Ben KopelmanAs we all clamor (or kneel down and pray, take your pick) for Carmelo, Tyson and JR to put Saturday behind them and show up for Game 4, for me, tonight’s enlarged, playoff-sized spotlight is on the sideline and Mike Woodson.
Woodson got this job by default when Mike D’Antoni was ushered out of town, and kept it when many thought the allure of Phil Jackson would prove too strong to ignore. But Woodson has proven his mettle and had a spectacularly successful regular season campaign.
Woodson is a big part of the reason this team earned the 2-seed and dispatched the arch rival Celtics in Round 1 — two huge accomplishments for a Knicks franchise that is just starting to pick up the pieces after the decade-long disaster known as 2002-2012.
Over the course of the year, Woodson got through to Melo, encouraging him to improve his help defense and rebounding — areas that Melo admittedly didn’t think as much about in the first stage of his career.
Woodson’s success focusing JR is well documented and does not need to be rehashed. His coaching style challenges his players to meet and exceed his expectations, and he is unafraid of publicly letting a guy know when he fails to do so. For stretches this year he showed himself to be a premier players coach and deservedly garnered Coach of the Year votes.
But just as any star player is judged based on postseason performance, so is a coach. And right now, Mike Woodson is looking a lot like his pet-project JR.
Game 3 was a pathetic, embarrassing display on all fronts. No energy, no flow, no effort. No nothing. Obviously Woodson is not to blame for Tyson Chandler looking like a shell of his former self, or Jason Kidd’s continued disappearing act. But he is to blame for plenty.
As the coach, it is his primary job to make sure his team is (a) ready going into the game; and (b) able to adjust throughout based on what is and is not working. Woodson failed horribly at both Saturday night and his team was laughed out of the building as a result.
Case in point: the Pacers watched the Knicks convert layups and dunks on the pick and roll all first half. At halftime, Frank Vogel adjusted his team’s approach, instructing Roy Hibbert to stay with the big men even as our PGs hit the lane, take away the bounce-pass-for-a-dunk to Chandler, Martin and Melo and challenge Kidd and Prig to finish around the rim.
And how did Woodson counter? By leaving those two out there instead of sending Felton in to attack attack attack.
Whatever sideline spat he and Felton were in is moot — the coach has to identify the other team’s strategic maneuvering and respond with his own. A similar thing happened in the second half of Game 1, when Felton’s huge first 24 minutes were countered by a Pacers defensive adjustment to which Woodson never countered back.
Instead of sitting down and joining Vogel in a chess match, Woodson stood arms folded, defiant to tweak his approach.
Of course this is one aspect of a couple games. And of course Mike Woodson knows a helluva lot more about his team and basketball in general than I do.
But Woodson’s failure to adapt his game plan to keep working what worked and abandon what did not are as big of a reason that we lost Games 1 and 3 as any missed shots by Melo and JR.
I am not suggesting that Woodson make Copeland the first guy off the bench tonight because refusing to do so would be stubborn loyalty to JR, but there has to be some Plan B in the head coach’s back pocket — some ability to change the team’s approach on the fly — if this series is going to turn around.
As it goes with NBA playoff games, all this can be erased and forgotten with a bounce back performance tonight in Game 4. If Woodson makes the adjustments tonight that he failed to make Saturday, this entire column becomes an overreaction to a minor hiccup. Series tied 2-2 heading back to MSG would be par for the course.
But just as we force players to earn respect and support in this city, so too must we demand the same from our sideline leaders. This is the game on which Woodson should be judged and evaluated — and with the odds against coming back from a 3-1 series hole, there is no doubt that it will.