Riding a four-game winning streak, the New York Knicks are three games over .500 for the first time since the one recent year (2012-13) they were pretty good.
The Knicks' point differential doesn't really agree with their record, though. They're one of three teams - Memphis and Portland are the others - with a winning record and a negative point differential. They've lost three games by larger deficits (19, 28 and 29 points) than their most lopsided win (16).
All three of those losses were more than three weeks ago, but the Knicks haven't exactly been taking care of business over their 7-2 stretch since Nov. 20. They've blown big leads multiple times and four of those seven wins have been by four points or less.
The Basics - New York Knicks (12-9)
The Knicks have beat a couple of decent teams - Charlotte and Portland - in that stretch, but take a step up in competition when they host the Cavs on Wednesday on ESPN (8 p.m. ET). The champs will surely be a measuring stick game for a team that may or may not have turned the corner.
Here are three numbers to know about the Knicks' first 21 games ...
The Knicks have taken 31.8 percent of their shots from the restricted area, up from 27.4 percent last season.
That's the biggest increase in a league that, as a whole, has reduced the percentage of its shots that have come from the restricted area (from 32.4 to 31.9 percent). The Knicks have gone from 29th to 14th in the percentage of their shots that have come at the basket.
League-wide, the reduction of restricted-area shots has come with a much bigger increase in 3-point attempts. In fact, this season's increase in the percentage of all shots that come from 3-point range (from 28.5 percent to 30.8 percent) is the biggest we've ever seen (even bigger than when the league moved the 3-point line in 1994).
But the most valuable shots on the floor are still layups and dunks. The league shoots 60 percent in the restricted area, giving those shots a value of 1.20 points per attempt, higher than corner threes (1.14) or above-the-break threes (1.04). Getting to the basket is still very important.
It's been a long time since the Knicks got the basket this much, and that's not just an indictment of the triangle offense that they don't really run much anymore. Even when they ranked third in offensive efficiency in 2012-13, they were very much a jump-shooting team (though they had a much higher rate of 3-point attempts to mid-range attempts than they've had since). The last season that they took at least 31 percent of their shots from the restricted area was the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12.
Derrick Rose has been the big difference. Last season's starting point guard - Jose Calderon - took just 45 shots (9.9 percent of his total) in the restricted area in 72 games. Rose has almost tripled that amount (130) in just 21 games. The 130 is also more than shooting guard Arron Afflalo took last season (106).
Of course, there's a more efficient way to score than with a layup. But the Knicks' increase in shots near the basket hasn't resulted in more trips to the free throw line. Their free throw rate (FTA/FGA) is down from 0.255 last season to 0.220, a rate which ranks 28th in the league.
Carmelo Anthony is at career lows for both percentage of shots that come from the restricted area (17 percent) and free throw rate (0.241). Those rates rank 86th and 53rd among 93 players with at least 200 total field goal attempts through Tuesday.
Kristaps Porzingis is one of only two players who have shot 70 percent or better on at least 75 shots in the restricted area and 35 percent or better on at least 75 3-point attempts.
The only player who shares that distinction with the "unicorn"? The guy who first called Porzingis a unicorn: Kevin Durant.
Porzingis is a rare talent. First of all, he's 7-3 and can catch the basketball. But he can also finish strong. According to SportVU, he has a higher field goal percentage at the rim (61.5 percent) than Dwight Howard (61.2 percent), DeAndre Jordan (60.5 percent) or Andre Drummond (56.1 percent) where there's been at least one defender there. And while none of those other guys can shoot beyond five feet, Porzingis has range and a soft touch out to 25 feet.
So Porzingis has the ability to be one of the most efficient scorers in the league. And one way he can do that is reducing his mid-range shots.
Porzingis is a pretty good shooter from everywhere. But his shots from between the restricted area and the 3-point line are worth far less (0.79 points per attempt) than his restricted area shots (1.45) and his 3-point shots (1.13). And among the 93 players who have taken at least 200 shots this season, he ranks only 45th in the percentage of shots that have come from the restricted area or 3-point range.
Some mid-range shots are necessary and the San Antonio Spurs will tell you that you can build a top-10 offense around high-volume mid-range shooting. But with Porzingis' unique skill set, he doesn't need those in-between shots nearly as much as most players in this league.
The Knicks are one of two teams that ranks in the bottom five in two of the "four factors" on defense.
Shooting is the most important thing on both ends of the floor, and the Knicks (49.8 percent) are better than the league average (50.3 percent) in regard to opponent effective field goal percentage. They haven't been good at forcing in-between shots, but they have the fourth lowest opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area and their opponent 3-point percentage is right around the league average (35.2 percent).
But the Knicks still rank 27th in defensive efficiency, because they haven't rebounded well and they've put their opponents on the free throw line too often. As important as shooting is, the other three factors of efficiency (the Knicks are also below average in regard to forcing turnovers) can make a difference.
Offensive rebounding has been trending down for the last five years to the point where league-wide offensive rebounding percentage is the lowest it's ever been (23.2 percent). But teams will still take advantage of opponents that can't clean the glass.
The Indiana Pacers have a lower defensive rebounding percentage, but the Knicks have allowed the most second chance points per game (15.6) in the league. Reduce that number to the league average (13.1) and they'd rank 17th in defensive efficiency instead of 27th.
Joakim Noah has averaged double-digit rebounds in his career, but his defensive rebounding percentage (21.7 percent) is at its lowest mark since his second season and ranks 51st among players who have logged at least 200 minutes this season. The Knicks have been a better defensive rebounding team with Noah off the floor than they have with him on the floor.
The Knicks inability to keep their opponents off the free throw line may be a bigger issue. And that issue lies with the Knicks' bench. In 222 minutes with their regular starting lineup on the floor, the Knicks have an opponent free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of just 0.179, a mark which would lead the league. But in 791 minutes with at least one reserve on the floor, their opponent free throw rate is 0.355, a mark which would rank last. Back-up center Kyle O'Quinn has averaged 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes, the 10th highest rate among 298 players who have played at least 200. Willy Hernangomez (4.6 per 36) ranks 31st on that list.
Overall, the Knicks' defense has allowed 2.4 more points per 100 possessions than it did last season. That's the seventh biggest increase in the league. One reason for a little optimism on that end of the floor is that they've played eight games against top-10 offenses and only five against bottom-10 offenses thus far.
But before they see any more of the latter, they'll face the fourth-ranked Cavs on Wednesday.
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