With J.R. Smith out of the lineup against Boston in Game 4, the Knicks leaned heavily on isolation play from Carmelo Anthony. His jumper was not able to bear the load. Melo fought his way to the line, but only shot 8-21 combined on isolations and post ups. When we include turnovers, that’s just 16 points from 25 possessions!
But when we count the 19 (!) free throws and 16 makes he earned off of iso and post up plays (this counts a foul on offensive board that came off of an isolation), he actually scored 28 points off of approximately 33 possessions, or a very respectable .848 points per possession, a rate that is actually not far off his season average Synergy.
The problem is that such a disproportionate amount of the Knicks offense came on these plays. Carmelo performs relatively well in isolations and the post, but his individual production in those scenarios still falls well short of the Knicks team output for the season, which is closer to 1.086 points per possession (per NBA.com/stats).
The Celtics are expert at defending great individual scorers, and have rotated a few defenders on Anthony to apply maximum ball pressure and hopefully force him into jumpshots. Anthony has smartly countered by returning the physicality and fighting his way to the free throw line.
But there’s another way around the Celtics defense, and that’s with the pick-and-roll. Jeff Green, Paul Pierce and especially Brandon Bass are comparatively ill-equipped the navigate the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense, and Carmelo Anthony, as it so happens, is the best pick-and-roll scorer in the NBA.
That’s right, according to Synergy, no one scores more than Melo’s 1.12 PPP on these sets.
In the series with Boston, Melo has taken nine shots out of pick-and-rolls and scored eight times. And whereas he’s coughed the ball up nine times in post ups or isolations, he’s yet to turn it over as a pick-and-roll ball handler.
As his season-long mark shows, this is no fluke. The dude is just a really tough cover when he’s dribbling at a bigger defender. Here’s what I wrote about Anthony for Off The Dribble back in December:
On high screen-and-rolls in particular, which almost always involve Tyson Chandler as the screener, Anthony is an absolute nightmare.
Just like the Heat like to let James receive the screen beyond the 3-point line to give him a head of steam with which to attack the screener’s defender, Anthony is at his best when the play starts far away from the rim. Centers don’t like to come out there, which means Anthony, after he’s run his defender off of the Chandler screen, often arrives at the free throw line with a one-on-one opportunity against the other team’s least agile defender.
Here’s where that tight dribble control comes to bear. Anthony’s hesitation and in-and-out dribbles freeze the defender just long enough for him to create a driving angle, and the same skills that make Anthony a great post player make him next to impossible to stop once he gets his shoulder past the help defender.
You won’t see Anthony punctuate his drives with high-flying dunks, but that’s partly because he loves to go up off of two feet, which reduces the height of his leap but fully leverages his tremendous strength. Even against a 7-footer, Anthony can create space to bank the ball in off the glass.
And because he’s so powerful, even if he misses he almost always takes the defender out of contention for the rebound. The majority of Anthony’s missed shots at the rim off of pick-and-rolls have stayed in the Knicks’ possession — including a few follow dunks from Tyson Chandler.
J.R. Smith’s return should reduce the amount of possessions that Anthony finishes, but it’s a little puzzling that the Knicks won’t commit to just wearing out the Celtics with Anthony in the pick-and-roll. Earlier in the season I speculated that perhaps Anthony just doesn’t feel that comfortable in the pick-and-roll, but at this point it’s time to go with what’s really working, especially if it’s been working all season.