By Dylan Murphy (Twitter)
To quantify Pablo Prigioni’s first season as a Knick through traditional metrics is a disservice to the quality of his play. Though he shot the ball reluctantly, he shot it well. He kept the offense in rhythm with quick passing and off-ball movement. He pressured opposing point guards in the defensive backcourt. But Prigioni’s play was more than just being the occasional pest; his seemingly small contributions triggered certain offensive and defensive shifts that favored the Knicks.
In particular, Prigioni brought an increased tempo and aggression on both sides of the floor. On the defensive end, this manifested itself through random backcourt ball pressure. Throughout the season, Prigioni became somewhat known for his ability to poke the ball loose on inbounds passes. But even when he didn’t nab the steal, his tactics were effective for the Knicks in their consistent ability to derail an opposing offensive set before it even got started.
Take this play from Game 5 of the New York-Indiana Eastern Conference Semfinals series, moments after Raymond Felton knocks down a jumper. With George Hill sitting out, point guard duties had fallen to Lance Stephenson. Yet Prigioni – amidst the post-basket commotion -- steps in front of Stephenson, forcing the ball into Paul George’s hands.
It’s not that Paul George can’t handle the ball or run the offense; it’s that his bringing the ball up the floor, at the very least, eats time off the shot clock as Indiana tries to re-position and get into their offensive set. What’s more is that Stephenson isn’t even Prigioni’s assignment; his man is D.J. Augustin. But his simple initiative makes Indiana’s possession that much more difficult.
Shumpert knows he can pressure George because he is not a natural point guard-type ball handler. Although he ends up picking up a foul, a third of the shot clock is already gone trying to get the ball across half court -- not to mention that the wrong person has the ball in his hands. Most likely, Indiana would have reverted to isolation in this possession – a win for the Knicks.
This becomes especially important when considering Indiana’s offense as a whole, which was predicated on pick-and-rolls transitioning into deep-positioned weak side post-ups. Yet these sets needed time to develop – Prigioni as a catalyst for backcourt pressure made Indiana move away from them more often than they would have liked.
Offensively, Prigioni’s impact was felt in unselfish play; the Knicks saw a steep increase in assisted buckets when Prigioni was on the floor. Part of it was his typically pass-happy ways, but there’s something more there. In this play against Boston in Game 3 of the Knicks’ first round series, Prigioni advances the ball up the floor to Carmelo Anthony after a missed basket.
So what? This is what separates Prigioni from typical NBA players – an understanding that the ball travels faster through the air than with extended dribbling. In this case it’s extremely important because the swift ball movement throws Boston’s defense out of whack. Paul Pierce gets stuck on Pablo Prigioni – a player whom he’s not used to guarding – and quickly decides to double Anthony.
Except the double team here is a poor choice, because Anthony is already well into multiple dribbles and fully court aware -- Prigioni’s pushing of the ball allows Anthony to initiate earlier in the shot clock. The second Pierce starts coming, he kicks it back out to Prigioni, who swings it J.R. Smith. Smith then pump fakes, drives to the bucket and hits the layup plus the foul.
Prigioni’s willingness to push the ball drives this entire sequence. In the playoffs, the Knicks’ offense often stagnated due to set defenses gearing up against isolations. Here, Prigioni allows Anthony to go to work before Boston’s defense is quite ready. The result is a panicking double team and the type of ball movement the Knicks thrived upon this season.
Often times Prigioni himself is the sole and direct catalyst of these transition opportunities. Particularly against the Pacers, Prigioni’s insistence on pushing the ball forced confusion and mismatches. (Indiana cross-matched David West and Tyler Hansbrough on Knicks guards so Paul George, the team’s small forward, could guard Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks' small ball power forward. However, Anthony guards West on the other end, forcing Indiana to re-align on every defense possession.) Here we can see only Prigioni and Shumpert are up the floor, while all five Pacers players have hustled back:
Two-on-five might not seem like great odds, but also notice the first signs of communication breakdowns in Indiana’s defense: everyone is pointing at someone, and Indiana is having a hard time figuring out who should be guarding whom.
Eventually David West, Paul George and Lance Stephenson race over towards Shumpert and Prigioni, leaving George Hill and Roy Hibbert on three Knicks players. And with Hibbert doing his usual sprint towards the paint, George Hill is essentially guarding three players.
By the time Prigioni swings it to Anthony, who’s trailing the play, it’s too late for Indiana to recover. Anthony is wide open for the catch-and-shoot three-pointer in transition.
It’s not that Pablo Prigioni can’t rack up assists or knock down shots. In short bursts, we’ve seen him capably handle this role. But as the second unit point guard and a first string ball handler, Prigioni is extremely adept at finding his niche and capitalizing on minor weaknesses in the opposing team. And especially on a team with plenty of offensive heavy hitters, these statistically elusive yet tangibly effective plays helped catapult the Knicks to one of its most successful seasons in years.