Monthly Archives: November 2009

Swept by the best, swept by the rest: Season on the sofa Knicks week five review

Having the wind knocked out of their sails in a heartbreaking home loss proved to be the worst possible preparation for the Knicks’ West Coast swing against the Lakers, Kings and Nuggets.

Facing Boston at home after two successive wins (likely to be the longest such streak of the season), the Knicks fell to a Kevin Garnett buzzer beater in overtime that cost them a victory they probably deserved. It was a cruel ending for Mike D’Antoni’s men who, after falling behind in the first quarter, rode the hot hands of Al Harrington and Nate Robinson (in his best performance of the season to date) to lead by five going into the fourth quarter. The Garden crowd began to come alive.

With Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett out of sorts, the Celtics scoring load fell on the shoulders of Paul Pierce who, with 33 points, revived his team as the Knicks struggled to score down the stretch. The lack of a reliable fourth quarter threat probably had some wishing Donnie Walsh had signed up Allen Iverson just days before.

Eddy Curry made his first home apperance since early 2008 and struggled thanks to his colleagues’ collective inability to throw him good entry passes into the post. In his 15 minutes on the court, Curry battled down low with Garnett and Kendrick Perkins and his frustration boiled over late in the fourth quarter when, battling for a rebound, he launched a cheapshot push-cum-punch that sent Rajan Rondo sprawling. The resulting flagrant foul caused a three-point swing that fuelled the Celtics’ hope.

With time running out in OT and the score tied at 105, David Lee rotated from KG to double team Pierce, denying Boston’s clutch shooter the opportunity to finish the game. Pierce passed to Garnett who, limping down the court, had an open shot from the top of the key thanks to Harrington’s failure to rotate onto him. Garnett was 3 of 14 for the game but didn’t think twice about taking the shot. He sank the jumper as time expired to inflict a cruel loss on the Knicks, their seventh home defeat in 8 games.

Knowing how brittle this Knicks team can be, the body blow delivered by Garnett had fans immediately fearing the worse for the next game, a road clash with the defedning champion Lakers. To make matters worse, a traffic gridlock meant the team arrived at Staples just 55 minutes before tip-off. In spite of this disruption, the Knicks were competitive for the first half. Sadly, they disintegrated in the third quarter, surrendering 17 points without reply and trailing at one stage by 25 points, before fighting back to semi-respectability after Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant had left the game in the fourth, eventually losing 100-90.

Outrebounded 60 to 36, the Knicks had no answer to a superior Lakers team. Bryant scored 34 points in an efficient 14-for-20 performance from the field. Gasol added 11 points and 16 boards. All five Lakers starters scored in double figures. In contrast, the all-to-familiar shooting woes from Wilson Chandler (5 for 20) and Chris Duhon (2 for 9 including 0 for 5 from beyond the arc) contributed to the Knicks predictable downfall.

One night later, facing a Sacramento Kings team without their star scorer Kevin Martin, the Knicks – in theory, at least, had their best opportunity to earn a W. In typical Knicks fashion, they failed to take it. Playing their fourth game in five days, the Knicks produced a thoroughly listless performance in which they were lit up from downtown and at the rim by the unheralded Donte Greene.

Outscored 19-6 in the opening minutes, the Knicks were unable to make a serious run. They were ragged and, at times, downright lazy. Starting the second half with a 10 point deficit, Nate Robinson allowed Greene to go back door for two and then drain an uncontested three on the Kings’ next possession. Mike D’Antoni immediately called for time and chewed out Robinson like a father who’d just found out his son had disgraced his family name. The Knicks lost 111-97 with a whimper.

I’m willing to bet NBA neutrals allergic to defence really enjoyed the final game of the Knicks’ West Coast road trip in Denver. It was a high-scoring D-free affair and D’Antoni’s men showed great heart in hanging in the game as Carmelo Anthony let fly with a 50-point barrage (a career high) and Chauncey Billups added a further 32.

Buoyed by Al Harrington’s 41 points off the bench and a 23 and 10 effort from David Lee, the Knicks repeatedly dragged themselves back into the game  thanks, in part, to some dubious ticky-tack fouls called on Melo and Kenyon Martin. They led 111-110 with three and a half minutes to go and, even when they fell behind by eight points, fought back in the final seconds and gave themselves a chance to send the game to overtime.

