The good news, I think, is we've seen this look from these Knicks before. The Knicks of late November hadn't practiced in weeks and descended into sleepy, structureless basketball that lost them three of four games around Thanksgiving. Once they had a few consecutive off days — time, in Mike Woodson's mind, to hold a full practice — they got back on track. That practice came on December 4, and New York's played at least every other night since.
And, sure enough, the Knicks look similarly drained of identity and energy. On one hand, the Lakers that bested them 100–94 yesterday in Los Angeles looked like a genuinely competent team, vastly removed from the defenseless one New York handled a couple weeks ago. On the other, New York has lost some verve in that same interim. Their defense — which has been consistently poor since mid-November, but certainly shouldn't be thiiiiiis bad — is back to rotating sloppily and faltering against even mildly effective ball movement or dribble penetration. The offense still runs sets, but is counting on simple isolation and perimeter-based creation from guys like Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Raymond Felton (yikes) more than teamwide ball movement. We're seeing way fewer of those adorable dozen-pass possessions in which the ball zips happily back and forth around the perimeter and announcers gush over how the Knicks are passing almost TOO MUCH! None of that at all, really.
Quickly, regarding Felton: Good God, man. Take a break. I find myself enamored with Raymond's bulldog-tough-guy-playing-through-injury-so-what-if-my-thumb-fell-off schtick, but even I know there's a point at which playing hurt is embracing ineffectiveness. Since bruising his left hand early in the month, Felton's been shooting like hot garbage (with the exception of that Miami game. What the hell was that?). This wouldn't be such a big deal if: (1) He wasn't also shooting much more this month (nineteen attempts per game) than he did in November (about fourteen per). (2) He hadn't bruised the right hand as well over a week ago and sprained his left pinky last night. Take that day off, Raymond. We appreciate your gumption, but this trend of trying to do more and more with fewer and fewer functional digits has you looking like the Black Knight. It's not just a flesh wound. Give it a rest.
But yeah, the Knicks are struggling right now. Maybe we're finally finding out that New York's not "for real." Or maybe, as was the case around last month's holidays, they've slipped a bit because they're hurting and out of practice. Woodson has acknowledged the trade-off inherent in practicing only when the schedule offers an extra day of rest, and never is that trade-off more evident when New York hasn't had consecutive off-days since ... hey, look at that: December 4. I could be wrong, but I don't believe they've held a full, formal practice — scrimmages, drills, sets, etc. — since that "first practice in a while" to begin the month. Said differently, I think Woodson's held one practice in the last six weeks. For real.
Thankfully, there's a momentary lull coming up. After two more West Coast stops in Phoenix tonight and Sacramento Friday (big, big trap games, I'm afraid), the Knicks'll ring in the New Year with three consecutive rest days. Woodson will surely seize the opportunity to beat defensive principles and offensive discipline back into his charges, and this time he'll have a fuller complement of players available. Marcus Camby is up, Rasheed Wallace will hopefully be on his feet, and yes, Amar'e Stoudemire is raring for his first real court time in months with an actual NBA team. The Knicks have a lot of work to do, and they just need to slog through a couple more games before they'll have time to do it.