It was just one game out of 82, a dot on a graph with many data points for two teams that still have lots of work to do to fully find themselves in a long NBA season. But given the early start to the season for both the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, Monday's Sandy-delayed "Battle of New York" was especially instructive in helping us determine where both teams are on their long path to Eastern Conference relevance. The Nets' 96-89 win moved both teams to 9-4 on the season, but there were many trends evident in the game that one should file away for later in the season.
Some important takeaways from the thrilling game.
There's a decent chance that Williams' season-ending statistics won't jump off the page like they did during his heyday in Utah. He's battling all sorts of ailments, with a wrist injury suffered over the weekend being the latest one. On this night, he scored 16 points on 17 shot attempts, hardly a model of efficiency.
But there's so much that Williams does for the Nets offensively that can't easily be explained with traditional numbers. He runs around off the ball, tiring out his opponents. He manages the offense for a controlling coach in Avery Johnson while still managing to demonstrate enough creativity. He feeds a lot of mouths well and does so much to create mismatches for his teammates. He plays equally well on the ball and off it. Most importantly, he makes the big plays in crunch time and keeps coming at you no matter how poor a shooting game he's having.
Take this final possession in regulation, one that would have won the Nets the game if Brook Lopez could hit a free throw. Initially, it looked like the Nets really had nothing going. The initial play was stopped, and Williams was left to create something out of nothing. But instead of forcing a poor shot, Williams kept his dribble alive, created enough space to run a proper pick and roll and hit Lopez on a beautiful bounce pass to lead to a foul. Some superstars make huge plays down the stretch without having to score. Williams is clearly one fo those guys.
On the other hand, this was clearly Felton's worst game as a Knick. It's not just that Felton shot 3-19; it's that he consistently made poor decisions on the pick and roll late in games. Tyson Chandler was often open when Felton came off high screens, but Felton demonstrated a complete lack of patience in trying to get him the ball. Instead, Felton kept taking the same 19-footer the Nets wanted him to take, and he kept missing them badly. Save for one critical shot with just over two minutes left in regulation, he came up empty.
He's played better than most expected thus far this season, but this game was a clear indication of why many felt the Knicks were badly undermanned in the backcourt coming into the season. A healthy Jason Kidd may have helped on some of these plays, but ultimately, the Knicks aren't going anywhere unless Felton can make smart decisions as a playmaker. He's not going to win any one-on-one battles with the league's top point guards, and the sooner he realizes it, the better.
The Knicks' Melo-centric offense
This might have been one of the first nights where the Knicks could have used Amar'e Stoudemire. Anthony had 35 points and Chandler had 28, but nobody else scored in double figures. J.R. Smith has begun his regression to the mean, and Rasheed Wallace wasn't hitting any threes. Without anyone else to step up, coach Mike Woodson was reduced to calling isolations for Anthony or triple-screen pick and rolls for Felton that didn't generally work because Felton was involved.
Stoudemire brings his own spacing issues, to be fair, but if he can accept a sixth man role, the Knicks' offense could pick back up again. Using him as a pick and roll partner with Smith could get the two of them going, and he could also take some of those touches away from Felton late in games. If used correctly, he could carry the Knicks' offense for possessions at a time. For a team that has become too predictable, Stoudemire could be a shot in the arm.
The importance of Ronnie Brewer
This may seem like a minor point, but the Knicks badly missed Brewer in overtime after he went out with a dislocated finger. Brewer was doing yeoman's work slowing down Joe Johnson, and his size prevented the Nets from using Johnson's ability to create a mismatch. But with him out of the game, the Knicks were forced to put Steve Novak in the game and switch Smith onto Johnson. Johnson and Williams ran guard-guard pick and rolls to force a switch, and Johnson punished Felton in the mid-post area, drawing help defenders and kicking out to Jerry Stackhouse and Gerald Wallace for open shots. At one point, Woodson went to little-used James White because Novak was killing the Knicks' defensively.
Brewer is an overlooked piece in the Knicks' cog, but his ability to defend and cut has been essential to them thus far this season. Eventually, Iman Shumpert will take over his role, but until then, Brewer's versatility is needed. If he is out for an extended period of time, the Knicks are in trouble.
The curious case of Brook Lopez
Lopez led the Nets with 22 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots. Without him, the Nets don't win this game. And yet ... he still left something to be desired sometimes. It still felt like he could have grabbed five more rebounds, and his abysmal pick and roll coverage is at least partially responsible for Chandler scoring 28 points on 12-13 from the field.
At the same time, maybe we should just accept that Lopez is what he is. Nets fans clearly understand that he's a productive center with limitations, and he clearly gives more than he takes away in a macro sense. Will his limitations be exposed against the league's best teams? Only time will tell.
Jerry Stackhouse. Really.
It's so ironic that Stackhouse is now the guy who hits corner threes when guards post up and draw double teams. Back in the day, Stackhouse was arguably the league's best post-up guard. In his advanced age, though, he's found a way to remain a useful contributor. He's shooting 46 percent from three-point range this year, and while I would expect some regression, he can remain valuable even if he shoots 38 percent.