With four seconds remaining, JR Smith missed one of two free throws. The score stood at 128-125. With no timeouts, there was nothing D’Antoni could do except to rely on his players. Characteristically, they struggled to inbound the ball, advanced it up the court in a panicked fashion and ultimately failed to get a shot off before the buzzer. Comparing this haphazard and futile play with Melo’s ice-cold execution down the stretch shows exactly what the Knicks are missing. Anthony may lack the flash of Lebron but he has matured into NBA’s purest hoops classicist, always making the right passes and shots. It was a pleasure to watch him at his best.

As for the Knicks, their performance against the Nuggets highlights their plight. Even when they play close to their best, they still lose. Whether they go with rookies or with experience, they still lose. In a week that yielded four defeats from four games in which they fell to a miserable 3 and 13, the fact that the team’s futility can’t lead to a high pick in the 2010 draft once again instilled depression into the team’s long-suffering fans.


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The most dubious distinctions and unwanted records in sport

The New Jersey Nets have lost their first 16 games of the NBA season and, with one road game left on a devilish West Coast swing, look like a mortal lock to match the 0 and 17 landmark of early season futility set in 1988/89 by the Miami Heat and equalled by the ever-hapless Los Angeles Clippers ten years later.

The Nets are not poorly coached and the roster has clearly not quit on Lawrence Frank. However, injuries to guards Devin Harris and Courtney Lee and overall “talent issues” have sent them spiralling on a losing skid that may well see them surpass the unwanted record. Simply put, the likes of starters Trenton Hassell and Josh Boone don’t have the quality required to come out on top, however infrequently, against their opponents. Things have got so bad that they recently lost at home to the arguably-more-hapless New York Knicks.

The Nets’ descent into potentially precedent-setting ignominy is just one of many of sport’s dubious distinctions. From the NFL and MLB to the English Premier League, Formula 1 and boxing, the owners of such unwanted records become part of the folklore of their respective sports and, in the case of some, almost a comical euphemism for continued miserable failure and bad luck. Read on as the Sports Bloke examines 10 of the most dubious distinctions in sport.

Major League Baseball
Although there’s never a shortage of struggling MLB teams, none can match the horrific record of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On September 7 2009, the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs. It was their 82nd game of the season and condemned them to a 17th successive sub-500 season. No team in MLB history (or any American sports franchise) has ever matched Pittsburgh’s losing streak.

There isn’t a single NBA diehard who doubts that the Los Angeles Clippers are jinxed. Take this season for example. Armed with the No 1 pick, they made the correct selection in Blake Griffin only for their new signing to blow his knee out on a dunk in a pre-season game. At the time of writing, Griffin has yet to play for the Clippers. Although the Nets may surpass the Clippers 0 and 17 mark for consecutive early season losses, the franchise holds so many unwanted records that it has become a by-word for futility. To save time and space, I’ll only cite two. The Clippers are the oldest NBA team never to appear in the NBA finals. They are one of three teams (Memphis and Charlotte are the others) to have never won a Conference Championship or Division Title in their history.

Far away from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and Caesers Palace, British boxer Peter Buckley carved out his own particular niche in boxing. He lost more fights than any other boxer in history. The Birmingham welterweight lost 256 of this 300 professional bouts, making a living as a durable punching bag for up-and-coming fighters including Prince Naseem Hamed, Duke McKenzie, Scott Harrison and Kell Brook. At one point, he lost 88 consecutive fights. Regardless of their record, anyone prepared to make a living as a boxer deserves respect. It was fitting, if a little unexpected, that Buckley won his 300th and final fight when he scored a four round points victory over Matin Muhammad in his hometown in October 2008.

Former England captain Mike Atherton always struck a lonely figure, an obdurate leader hamstrung by the ineptitude of national selectors and surrounded by mediocre teammates unable to stand up to superior Australian, Pakistani and Indian teams. Although Atherton led his country with stoicism and made big scores against most countries, he was regularly tormented by metronomic Aussie opening bowler Glenn McGrath. Over the years, Atherton was dismissed 19 times by McGrath in test matches, a record for any bowler against one batsman.

You have to feel sympathy with fans of perennial League Two strugglers Rochdale. The Greater Manchester club were relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League in 1974 and have remained there ever since. At the time of writing, Spotland’s finest have spent 35 years in the basement of English football, longer than any other English club.

The NFL prides itself on the “Any Given Sunday” principle that preaches league-wide parity and the fact that any outcome is possible in any game. Sadly, the Detroit Lions spent the entire 2008 season disproving this theory. With inferior offence, defence and special teams, the hapless Lions conspired to lose all 16 of their regular season games. Their futility surpassed that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who, in 1976, went 0 and 14 in their first season in the league.

