A funny thing happened when the calendar turned to 2014 with both the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. The teams, who combined for 19-42 record to begin the 2013-2014 NBA season, have totaled five wins with only one loss in the first week of January. What is the biggest difference between the play in the first two months of the season and the last week? Better effort, especially on the defensive end of the basketball court.
With impressive wins on the road against the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks, and a close loss to the Houston Rockets that might have been a win as well if not for a JR Smith brain freeze, the Knicks are playing like the team many of us thought we would see when the season began. The most impressive of the three games was their defensive effort against Dallas, where the Knicks gave up only 80 points despite Tyson Chandler playing only four minutes due to an upper respiratory infection. The player who has sparked the Knicks is third-year guard Iman Shumpert.
Shumpert has started 2014 playing like a completely different player. He has averaged 20.7 points on a sizzling 69% shooting from the field and 76% from three-point range, with 2.3 steals while playing excellent defense on whomever head coach Mike Woodson asks him to guard. If Shumpert continues his superb play and the Knicks can get healthy, perhaps their good play will be the norm and not the exception.
The Nets have also picked up the intensity on the defensive end of the court, and, sparked by a tremendous win on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder that saw them erase a 16-point second-half deficit, have validated that win with home victories against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks.
Though his statistics wouldn’t say it, one of the biggest keys in the success of the Nets has been a healthy Andrei Kirilenko. “AK was a big plus for us, offensively and defensively,” Head coach Jason Kidd said after the victory over Atlanta Monday, and talked about Kirilenko’s basketball intelligence Saturday after the won over the Cavs.
“He’s a pro. Sometimes the stat sheet doesn’t show it but he does all the little things, coming up with loose balls, finding open teammates and being able to cut and finish plays. Tonight and the last two games he’s been able to do that and it’s been big for us.” Kidd continued to wax poetic about the self-proclaimed cold-blooded Russian.’ “His defensive mind set and being 6’9 with long arms, he’s a guy that can guard a point guard or a forward. He’s another guy with a high basketball IQ. He always tends to find the ball or the ball finds him, which you need when someone’s making a run or you’re open under the basket, and a lot of times he’s able to find the ball.”
The Nets are playing well at the right time, but face two huge tests this week at Barclays Center. Wednesday they host Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, who have won nine in a row under New York native Mark Jackson, their head coach. He doesn’t get any easier Friday night, as the Nets host LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. If the Nets can split the two games or even win both, then they have definitively turned a corner.
2014 seems to look brighter for the two professional basketball teams in New York. If the locals can continue their spirited play, perhaps there will be some playoff basketball in the city after all. For now, all fans of the Knicks and Nets can do is hope for sustained effort on both sides of the ball.