When they're on, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith can dazzle with the variety of ways they can score. Pull-ups, drives, slams, faders over a contesting defender, three-pointers, slick finishes -- both players have huge arsenals from which to draw.
When they're off, they look a lot like they did Sunday against the Indiana Pacers. Instead of a variety of different ways to putt he ball in the hoop, they just missed an array of different shots.
Both Smith and Anthony have come down with rather serious cases of the clangs, shooting coldly and ineffectivey, continuing a dangerous trend after poor finishes in their first-round series against the Boston Celtics.
Anthony was 10-for-28 with 27 points. Going back to Game 3 against the Celtics, Anthony is 47-for-135, 34.8 percent, averaging 26.4 points on 27 shots per game.
Smith missed nine of his first ten shots, finishing with 4-for-15 with 17 points. Dating back to Game 5 -- his first after a one-game suspension for elbowing Jason Terry -- he's 12-for-42, 28.6 percent, averaging 14.6 points on 14 shots per game.
There are two stories here. One is that Anthony and Smith are reverting to bad tendencies. As we wrote during the last series, this team has been unwieldily iso-heavy. Both players earned their reputations for questionable shot selection over the courses of their careers, and not by a fluke. Dudes like shooting.
The other is that Indiana's defense was exceptional. Smith's play picked up towards the end of the season as he learned drives to the rim were more successful than contested fadeaways, and Anthony's bulky body going towards the hoop is one of the tougher things to stop in the NBA. But finishing against the Pacers is pretty difficult with Roy Hibbert guarding the rim. Paul George, generally assigned towards Anthony, funneled him towards Hibbert, and the 7'2 Georgetown product was a wall, contesting constantly without fouling.
But as roughly as Anthony and Smith have shot, they're a necessary evil. There's no way they win the series without Anthony and Smith. When Anthony was pulled from the game after picking up his fourth foul in the third quarter, the Knicks were down six. By the end of the quarter, they were down 16.
The team banks to Anthony and Smith for a reason. They're good. They maybe didn't deserve a first-place MVP vote and a Sixth Man of the Year trophy, but both guys were amongst the top players in those debates because of strong seasons on a team that was No. 2 in the Eastern Conference.
But unless they turn their play around, those accolades will be forgotten, washed away by a monsoon of missed shots. Anthony had no excuses in his postgame press conference, streamed on NBA.com:
They outplayed us. They outworked us. Nothing else needs to be said about that. Foul trouble put a little dent in the game. I try not to let that get to me. It is what it is. The shoulder's a shoulder. It is what it is. It's not something I'm going to keep talking about. I'm trying to get the proper treatment for it and get through it.
Raymond Felton pinned Anthony's struggles on the Pacers, accusing them of going after Anthony's shoulder injury suffered against the Celtics:
They're being really physical with Melo. They're banging him, they're hitting him, they're going at his shoulder. It's just one of those things where hopefully he gets some of those calls and goes to the free throw line. But they're being really physical, trying to bang him, trying to frustrate him.
Anthony didn't buy it:
It wasn't physical. I don't think it was physical. Guys just outworked us. I've been in more physical games than this right here. The physicality of this game, they didn't do nothing to me, to us. Like Coach Woodson said, they beat us on the glass, they beat us to all the loose basketballs. They outworked us. I don't think it had anything to do with them being more physical.
It mighta had to do with the refs, though:
You never know how threy're going to call the game. Especially attacking Roy Hibbert off the pick-and-rolls. They were letting Roy Hibbert be a lot more aggressive today than the norm. Like I said, we'll make our adjustments.
Hibbert's praise rightfully earned a lot of praise post-game. From Frank Vogel:
I think defensively its just him and Tyson Chandler are probably the two best rim protectors in the game. Anybody who's watching this series is going to see how to play the center position at its best. He had a lot of drives at him and had a lot of discipline to earn no calls. he had a great night...
He's grown and learned how to understand angles, earning no-calls, playing the game without fouling, staying on the court. All the analytics say he's the toughest guy to score on at the rim.
From David West: In my estimation he's the best big defender in the league. He's anchored our defense all year. He's just tough. When guys constantly see him at the rim, he's not a typical shot-blocker so much as he's swiping for the ball, jumping as high as he can, putting his chest between the guy trying to score and the basket and it's been effective for him all year.