FA Cup
The historical showpiece of the English football season has provided a seemingly endless stream of memorable moments over the last 120 years. Until 1985, no player had suffered the shame of being sent off in an FA Cup final. Manchester United defender etched his name into FA Cup history when he scythed down Everton’s Peter Reid in the 1985 final and was deservedly dismissed from the field. Down to 10 men, the Reds forced extra time and secured victory when Norman Whiteside curled a delicate left footed shot past Neville Seville and inside the far post to score the only goal of the game.

Formula 1
It might be a little bit harsh to label a driver who only appeared in three Grands Prix as the worst racer Formula 1 has ever seen but Jean-Denis Deletraz’s efforts were so poor that he is definitely in the conversation. For example, in his debut race, the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, the Swiss driver qualified 25th out of 26 cars and was lapped by leader Michael Schumacher after 10 laps. Deletraz did manage to find some speed at one stage. Unfortunately, this burst of pace came in the pit lane and he was penalised as a consequence. When his gear box finally failed after 57 laps, he had been lapped 10 times and was approximately 13 minutes behind the race leader.

The Philadelphia Phillies may have contested the last two World Series but they also hold one of the most unwanted records in American sport. Although they’ve never been lovable losers and cursed by bad luck, no team has ever lost quite like the Phillies. A lot of this is down to the fact that they’ve existed since 1883. In July 2007, the Phillies were routed 10-2 by the St Louis Cardinals. It was a landmark defeat that condemned them to becoming the first American sports team to lose 10,000 games.

English Premier League
In July 2007, a poll in The Times newspaper labelled Southampton’s one-game wonder Ali Dia as the worst footballer ever to play in the Premier League. Saints manager Graeme Souness had been led to belive Dia was the cousin of World Footballer of the Year George Weah. He was also told the player had played for Paris St Germain and won 12 international caps for Senegal. None of this was true. When Dia replaced Saints legend Matt le Tissier in a 1996 game against Leeds United, everyone realised the awful truth. His performance, described by Le Tissier as “embarrassing to watch”, was mercifully cut short after 52 minutes when Souness cottoned on to the fact he had been duped about Dia’s credentials.


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New hope and big decisions: Knicks season on the sofa week 4

Despite the pain of depriving myself of sleep in order to watch the Knicks slump to their worst ever start to an NBA season, week 4 gave me reason for hope. Why? Well, the Knicks only had two games on their schedule meaning, even if they lost both, their streak of losing three games every week would definitely come to an end.

As it turned out, the Knicks beat both the Indiana Pacers and the lowly New Jersey Nets on the road to creep towards the cusp of semi-respectability with a less-embarrassing-than-we-are-used-to three wins and nine losses.

The key to victory in Indiana was so clear even I, watching bleary-eyed in London at 2am, was able to spot it. Trailing by 19 points in the third quarter, the Knicks finally started to play consistent defence and make some shots.

In a picture-perfect reversal of their loss to the Pacers on November 4, the Knicks sparked a heartening rally, outscoring their hosts 27-7 in the final seven minutes 30 secnds of fourth quarter to record a much-needed 110-103 win. They forced the Pacers to shoot a miserable 25% in the game’s final stanza, stifling and frustrating Danny Granger to such a degree that the Pacers’ chief scorer fouled out.

On the offensive end, the Knicks bench outscored Indiana’s second unit 65-22 with Al Harrington firing a team-high 26 points, including three fourth quarter 3-pointers that instigated the game-winning comeback. Larry Hughes’ player of the game performance featured 21 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

The Indiana victory also marked the return of troubled center Eddy Curry who, having shed 50 pounds, literally looked like a shadow of himself. I’m not wholly convinced it was actually Curry on the court.

The slimmed-down big man claiming to Curry looked exactly like Eddy Curry except for the addition of a thin goatee on his chin. It reminded me of Bender’s nemesis Flexo in Futurama, a robot who looked identical to his rival save for a tiny piece of chin-hair. Either way Curry/Flexo Curry looked surprisingly good in a 12-minute cameo that yielded 10 points and four rebounds. The big man has a long way to go to get back to maximum match fitness but , after all his problems, it was good to see him back and looking able to provide an inside scoring punch.

