The Knicks had so much pregame excitement last night that it was easy to forget there was an actual game to play, and win. Carmelo Anthony was set to return after missing three games after messing up his knee against the Lakers on Christmas Day — an injury that the Knicks were being so typically weird and secretive about that fans were terrified it was more serious that it turned out to be — and, even more exciting, Amar'e Stoudemire would play for the first time all year. The intrigue involving Amar'e — how he'll fit in, whether he'll start, what sort of hops he'll have — had become one of the biggest stories of the season: Would the highest-paid Knick screw up this good thing they have going? After last night's game against Portland, though, it's worth wondering: How good is this thing the Knicks have going, actually?
The Trail Blazers — who are better than you think they are but are hardly world-beaters — swooshed by the Knicks last night 105–100, handing the Knicks their third consecutive home loss. Over the last two weeks, the Knicks are 3–5 and are about to be passed by the Atlanta Hawks for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. The collapse of the rest of the Atlantic Division has them comfortably ahead — five games up on the Nets and six and a half on the 76ers and the Celtics — but that thing that had you believing the Knicks may have stumbled across something amazing here ... it hasn't been around for a while.
The problem has been the defense, supposedly Mike Woodson's calling card (though advanced metrics have long argued against Woodson's acumen), which has been particularly horrid at the beginning of games. The pick-and-roll defense has been gruesome to watch, and early on, the Knicks were simply handing the Blazers a free pass through the lane. The Knicks are still switching too much, but, mostly, their guards are just being beaten off the dribble, and Tyson Chandler is unable to guard everybody who drives the basket. The Knicks were outrebounded, outscored in the paint, and just generally outplayed all night.
As they tend to do, they still almost came back, thanks in large part to Anthony, who looked healthy enough to score 45 points on 24 shots. It's a little depressing that Carmelo can have a game like that, and J.R. Smith can score 28 points off the bench, and they can still lose at home. But that's the problem when your defense is so lax early on, requiring a crazy comeback later that seems doomed to fall short. (Also, it's hard when two guys score nearly three-quarters of your points.) The defense can't just keep putting the Knicks in this position. And it's not easy to see how it gets better. As Seth put it on Posting and Toasting last night, "these are persistent, systemic issues, and ones that can't quite be excused by the injuries and rotational shifts." The defense is just a mess right now.
Amar'e didn't give the Knicks much. He looked extremely rusty on offense, which is understandable, and sedentary on defense, which we should be used to by now. It's fun to see him back, but the Knicks have issues to resolve right now that have nothing to do with Amar'e. The Knicks won enough games early in the year to absorb some rough losses like this. But only some. The Spurs, one of the smoothest, most efficient offenses on Earth, visit the Garden tomorrow night. That might get real ugly. The Knicks are 21–10 right now, still a terrific record, still in good shape. But this Knicks team, right now, is not that Knicks team. And it hasn't been for a while.