Who is to blame for the Knicks' failed final possession against the Thunder?

JR Smith's fadeaway at the buzzer doesn't fall; who's to blame?

3/8/13 in NBA   |   Matthew_Shovlin   |   735 respect

Facing the Western Conference champion Thunder on Thursday night, a lot of people wrote the Knicks off when it was announced that Carmelo Anthony would miss his second straight game with a knee injury. Without Anthony's 28.2 points per game (second in the NBA), the Knicks employed a starting lineup that has combined for an average of 34.5 points per game this season. Fortunately, they have a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in JR Smith, who came off the bench to score 36 points and keep the Knicks in the game until the final possession.
Blog Photo - Who is to blame for the Knicks' failed final possession against the Thunder?
Immediately before that final possession, head coach Mike Woodson called a timeout. There were just under eight seconds remaining in the game, and the Knicks trailed 95-94. They were inbounding the ball from the front court. Woodson devised a play to get JR Smith isolated on the left side, and that is exactly what happened - JR had the ball at the three-point line with Russell Westbrook guarding him. Smith held the ball for a few seconds, gave a couple spin fakes, then turned for a fadeaway barely inside the arc, missing the shot as time expired.

The play has stirred up a lot of anger among Knicks fans. Radio shows after the game were loaded with fans calling in and complaining about the various reasons that they were disappointed in how the game ended. The two people blamed by fans and analysts were Smith - for settling for a bad shot rather than driving to the basket - and Woodson - for designing a play that simply gave Smith a one-on-one situation over 20 feet away from the basket. Personally, I think both parties are wrong. The blame should be shared between both Smith and Woodson.

I'll start with Smith, because he seems to be the most popular scapegoat. He absolutely has to take that ball to the basket. He has to force Westbrook to play defense; make Westbrook decide whether to let him go to the rim or get aggressive, risking a foul. A trip to the foul line for Smith would likely have resulted in a Knicks win, and at least overtime (barring a very rare 0-2 from the line). Smith basically bailed out the defense by standing 20+ feet from the basket and firing up a low-percentage shot. It was undoubtedly a boneheaded play on Smith's part.

However, I'm not letting Woodson off the hook here. One of the biggest aspects of a coach's job can be described in one simple phrase: put your players in a position to succeed. As far as I'm concerned, Smith was not in a good position to succeed. I'm sure if Smith drives to the basket on that play, there's a chance he gets the bucket or the foul, but not a good enough chance to put the game on the line with that play. He was 22 feet away from the rim with a premier perimeter defender in Russell Westbrook tight on him. If I'm a Thunder fan, I'm glad that my team is in that scenario.

If Woodson wanted to run isolation, he should have run Smith through a series of screens in an attempt to create a mismatch. Aside from maybe Thabo Sefolosha, Westbrook is the one guy you do not want guarding you in that situation. If he couldn't get a mismatch, there should have been at least one screen for Smith to work off of once he got the ball. It's asking a whole lot to tell a player to go up against one of the quickest guards in the league and get around him for the game-winning score.

I understand that isolation is a big part of the modern game, but that final possession was not the right time for it. Iso plays are best served for when your offense is in a slump, and you isolate your best one-on-one scorer to try and get your offense going again. I've seen just about every Knicks game from start to finish this season, and every quarter that the Knicks have the final possession, Carmelo Anthony generally goes iso for the final shot - it's an extremely low percentage play. I don't like it when Anthony (arguably the best offensive one-on-one player in basketball) does it, so I obviously don't like it when Smith does either.

Smith's points throughout the game came mostly as a result of ball movement that resulted in open three-point attempts, and screens that he was able to work off of and penetrate. All of a sudden, at the end of the game, Woodson decides to put all that "team basketball" behind him and tell Smith to go out on his own and do something amazing.
Blog Photo - Who is to blame for the Knicks' failed final possession against the Thunder?
Yes, Smith has hit two ridiculous game-winners already this season, falling off-balance with a hand in his face, but that does not mean those looks are desirable. His crazy game-winner against the Suns was forced because there was one second left in the game. The inbounds pass hit Smith in stride, rather than forcing him to post up and spin around to get a shot off. Against the Bobcats, the play was designed to Raymond Felton, but he couldn't get open, so Smith was once again forced to take a miraculous game-winning shot, which was not a high-percentage look, despite the fact that he made it.

Keep in mind that Smith did not drive to the basket on either of those plays.

I'm not just saying this because the shot didn't go in - if Smith made that game-winner, I'd be ecstatic, but I'd still believe that the play call was not smart. I remember when Woodson ran a similar play with Carmelo Anthony at the end of a game against the Mavericks in November. I hated that play then, and I still do.

For all of you who place the blame on Smith for last night's final possession failure, I completely agree that Smith was out of his mind to not take the ball to the rim. However, as the head coach, I think Woodson has to put his player in a better position to succeed. I do not consider one-on-one with Russell Westbrook from the three-point line to be a good play.
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