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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012

NBA REPORT

Knicks may live up to hype this time


By SAM SMITH

CHICAGO — There's an old question you hear around the NBA sometimes. It goes like this: What's the definition of a dynasty?

Sam Smith

Answer: When a family in China governs for hundreds of years. Or when a New York sports team wins three games in a row.

Look out, but a New York Knicks' dynasty may be here.

That's because one-fourth of the way into the NBA season, the Knicks (15-5) have the best record in the Eastern Conference. And it may not be a fluke like it mostly has been since the last Knicks' championship in 1973.

There's always so much noise connected to sporting success in New York. It is the media center of the U.S., for one thing. So when a team in New York has success, it often overtakes the discussion.

Consider Jeremy Lin, for example. He was a sensation in New York last season until he needed knee surgery. Everything he did was scrutinized and championed. So then he left to sign with the Houston Rockets.

Heard much about him lately?

Similarly, we're starting to hear a lot about the Knicks, especially as they defeated the defending champion Miami Heat last week for a second time, and both times in blowout fashion by 20 points.

It's hard to say for now the Knicks still are better than Miami, or certainly Oklahoma City or the Spurs. I'm not mentioning the Lakers as they are hardly worth mentioning after dropping their record to 9-12 Sunday with a home loss to Utah and then leaving for their first big Eastern Conference trip of the season. As they wait for the return from injury of Steve Nash they seem on the verge of cracking.

As for the Knicks, they may really be building something. They went into the week of Dec. 9 fifth in scoring, third in 3-point shooting percentage and by far averaging the most 3s taken, first in fewest turnovers committed and fourth best in turnovers forced, a deadly efficient team.

They have a star in Carmelo Anthony, who is third in the league in scoring but perhaps for the first time in his career accepting responsibility for team play and defense.

The Knicks are pretty much in the middle of the pack defensively. But that's plenty good given their high-powered offense.

Anthony has prospered playing power forward with Amare Stoudemire hurt and due back in the next few weeks. The question hanging over the Knicks has been whether they could mesh Stoudemire with Anthony as neither is a good defender and both tend to stop the ball and score, thus limiting team play.

Anthony has accepted his role, which gives him an advantage by being able to score inside off smaller players and then take taller players outside with his shooting ability. He has worked harder on defense, but he also has the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Tyson Chandler, playing behind him.

The whispers have been whether he can adapt once Stoudemire returns. But that may be overblown. Given the shaky status of his knees, Stoudemire already has told Knicks' management and coaches at this stage of his career he only wants to contribute to a winner and would gladly come off the bench or play a minor role. We'll see, but it makes some sense.

The Knicks were ridiculed before the season for signing so many older players, like Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas. But their veteran wisdom has taken the edge off Anthony's frustrations.

Knicks insiders say Anthony has been a willing student for Kidd's advice given Kidd's history of playing for winners and impressive basketball intelligence.

Most great players in any sport often tend to be inflexible and stubborn, Anthony as well. But he's embraced Kidd's tutoring and other Knicks will say Kidd will tell Anthony when he makes mistakes, and Anthony has responded with the best overall play of his career.

Sometimes players need that sort of connection. Like when Don Nelson was hired to coach the Knicks in 1995. He never could fit with Patrick Ewing and was soon fired. Anthony has embraced coach Mike Woodson, hired last season after current Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni quit. Anthony felt D'Antoni's system undermined his play and wouldn't cooperate with D'Antoni. Now, Anthony is a major advocate of Woodson.

But more than that, the Knicks' veterans tend to be more unselfish given they've made their money and now hope to be with a winner. As well as having players like Ray Felton, who was condemned as a loser in Portland last season and was anxious to return to New York and show he can sacrifice to win.

It's enabled the Knicks to be one of the best teams creating spacing for their 3-point shooting. To Woodson's credit, it's an offense that fits the personnel with the point guard generally running a high pick-and-roll.

That has Chandler diving to the rim to suck the defense in and then spreading the ball out to shooters.

Pat Riley had a nice run in the 1990s with the Knicks, but it was a brutal, physical game unappealing to watch. This Knicks team actually is entertaining as well.

The Knicks have dangerous three point shooting with Steve Novak and J.R. Smith, also with an edge like Felton in wanting to prove he can play with a winner and isn't a team destroyer.

They've got size with Chandler, Camby, Thomas and Wallace. The latter three are older, but given the Knicks' depth they won't be run down. They have defensive specialists like Ronnie Brewer, Kidd and Iman Shumpert returning from serious injury later this season.

The formula for success in the NBA is having two stars. The Knicks have one in Anthony, and Chandler was Defensive Player of the Year. But they also have the size and depth, especially rebounding, to give a team like Miami problems.

It's why the Bulls believed, using a similar formula, they could have beaten Miami last season until Rose got hurt.

The Knicks have size, depth and a scorer to be an end of game go-to guy. They play smart with few turnovers and do well on the barometers of success, that being margin of victory, which has them fourth behind only Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Clippers, and road wins against home losses, at which they are first and tied with the Spurs.

They haven't faced adversity yet with a losing streak or tried to work Stoudemire in, both potential roadblocks. But they do look for real, which means we'll never hear the end of it.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book "The Jordan Rules."


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