The three-day gap between the Pacers and Nets games was filled with speculation surrounding the potential signing of free agent Allen Iverson. After an initial flirtation, Donnie Walsh surprised most observers by passing on the former MVP. It’s a good job he did this. After preaching patience and the need to development his core of young players, the addition of AI would not only have robbed the likes of Wilson Chandler and Toney Douglas of minutes and shots but would have made Walsh look indecisive, panic-ridden and, at worst, a hypocrite.

Saying no to The Answer allowed Walsh to stick steadfastly to his long-term plan and show a degree of faith in his young stars. Iverson bringing his me-first ball-hog act to the Garden may have given the Knicks a handful of extra wins this year but the potential for locker room disruption – as witnessed in Memphis – would have been huge. To my mind, Walsh made the right choice.

When a team is on a historically bad losing streak, no-one wants to be their first victim. That fear placed pressure on the Knicks as they faced the 0-12 New Jersey Nets, who were boosted by the return of their best player Devin Harris. With a West Coast swing looming, playing the Knicks at home offered the Nets their best chance of recording a victory before they approach 0-17, the league’s worst ever start held, somewhat predictably, by the 1998 LA Clippers.

The usual deathly silence of the Izod Center was replaced by some relatively raucous travelling Knicks fans who witnessed a fairly comfortable win for their team.

The Knicks shot 45% to lead 52-43 at the half. The offence was balanced with Harrington, Danilo Gallinari and Larry Hughes mixing drives to the hoop with outside shooting. It wasn’t such a good night for Nate Robinson who raised the ire of Mike D’Antoni by jacking up a three point towards his own basket at the end of the first quarter. With only half a second left on the clock, Nate launched the shot just after the buzzer. The shot swished home and a beaming Nate returned to the bench. The smile was wiped off his face by a raging D’Antoni who, after berating Robinson, benched him for the rest of the game. Was it an overreaction from the coach or a way to instill the need to focus into all his players? Probably both.

The Knicks extended their lead to 15 points by the middle of the third and, save for a Chris Douglas-Roberts-inspired fourth quarter 16-2 rally that bought the Nets within two, held on fairly comfortably for a 98-91 win. A 3-point dagger from Harrington, who seems to save his best performances for games against the Nets, sealed the deal. David Lee, who combined with Chris Duhon for some crucial baskets down the stretch, finished with 16 points and 12 boards.

A record of three and nine certainly isn’t anything to boast about but, with a home match-up against Boston and road games in Los Angeles and Denver coming up, winning  both games this week provides D’Antoni’s men with a much needed boost. They’ll need all the confidence and luck they can muster over the next seven days.

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Wake up and smell the despair: Knicks season on the sofa week three review

Three games, three defeats, shifting starting line-ups and an incomprehensibly bungled rotation. Oh, and the worst start to a season in franchise history. Just another desperate week in the life of the New York Knicks.

Home defeats to Utah, Atlanta and (unbelievably) Golden State laid the Knicks’ frailties bare for all to see. They are an outside shooting team that can’t shoot well. A run and gun team that can’t always be bothered to run. And, of course, a team that cannot defend to save its life and lets most opponents shoot above 60 per cent in first quarters.

The Utah game followed the pattern of most of the Knicks losses to date. Down by 21 points in the third quarter, the Knicks mounted an ultimately futile comeback propelled by the cut and thrust of rookie Toney Douglas. Having closed the deficit to a single point, they went scoreless for the game’s final 76 seconds and lost 95-93.

Two nights later, the Knicks managed a rare solid start against Atlanta, running up a 14-point first half lead before being outscored 37-23 in the third quarter on the way to a lop-sided 114-101 loss. A sequence of Jared “Mr Fumbles” Jeffries bobbling a pass out of bounds as he tried to make a gimme lay-up and Al Harrington letting the chance of an uncontested dunk literally slip through his fingers sent the MSG diehards to the exits in the fourth quarter.

Last night, the dysfunctional Golden State Warriors thumped the Knicks 121-107, shooting 64 per cent in the first quarter and leading for most of the game. This loss, their sixth straight, reduced the Knicks to a historically terrible 1-9, the worst ever start to a season. With Darko Milicic, Douglas and fellow rookie Jordan Hill in the game, the Knicks briefly paid some D in the third quarter and pulled within six points. Any hopes of a comeback win were immediately extinguished when the Warriors opened the fourth hitting four successive shots, including three three-pointers, to ice the game.

