Carroll's Keys: Knicks-Hawks

By John Carroll | Scouts Inc.

The New York Knicks have three games left in the regular season. They play the Atlanta Hawks followed by back to back games with the LA Clippers and the Charlotte Bobcats. The Knicks are a half game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference and will play either the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA Playoffs starting next weekend.

The Atlanta Hawks are currently in the fifth position in the Eastern Conference and are slotted to play the Boston Celtics when the playoffs begin next week. The Hawks and head coach Larry Drew deserve a lot of credit for making the playoffs this season after losing their All-Star forward Al Horford after the first 11 games of the season. Josh Smith and Joe Johnson have combined for 36.5 points per game this season to lead the Hawks to a 38-25 record.

Key Injury: Amare Stoudemire has just returned for the Knicks with a bulging disc. Baron Davis was sick on Friday night and missed the Cleveland game. Jared Jeffries was also out with a knee injury. Zaza Pachulia is day to day with a foot injury for the Atlanta Hawks.

Key Addition: J.R. Smith

One of the biggest additions to the Knicks roster this season has been Smith. The Knicks picked up Smith on his return from China and are paying him a pro-rated salary of just under $2.4 million. Smith’s minutes and role on the team have increased in recent weeks. He has averaged 14.3 points per game and shot 43.8 over the past 12 games.

The Knicks have been a poor 3-point shooting team all season. Even with the best 3-point shooter in the league in Steve Novak (46.6 percent) they still rank 23rd in the NBA at 33.1 percent from behind the line. Their lack of shooting puts tremendous pressure on Carmelo Anthony because of how teams can play him and not worry about getting burned by the perimeter shot.

The acquisition of Smith has given Knicks' opponents another perimeter shooter to worry about. Earlier this week Smith made seven 3-pointers in the first half to help the Knicks grab a 72-53 halftime lead versus the Celtics. He finished the game with 25 points. J.R. has become the Knicks' designated 6th man. He has the ability to break his man down and get his own shot, and is a streaky shooter who can destroy some of the better defensive teams in the league.

Through just 29 games with the Knicks this season, Smith is averaging 11.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. If Smith can continue playing at a high level for the Knicks in the playoffs he will be one of the best free agent steals of the past year. He gives the Knicks scoring off the bench, he can create his own shot, and gives the team another deep shooting threat to space the court better for Anthony and Stoudemire. If the Knicks can get everyone healthy and they are all playing at a high level they will give the Bulls or Heat some major problems in the first round.

Key Adjustment: Amare Stoudemire

Stoudemire returned to the Knicks lineup on Friday night after missing the past 12 games due to a bulging disc. The Knicks went 8-4 over that period. With Amare out of the lineup the Knicks have gotten exceptional performances from Anthony, Novak and Smith. Without Jeremy Lin and Stoudemire on the court for the Knicks, Anthony has completely taken over the New York offense. He averaged 30.8 points per game, shot 51.3 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from the 3- point line during the 12 games Stoudemire as absent from the Knicks lineup.

Amare Stoudemire has averaged 17.6 points per game and 8 rebounds over the course of the 2011-12 season. But with Stoudemire back it will be up to head coach Mike Woodson to figure out how to utilize both Amare and Carmelo on the court at the same time. Woodson started Stoudemire in his first game back, but that might be the best way to utilize Stoudemire and Anthony’s skills to help the Knicks the best.

With the starting lineup of Davis, Landry Fields, Anthony, Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler, the Knicks do not have good spacing due to the skill sets of Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler. Stoudemire and Anthony's skill sets are redundant. They are scorers who can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. They are not facilitators who make their teammates better. The Knicks have talent on the court with Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler, but it is not a team that is contructed very well.

One idea that Woodson should think about is using Stoudemire on the Knicks second unit. If he was on the second unit he would much more freedom to score.

It would free up room for Smith who has averaged 14.3 points per game and shot 43.8 percent from the 3-point line with Stoudemire out of the lineup would benefit from playing with him on the court at the same time. Novak has scored 8.0 points per game and shot 42.6 percent from the 3-point line over those 12 games and would work well with Smith and Stoudemire at the same time.

Key Play: Isolations

Synergy Sports has documented that isolation plays are the least efficient play of NBA offenses. Isolation plays produce only .78 points per possession. The top scoring plays in the NBA are: off the ball cuts 1.18 points per possession, transition plays 1.12 points per possession, putbacks 1.04 points per possession, and pick-and-rolls .97 points per possession.

Isolation plays make up 12 percent of all plays in an average NBA game, but in crunch time that number moves up to 19 percent. The Atlanta Hawks are a big isolation team, running more isolations than the average NBA team. They especially like to isolate both Joe Johnson and Josh Smith their two best 1-on-1 players. It is imperative that the Knicks have a defender at the scoring guard (Johnson) and power forward (Smith) that can match up with these two players and defend their isolations 1-on-1 and make them take tough, contested two-point shots.