NEW YORK — Rasheed Wallace knows defense.
He won an NBA championship with a defensive-minded Detroit Pistons team in 2004 and he played on a Boston Celtics team that reached the NBA Finals in 2010 playing tough on the defensive end.
Now he’s coming off the bench for a Knicks team that has held the defending NBA champion Miami Heat and the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers to 84 points apiece and leads the league in points allowed.
So, what’s Wallace’s message to his teammates in the wake of their first 2-0 start since the 1999-2000 season?
“Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships,” Wallace said in the Knicks’ locker room after New York handled the Sixers, 100-84.
Wallace has specifically emphasized to his teammates the need to be vocal — on the floor and from the bench.
“It’s contagious, like a little cold,” he said. “That’s what I told a lot of the younger guys, ‘Look, when you’re out there talking, see with me, my speed isn’t the same, my agility isn’t the same, but yet I still can talk. That’s an extra defender out there.'”
After several years of focusing almost exclusively on offensive under former coach Mike D’Antoni’s speedball offense, coach Mike Woodson has brought more of a defensive-mentality to this Knicks team. And that is imperative if they are to have any hopes of challenging for an Atlantic Division title and more.
Perhaps no one better exemplified the team’s newfound commitment to defense better than Carmelo Anthony.
In the first quarter, he blocked a shot by Evan Turner and then went hurdling over the first row of fans into the stands in an effort to save the ball.
“I’m just trying to do the little things,” Anthony said. “Make this team better, that’s it. Everybody in the world know I can score the basketball with the best of them. For me to come out here and do something other than score the basketball, it makes us that much better.”
As the team’s leader and best player, Anthony’s new aggressiveness on defense is already making an impact on his teammates.
“That’s what we have to do to win games,” Raymond Felton said after scoring 11 points in the win. “Sometimes y0u’re not going to have great shooting nights but if you play defense every night you’re going to put yourself in a great position to win.
“Just the way Melo has been playing, just so far as really keying in on defense, guarding his man, diving on the floor for loose balls, diving in the stands. When you have your star player everybody else has to step up no matter what.”
Wallace also likes the fact that New York’s roster is loaded with bigs who can rebound and alter shots around the basket. He, Marcus Camby and Amar’e Stoudemire, who is out at least six weeks with a knee injury, are all listed at 6-11.
Starting center Tyson Chandler is 7-1. Kurt Thomas is 6-9. Anthony and rookie Chris Copeland are both listed at 6-8.
“If you look at the big lineup we have, with Kurt, Tyson, Marcus, myself, Cope, he’s a tall, lanky guy, athletic, so we definitely have the size across the board,” Wallace said. “I mean, I think the shortest guy on our team is Ray who’s what 6-2, 6-3 (actually 6-1), so that’s definitely a good thing.”
For his part, Wallace has become a crowd favorite with fans chanting “Ra-sheed Wall-ace” twice in two games late in the fourth quarter, leading to Woodson inserting him into both games.
“I’ll tell you, it’s better to get cheered here than booed,” Wallace said. “For many years, I got booed. I think it was a respect level. And like I said, I definitely appreciate the Garden crowd for what they do. They’re a bunch of rowdy group.”
Woodson said he plans to rotate Wallace, Thomas and Camby beginning later this week when Camby debuts after missing three weeks of camp with a calf ailment.
“I got three guys that can pitch in and play 10-15 minutes and it can vary night in and night out,” he said. “But they better be positive minutes, that’s all I can tell you.”
However many minutes he plays, Wallace believes the Knicks can still take their defense to a whole new level.
“We’re just out there playing,” he said. “We’re still not doing a lot of things right, but we’re working up to that. It’s only our second game. Once we do work up to that point where we think that defensive engine is running nice and smooth, then we’re really going to be hellacious.”
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.