Why is D’Antoni powerless to coax consistent effort from the majority of players on this woeful Knicks team? One theory thrown out this week suggested that a clique of Knicks were sick of the circus surrounding Lebron James and his potential move to New York in 2010. The enormous LBJ billboard outside Madison Square Garden is said to have raised their ire. If there is truth to this story, it is nothing short of a disgrace. There’s been countless unheralded Knicks players who became heroes in MSG (John Starks and Anthony Mason spring to mind) because they earned the respect of the supporters with effort and hard work. So Jared, Al, Chris and whoever else is behind mailing in the entire season, man up and leave it out on the floor. You might even earn yourself a contract for next year (although I seriously doubt it).

Whether or not the players are staging an early season revolt, some questions must be asked of the coach. You wonder if D’Antoni’s reputation as an offensive genius that he forged in Phoenix relied heavily on the quality of players that he had. With Steve Nash as your floor general and leader, how often did D’Antoni have to struggle to motivate his charges? Now, with a squad of vastly inferior players, he looks powerless to stop the Knicks sliding into embarrassment. The constant tinkering of the starting line-up and the desperately muddled rotation during the games suggest, for all his searching, he cannot find a single answer.

Could the “Summer of 2010” hoopla actually be having a legitimate psychological effect? You could argue it is far easier for fans to accept Donnie Walsh’s long-term plan than it is for the players and coaches. Has any NBA coach ever been given a two-year free pass where losing doesn’t really matter that much? Has a group of players ever been brought to (and traded from) a club solely on the basis of when their contracts expire? Does knowing this somehow mentally undermine the people in question (particularly D’Antoni, Harrington and Larry Hughes)? Is it possible to take pride in your performances when everything points to the fact that you are a pawn in a larger, longer game? All fans would answer in the affirmative. Knowing the glaring limitations of this team, they are steeled to accept defeats this year. What they will not tolerate is the consistent lack of effort and heart. Even the dismal, winless New Jersey Nets get total commitment from their depleted roster.

Are there any positives to take from this week of defeat? Surprisingly, yes. Though the jury remains well and truly out on Jordan Hill, the play of Toney Douglas has been worthy of note. The rookie point guard forced D’Antoni into giving him more minutes after single-handedly reviving the Knicks against the Jazz. He’s not afraid to take the ball to the hoop and has, over three short games, established an explosive scoring touch. Douglas’ emergence should also signal the end of Chris Duhon as a Knick. In this losing mire, Duhon has arguably been the worst player on the roster this year. A starting backcourt of Douglas and Larry Hughes might just give the Knicks some defence. With Nate Robinson back from injury to back them up, you have an improved three guard rotation.

Another sign of how desperate the Knicks are for good news came in the drastically smaller shape of Eddy Curry. The troubled big man returned to practice this week and appeared to have made good on his word to get in playing shape. In a post-practice interview, Curry looked chiselled (yes, I said chiselled) confirming stories that he had lost more than 50 pounds. Pinning hopes on Eddy to revive the Knicks’ fortunes may be a bit of a stretch – he’s played 12 minutes in the last 12 months – but getting him on the court must be a good thing. If he can re-establish his low post game, surely that will open up the three point game for Gallinari and Hughes.

The final plus point is the five day break the Knicks have until their next game. In the midst of a slump, time to “go back to the drawing board” is crucial. Perhaps whatever grievances the players have can be aired and rectified. Perhaps D’Antoni can pull some tricks from his magic hat of offence. Perhaps they might settle on a nine man rotation. Perhaps Donnie Walsh has a trade up his sleeve. Perhaps David Lee will stop whinging about every call that goes against him. And perhaps Eddy Curry will suit up when the Knicks travel to Indiana on November 18.

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England expects: the return of Kevin Pietersen

A good mate of mine refers to England cricketer Kevin Pietersen as “Big Prinz”, a song from The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj album which features the classic Mark E Smith lyrical refrain “He is nuts-ah!” (KP, nuts, geddit?). It’s an appropriate nickname for reasons that go beyond the obvious nutty bar snack association with Pietersen’s initials.

From the moment Pietersen made his test match debut at Lord’s against Australia in 2005, he dominated the crease with his Botham-esque self-belief and imposing Flintoff-ian physical stature. While supporters could sense the pride he took in representing his adopted country, they also enjoyed the fact that there was something wholly un-English about his behaviour. He refused to be intimidated by the sense of occasion. He dished out the abuse when opponents dared to sledge him. He regally counter-attacked against the best bowlers in the world. And, most importantly, he made big match-winning innings when it counted. Almost instantly, he became the biggest figure in English cricket. That is, until someone at the ECB decided he needed taking down a peg or two.

