NEW YORK -- There is something perfectly poetic about the way New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson, from strengths to weaknesses, mirrors his star player, Carmelo Anthony. They are both the kind of competitors who return ceaselessly into the breach, Anthony's second shot opportunities in the heart of the interior as constant as Woodson's refrains about playing harder.
That approach led to a career year for Anthony last year, 54 wins for Woodson's Knicks, and expectations that the Knicks would be contenders again in 2013-14. But even after Thursday night, when the Knicks reprised last season's offense in a 113-83 takedown of the Brooklyn Nets, many of the problems on the Knicks, beyond those imposed upon Woodson by the roster itself, are of his own making, and repeats of last season's ultimately fatal flaws.
And he doesn't sound like he has the slightest interest in changing.
The Knicks succeeded last year largely on the strength of their elite offense, which made threes at historic levels, moved the ball best with two point guard sets, and opened up the floor for Carmelo Anthony, playing power forward. The Knicks were nearly unbeatable in March and April, before injuries to J.R. Smith and an overworked Anthony brought them back to earth.
So you can feel for Woodson, with management failing to return two of his best three-point shooters from last season. Chris Copeland signed with the Pacers. Steve Novak was traded for, of all things, Andrea Bargnani, who really only makes sense playing power forward, the same spot as, ideally, Anthony.
Still, Woodson has his team taking fewer threes this year to date. He continues to play J.R. Smith, through ineffectiveness that is apparently from his burdensome knee. Simply put, Smith isn't very helpful if he lacks the explosiveness to get to the basket, and doesn't consistently hit his jump shots. The Knicks have every reason to keep him off the court until he's 100 percent, not only for this season, but for the three years they committed to Smith this summer.
In response to the question of whether Smith would be minutes-limited, Woodson said prior to the game Thursday night: "Possibly. Could be limited. He's gonna play, but I don't know how many minutes I'm gonna play him. We'll have to play it by ear and see."
Exactly what "play it by ear" means is unclear. But apparently, Woodson puts a ton of stock in the ability of his players to take themselves out of the lineup. Never mind that both Smith and Anthony played through significant injuries well into the playoffs last season, leaving Knicks fans all summer to wonder if a more judicious use of the pair could have turned the team's March-April streak into a May-June one.
All of it means that however concerned the Knicks were about losing 13 of their first 16 games, there's not a ton of reason to be optimistic about it all turning around, even after Thursday's rout.
The reasons why are nothing new, or particularly mysterious, to those covering the team. One reporter asked Woodson about whether backing off on Smith's minutes would be the wiser course of action.
"I don't know if it's an overuse thing," Woodson responded. "I think that he didn't have an opportunity to go through training camp. And, you know, his surgery came so late in the game, in terms of him being ready for camp, that he's still trying to find his game. So I don't think he's 100 percent."
There's a lot packed in there, including an acknowledgement from Woodson that he's playing Smith at less than full strength. Whatever the limitations of this roster, there's no attempt by Woodson to change any number of things he can control.
An alarming omen of this season's inflexibility from Woodson came during last year's playoffs. Facing the Pacers, the Knicks had a choice: either try to play Indiana's game and lose, or stick to their own game and win. When the Pacers did a good job limiting the perimeter shooting early in the series, Woodson didn't look for a fix. Instead, he went big, with disastrous consequences.
Only once he gave Copeland some regular playing time, in what turned out to be the penultimate game of his season, did things begin to change. Only once Iman Shumpert came alive in Game 6 did the Knicks stand a chance of winning in Indiana. This year, Woodson has buried Shumpert at seemingly every opportunity. Smith plays more, and takes twice as many shots per game.
The struggles Shumpert has gone through this year are commonly attributed to James Dolan's desire to trade Shumpert. But, you know, Shumpert hasn't been traded yet. Sometimes, it seems like Woodson thinks otherwise.
That led to a fourth quarter Sunday against the Pelicans when Shumpert didn't play, and Smith did. Woodson refused to elaborate on why, though he denied it had anything to do with a shouting match between Shumpert, clearly on the outside, and Anthony, insider of insiders at Madison Square Garden.
Shumpert scored 17 points in 23 minutes on Thursday night, including five of seven from three-point range. It's the type of game from a young player, particularly one struggling lately, that usually will be singled out by a coach postgame. Not Shumpert.
Regarding Anthony, he's averaging a league-high 40.4 minutes per game while playing out of position. He's by far the most important player on the team. The Knicks started 3-13 with him. One shudders to think what they'll look like without him.
Woodson apparently plans to let Anthony decide when he needs a rest, putting the hyper-competitive Anthony, who's never played through a losing season like this one, in the position of asking out during his team's own crisis.
"You always worry about that, but there comes a time when Melo says to me to back off with the minutes, then I'll back off," Woodson said. "But he hasn't complained much, and we're trying to get a win, so..." Woodson smiled. "We're better when he's on the floor."
I asked Woodson whether it was fair to ask Anthony, the guy who bull-charges relentlessly into NBA defenses, to essentially be in charge of his own preservation.
"Well, again, this is my third year with Melo," Woodson said. "So I kind of got a nice feel for who he is as a player, in terms of how I play him, minute-wise."
You'd like to think so. But the overuse, away from the position where he thrived, increasingly makes it seem like the success Woodson found doing so last season was more incidental than planned.
The conversation, as always with Woodson, circled back to effort. The difference between his pregame and postgame was noticeable.
Before: "We just haven't been able to close," Woodson said. "That's just something we have to get better at ... just a matter of getting better down the stretch."
After: "We've had some flat 3rd quarters, but again it was a total team effort tonight. Everybody made a conscious effort to focus in on trying to put a 48-minute game together. This game is played in 48 minutes. Not 40 minutes, not 35 minutes. You gotta compete all the way 'til the end and we did that tonight."
But did anything really change?