulls were also held without a point in the final 2:50 of the overtime session. All told, the Bulls managed just eight points over the game's last 8:45.
That performance was the capper to the most impressive run of defense we've seen at Madison Square Garden since Jeff Van Gundy stalked the sidelines rather than calling games from there. Starting when Mike Woodson replaced Mike D'Antoni as head coach on March 14, New York has allowed just 97.2 points per 100 possessions over the last 14 games, a mark that would lead the league over the course of the season.
For the full year, the Knicks now sit fifth in the NBA in Defensive Rating, a massive improvement over last year's 21st-place finish. Much of the credit for that should go to newcomer Tyson Chandler, who has given New York an anchor in the paint with his shot blocking, rebounding and ability to defend the pick-and-roll, all of which was on display Sunday. Chandler's presence has ensured the Knicks an above-average defense all season long, but the team was struggling defensively before a frustrated D'Antoni resigned.
Since then, the most important change has been Anthony's commitment to the defensive end. The difference is evident throughout Anthony's stat line. He's recording more steals and blocks and has been far more effective on the defensive glass, pulling down 17.2 percent of all opponent misses, an excellent mark for a small forward. That mark is both a cause and effect of a strategic change Woodson has been able to make that was on full display down the stretch Sunday: Using Anthony at power forward in the absence of injured Amar'e Stoudemire. Since the coaching change, Anthony has played nearly as much of the four spot as his natural small forward, with positive results. According to lineup data provided by NBA.com/Stats, New York has outscored opponents by 14.9 points per 48 minutes under Woodson when Anthony plays power forward, as compared to +10.2 points per 48 minutes when he's at small forward.
Anthony has historically been a strong rebounder, and his impressive work on the glass over the last month has been a key factor in the Knicks rebounding well by committee. Chandler's defensive rebound rate is actually only average for a center, and New York has two weak defensive rebounders at power forward in Jared Jeffries and Steve Novak, but the Knicks' wings have been excellent, producing relatively flat defensive rebounding numbers across the team's rotation under Woodson (minimum 150 minutes):
At times, putting Anthony at power forward has hurt New York defensively. The Indiana Pacers rallied in the second half last Wednesday by matching up with Danny Granger at the four spot and attacking Anthony. Overall, though, the Knicks have improved upon their impressive defense under Woodson when Anthony moves up front.
In addition to going small up front, Woodson finished Sunday's game with rookie Iman Shumpert at point guard, matched up with reigning MVP Derrick Rose. While fatigue might have played a factor in Rose's first game in nearly a month, Shumpert did a terrific job defensively down the stretch, coming up with key steals and containing Rose on the perimeter at critical moments.
New York's finishing lineup of Anthony, Shumpert, wings Landry Fields and J.R. Smith and Chandler in the middle brings to mind the teams Woodson coached in Atlanta when the Hawks unsuccessfully attempted to field an entire roster of only swingmen. Chandler gives the Knicks legitimate size in the middle, but otherwise the rest of the group ranges from just 6-5 (Shumpert) to 6-8 (Anthony). That gives New York plenty of flexibility to switch screens, yet this group is not relying on switches as a crutch as the Knicks did early in the season.
Where that versatility comes in handy is in situations like Chicago's final play of overtime. Anticipating a screen to free Rose, Shumpert and Fields traded matchups before the ball was inbounded. That allowed Shumpert to switch and cut off Rose's angle to the ball before the two players collided, blowing up the Bulls' call from the sidelines. Rose was still able to drive to the basket--in part because of some confusion between Shumpert and Fields on whether to switch again in the midst of the chaos--but Chandler was there to keep him out of the paint and force him into a difficult floater attempt.
A defense working together like that with the requisite physical tools can make life difficult for opposing offenses, and that's just what New York has done over the last month.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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