Dressing room leaks have seen him labelled a loner and were responsible for the decision to take the England captaincy from him after just six turbulent months.

Pietersen spent the first half of 2009 looking, in the words of Avon Barksdale, like a man without a country. Separated from his teammates by his own talent and the circus that surrounded him, it was almost a relief when he succumbed to an achilles injury that gave him a much-needed break from the game.

Fit again, Pietersen has rejoined England as they embark on their tour of South Africa. Only a fool would believe he won’t walk straight back into the team when the one day series begins. But while many believe we will see characteristic bombast when he walks out to bat in South Africa, I wonder if Pietersen’s experiences over the last 18 months have left him emotionally scarred.

Look at it this way, Pietersen’s technique is idiosyncratic. Although he bats with intelligence and thought – witness his ability to use his crease and alter his stance when troubled by pace or spin – Pietersen’s unique shot-making and dominant batting style relies, at least to some degree, on boundless self-belief. Up until the point where he accepted the England captaincy, it’s a good bet he’d never questioned or compromised himself in any way as a cricketer. I believe being deposed as England captain left deeper scars on Pietersen’s psyche than anyone will ever realise. It was the first time he hadn’t made a success of a situation he believed to be under his control (remember, it was the quota system that stopped him from being a star for South Africa). It was the first time he had openly and embarrassingly failed.

For this, the ECB must take the blame. They fudged the captaincy issue in the autumn of 2006 when, with Michael Vaughan injured, they passed over Andrew Strauss, who had just guided England to a home series victory against Pakistan, and made Andrew Flintoff skipper for the ill-fated Ashes tour. They overburdened Flintoff, the team’s best player, and lost the series 5-0.

In the summer of 2008, when the captaincy issue rose again following the retirement of Michael Vaughan, the ECB failed to heed the lesson and handed the reins to KP. At that time, there were no other choices as Strauss was out of the one day side and going through a terrible run of form in the test arena. Had Strauss been appointed in late 2006, the England team would have enjoyed the stable leadership that led to this summer’s Ashes victory. Plus, their two most talented players, Flintoff and Pietersen, would have been left free to perform without the pressure of the captaincy.

The ECB must have known that Pietersen as captain would lead to problems. For his part, KP looked like a man out of his depth, immediately insisting on the appointment of a new coach (tellingly, Kent’s South African coach Graham Ford who he had worked with before) and demanding former skipper Michael Vaughan be included in the tour party for the 2009 West Indies tour. He wanted expertise around him because he was already unsure of his ability to lead. As things turned out, he would lose the captaincy before setting foot on the plane.

Did being ousted as captain hamper Pietersen’s performance when he returned to the ranks of England’s middle order in the spring of 2009? Although he made a few forties and fifties against the West Indies and in the Twenty20 World Cup, the sense of dominance and permanance at the crease were gone. The achilles injury did play a part, but so did the fact that he had been betrayed by his employers. Losing the captaincy through no fault of his own (the ECB later went on record backing up Pietersen’s assertion that he did not leak the story of his rift with coach Peter Moores to the media) robbed Pietersen of his instinctive and domineering South African style of play. Thanks to the ECB, he suddenly looked like a typical English batter, reactive and riddled with self-doubt.

If England are to be successful in South Africa, Andrew Strauss needs Kevin Pietersen to come back having used his six-month break from cricket to allow his psychological scars to heal. With Strauss and new coach Andy Flower flush from Ashes victory, Pietersen’s return to the England dressing room should be a smooth one. This is no longer a one or two man team. Flintoff is gone. The likes of Strauss, Graeme Swann and (on occasion) Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad have announced themselves on the international stage. The success or failure of the England team no longer depends on whether Pietersen flays the opposition bowling to every corner of the ground or gets out first ball to a good delivery. To help England be successul in South Africa, all Kevin Pietersen needs to do is rediscover how to be himself.

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Barely worth their place in the NBA: New York Knicks season on the sofa week two review

Knicks fans, fasten your metaphorical crash helmet because, on the evidence of the four games over the last seven days, this season is shaping up to be a true test of faith and loyalty. This season is going to hurt and, most of the time, it is going to be embarassing.

It is two hours after the Knicks walked off the court at the Bradley Center after a truly humiliating 102-87 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks. They conceded 40 first quarter points to a team averaging 87 a game. Their offense was putrid. They turned the ball over repeatedly. The defence was so poor it was inexcusable. In short, the Knicks didn’t even look good enough to be considered an NBA team. They played so badly in this game that Walt Frazier could be heard laughing in disbelief at their collective ineptitude.

The Milwaukee massacre provided a sad end to a week that had begun brightly. Monday night’s game against New Orleans finally gave the Knicks their first win of the season. They appeared to have learned the lessons handed down in their opening three defeats. Gone was the over-reliance on the three, the lack of ball movement and the absence of team defence replaced by Al Harrington slashing his way to the basket, Danilo Gallinari faking threes and creating easy baskets inside for David Lee and, (at times) a swarming defensive effort that forced Chris Paul and Co into bad shots and turnovers. Instead of the sluggish starts that hindered their progress in the season’s opening week, the Knicks came out sharp and slick with Larry Hughes hitting shots propelling the home team into a 12-point lead. When the Hornets made a third quarter run to briefly retake the lead, the Knicks, led by Lee (28 points) and Harrington (24 points), put the game away with a 40-point fourth quarter. They ran out convincing winners 117-111.

Mike D’Antoni described the Knicks’ first win of the season as “a massive step forward” but, as has happened many times, was made to eat his words by his team’s feeble efforts in their next match-up against the Indiana Pacers. A lethargic defensive display and thoroughly anti-clutch 0 for 10 shooting in the game’s final nine minutes resulted in a humbling 101-89 defeat to a severely depleted and previously winless Pacers team playing its second game in two nights. Even though Danny Grainger fouled out with four minutes remaining, the Knicks could not keep up with the Jonses, Dahntay and Solomon.

Fans will accept losing to the likes of the Celtics, the Lakers, the Magic and the Cavs. What will infuriate them is losing badly at home to teams in the bottom halves of their conferences. If the Knicks aspire to respectability, games in the Garden against the likes of the Pacers are games they simply must win.

Being blighted by inconsistency is no way to prepare for the Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The return of the King threatened to be a blow out on paper and so it proved. The game was over was as a contest after one quarter after 19 points from Lebron secured a 40-21 lead. Despite the Knicks playing decent defence in the game’s opening possessions,  the Cavs still started seven for seven. James drained three pointers, created two easy baskets with quality passing, made a buzzer beater and even found time to pat Larry Hughes on the arse after successfully launching a three in his face.

Aside from a couple of mini-runs, the Knicks fell listless for the remainder of the game. Unhappy with the lack of heart and passion shown by his experienced players, Mike D’Antoni gave second quarter minutes to rookie Jordan Hill who made an energetic five-minute cameo during which he made three of five field goals and turned the ball over twice.

As the game meandered to its inevitable conclusion, former Knicks-turned-TV-commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy lamented the Knicks’ ongoing “talent issues” and agreed that their failure to establish a low post and/or pick and roll game was the primary cause of the long periods of offensive stagnation and their field goal and three point shooting percentages. The Knicks reduced the Cavs’ 20 point lead to single figures in the dying minutes of the game to make the final score a semi-respectable 100-91 but that masks how inferior they were to their opponents. James’ 33 point, nine assist, eight rebound performance showed the Knicks everything they are missing. The man is supremely skilled but he is also a fine team mate and leader, revelling in the atmosphere at MSG and enjoying his team mates’ successes. As Chris Rock suggested when he was interviewed courtside, “when Al Harrington is your go-to guy, you know you are in trouble”.

Twenty-four hours later, the Knicks were thoroughly dissected in Milwaukee. After hitting their first four shots, they totally and utterly capitulated to trail the Bucks 66-35 at the half. Don’t bother with the box score for this game. Instead, ask yourself this question. How on earth has D’Antoni avoided criticism for the sad state of his team? His over-hyped, one-dimensional offense only splutters sporadically into life. His team play no defence at all and are regularly out of games by half time. His players amble through increasingly heavier defeats making basic mistakes and looking like they couldn’t care less. There’s no team work, especially on the defensive end.

When is someone going to ask why this team have quit on the coach seven miserable games into a new season? If there’s truth to the rumour that the players are insulted by the New York media’s focus on Lebron and have decided to sleepwalk through the season, that’s as big an indictment on the coach as anything that happened in the Isiah era. And remember, thanks to Mr Thomas, even if the Knicks tank the entire season there’s no draft pick at the end of it. Donnie Walsh will argue that this current Knicks squad have little bearing on his long term vision for the team. Next year’s roster will bear little resemblance to the one currently embarrassing the Big Apple. It is too much to ask the MSG faithful to sit through performances this bad on the promise of a better tomorrow. While everyone expected the Knicks to be mediocre this year, nobody was prepared for them being this poor. If he cannot coax better effort from his team, Mike D’Antoni will need to grow a thick skin if he is to make it to Walsh’s promised land of free agent nirvana in the summer of 2010.

On this week’s evidence, the NBA’s most popular coach is looking more and more like a fraud. On this week’s evidence, the Knicks are still a total mess. On this week’s evidence, there’s no way Lebron James will be caught dead in a blue and orange uniform next season.

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Filed under Basketball, nba, Season on the sofa

Sport’s most memorable David vs Goliath moments

British heavyweight boxer David Haye faces a mammoth task in Nuremberg tonight as he attempts to wrest the WBA Heavyweight title from the mountainous champion Nikolai Valuev. The Hayemaker is dwarfed by his 7ft 2in opponent to such a degree that the fight couldn’t possibly be billed as anything other than David vs Goliath.

The idea of the overmatched underdog taking on and beating an opponent with superior strength and talent is one of sport’s most compelling dreams. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And there’s more to the David and Goliath concept than seemingly mismatched individuals, sometimes it can relate to entire teams.

To mark David Haye’s world heavyweight title challenge, the Sports Bloke has compiled a short list of the most memorable David vs Goliath moments in sport.

1) Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming
November 2006, Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks defending their homecourt against the Houston Rockets. Rockets all-star, 7ft 6in Yao Ming receives the ball in the low post and prepares to make a jump shot. From the weakside, the Knicks ever-energetic sixth man, 5ft 7in Nate Robinson goes airborne to swat Yao’s shot away, poking the “Great Wall” in the eye for good measure. You’d like to think Yao’s teammates ensured he never lived this down. Winner: David
Watch: Nate Robinson rejects Yao Ming

2) Jonah Lomu dominates Tony Underwood
New Zealander Jonah Lomu burst onto the world sports scene courtesy of his dominant performances at the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Left-winger Lomu, described by England captain Will Carling as a physical “freak”, was the size of most forwards but with pace that would shame most backs. You had to feel for the opposition right wing who directly faced him.
When New Zealand faced England in the tounament’s semi-finals, Tony Underwood had this onerous task. He was dwarfed by Lomu’s size and destroyed by his strength. Lomu ran rings around him for 80 minutes, running in four tries as New Zealand cruised into the final. At one point, Lomu actually ran over Underwood and teammate Mike Catt before crossing the line. Winner: Goliath
Watch: Jonah Lomu destroys England

3) The ultimate act of FA Cup giantkilling
The 1988 FA Cup final proved beyond doubt that David can defeat Goliath in a team game. In the red corner, Liverpool, the finest team in the country, league champions with international class players throughout their squad. In the blue corner, Wimbledon, the team known as the Crazy Gang, a team of wind-up merchants renowned for their long ball tactics, who, 10 years previously, had been playing in non-league football.
For Goliath, read John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Alan Hansen. For David, read John Fashanu, Dave Beasant and Dennis Wise. In TV terms, it was the equivalent of the University Challenge episode of the Young Ones where Vivian, Neil, Mike and Rik represent Scumbag College against a team of Oxbridge toffs.
However they managed it, the Dons got under Liverpool’s collective skin. They had the temerity to take the lead when Lawrie Sanchez flicked Wise’s free kick inside Liverpool’s far post. When Beasant saved a John Aldridge penalty (the first in FA Cup final history), the game was up for Liverpool. They were the victims of the most famous FA Cup giantkilling. Winner: David

4) When Goliath squashed David
Whether or not you consider professional wrestling a sport, there’s no denying that Wrestlemania 3 provided the WWF’s ultimate David vs Goliath moment. And I’m not talking about the Hulk Hogan vs Andre The Giant main event. Cast your eye further down the card and you’ll see a six-man tag team match featuring King Kong Bundy and two midgets vs Hillbilly Jim and two midget partners.
Memorably described by commentator Gorilla Monsoon as “a condominium with legs”, the 440-pound Bundy made an ultimately forgettable (and possibly bad taste) match memorable when he was disqualified for body-slamming the 4ft 4in, 60-pound midget Little Beaver and followed it up with his trademark giant elbow drop. Winner beyond doubt: Goliath
Watch: King Kong Bundy marmelises midget at Wrestlemania 3


Filed under Basketball, boxing, David vs Goliath, Football, nba, Rugby