The topic of conversation throughout and after the Orlando Magic's loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday was their defense against combo forward Carmelo Anthony, who scored 16 of his game-high 40 points in the fourth quarter to lift New York to a 114-106 victory. What changed in the fourth that enabled him to pop off? Why did Josh McRoberts, and not DeQuan Jones, earn the crunch-time defensive assignment on the five-time All-Star?
As coach Jacque Vaughn and swingman Arron Afflalo said, it had to do with New York's approach. The Knicks have the luxury of simply giving the ball to Anthony and getting out of the way whenever they need a bucket. And they can force a mismatch whenever they want by setting a high screen for him, thus creating a switch wherein the screen-setter's man picks up Anthony, while Anthony's initial defender rotates to the screen-setter.
Afflalo said late-game defensive coverage is a concern for Orlando, because it cannot continue to switch big men like McRoberts and Nikola Vucevic onto the world's most skilled wing scorers in crunch time. "It's not as easy as it seems," Afflalo said of the possibility of not switching screens.
Fans lambasted McRoberts' defense of Anthony, and Vaughn's decision to keep the natural power forward on him, but there aren't many alternatives. Not for a mostly young team that's still learning the ropes defensively.
Consider if Vaughn had put Jones, who defended Anthony well whenever he drew that assignment, in the game late. New York could simply have run more pick-and-roll to force Jones onto Tyson Chandler, stranding Vucevic on Carmelo Island. McRoberts' presence at least meant any switch onto Chandler would keep a big man on the seven-footer.
Another alternative would be to keep Jones on Anthony, but to send a double-team from elsewhere to force the ball out of Anthony's hands. That strategy may have worked, but it is frought with peril: New York pings the ball around the perimeter better than arguably any team in the league, and its stable of floor-spreading three-point shooters is primed to make opposing defenses pay for overplaying anyone, especially Anthony. Steve Novak and J.R. Smith shot a combined 2-of-10 on threes in Orlando's loss on Saturday, but could Orlando really risk leaving them open in crunch time? As it is, Jason Kidd shot 5-of-8 from distance.
There is no perfect approach to stopping scorers like Anthony, but it's clear that Orlando needed to try something different. It cannot, as the season wears on, continue using the defensive coverage which failed on Saturday. McRoberts said afterward that he's never defended perimeter players, not even in high school. Having him learn on-the-job against the likes of Anthony isn't a sound strategy.
In case you're curious, here's what Anthony accomplished in one-on-one matchups against individual Magic defenders: