Monthly Archives: December 2009

NBA elite breach Fortress MSG: Knicks season on the sofa week 9 review

With the Knicks in the middle of a Christmas home stand and and having reeled off five successive home wins, Mike D’Antoni’s men were surely hoping Santa would leave them three more MSG victories to bring them closer to an Eastern Conference play-off berth. What they actually ended up with was one scraped win and two lessons handed down from two of the league’s best teams.

The Knicks hosted Chicago 24 hours after the Bulls had blown a 35-point lead in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. With their opponent’s confidence at a low ebb, the Knicks produced one of their best halves of the season to storm to a 53-31 half-time lead. To the Bulls’ credit, they refused to roll over and chipped away at the lead (and the Knicks’ confidence) in the third and fourth quarters and cut the lead to a single point in the final minute. And then they were undone by the ineptitude of their coach. Only Vinny del Negro will know why he elected to call an alley oop play as his team returned to the court after a timeout. The plan backfired spectacularly and resulted in a turnover. Eventually, David Lee iced the game with a pair of crucial free throws.

While NBA games are full of swings and runs, it was the Knicks’ inability to do the basics that stopped them from putting their foot on the throat of the Bulls and closing this game early. Turnovers, missed free throws (I’m looking squarely at you, Mr Duhon), woeful three point shooting (5 from 20) and general offensive stagnation in the second half allowed the Bulls to creep back into this game. They deserved the win but came too close to throwing it away.

Next up for the Knicks was a Christmas Day match-up with the Miami Heat. Four hundred miles away from my laptop, I was forced to follow this game on NBA Game Time Lite on my iPhone. The word Lite is the crucial one here. You get no audio and the only way to stay in touch is to stare blankly at a slow-to-update box score. Such is the luck of the British NBA fan. Post-game investigation revealed the Heat took away the Knicks pick and roll game, filling the lane and forcing them to shot jump shots. The Knicks inability to hit open shots, combined with the superstar play of Dwyane Wade (30 points, nine rebounds), gave the Heat control of the game. They stifled the home side throughout the second and third quarters, maintained a comfortable lead and, despite a couple of Knicks runs, cruised to a 93-87 win, the Knicks first home loss in seven games.

If you had to create the ideal situation to play against the San Antonio Spurs, you’d want to face them on your court, with your team rested and with them playing the second of back-to-back road games. This was the exact situation in which the Knicks faced the Spurs on December 27. With everything in their favour, the Knicks stuck with their more capable opponents throughout the game. However, when crunch time came, they had no answer to the wit, guile and experience of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. While the Spurs’ big three kept the scoreboard ticking over, the Knicks struggled to buy a hoop. Chris Duhon was forced to take too many (often bad) shots as the Knicks fell from being tied at 82 with four minutes left to losing 95-88. In the process, they wasted an exceptional performance from David Lee who went 28 and 10 and kept Duncan in check for large parts of the game.

The losses to the Heat and the Spurs showed up two crucial things the Knicks currently lack. Wade’s Christmas Day performance again highlighted the absence of a go-to scorer when opponents crack up the defensive pressure. Veterans Al Harrington and Larry Hughes occasionally step up to fill this role but they do it all too inconsistently. Although he doesn’t seem that vocal on the court, Wade’s consistent all-round excellence leads his team mates by example. How he continues to be so (relatively) underrated is a mystery to me. The lesson handed down by the Spurs was one of execution and professionalism. The Spurs were nowhere near their best but they kept the game close despite resting Duncan for long stretches. When it came time to decide the game, Duncan made predictable but unstoppable scores, Parker made steals and Ginobili made a huge jumper and then glided to the basket to finish a fast breaks. In the space of a minute, a scoreline of 84-84 had become 91-84 and the game was over. You might not want to watch the Spurs every night but you sure as hell respect them.

The two losses reduce the Knicks to 11-19 but, thanks to the overall weakness of the East beyond the top five teams, they are still well and truly in the hunt for the eighth seed. D’Antoni would do well to heed the lessons of these defeats but, unlike earlier in the season, neither loss was the result of abysmal defence or lack of effort. The Knicks are progressing, especially on the defensive end. In their last 12 games, they are conceding a respectable 96 points per game, 13 less than the opening 18 games. The offense has been slowed to suit the skills of the players available. Despite the setbacks this week, the Knicks are well placed to continue in the right direction after the turn of the year.

With D’Antoni’s rotation now settled with eight men receiving regular playing time, Eddy Curry has joined Nate Robinson as a voice of dissent on the Knicks bench. During games, Nate’s conduct has been exemplary. He continues to support his team mates in that infectious, enthusiastic way. Off the court, he even contradicted his agent’s trade demands and said he wanted to stay in New York. I sympathise with Nate’s predicament. I can’t say the same for Curry. How, after the Knicks have backed him up for years over his personal troubles, legal issues (who will ever forget the immortal phrase “Do you want to touch it, Dave?) and weight problems, can he have the nerve to complain after five successive DNPs (while still taking home his 11 million dollars regardless) and keep a straight face? I expect both Curry and Robinson’s tenure at the Garden to end in buy-outs. There was no market for Nate in the summer and even Memphis GM Chris Wallace isn’t stupid enough to take on Curry’s contract.

The main source of Curry’s frustration stems from the fact that he has been supplanted by Jonathan Bender in the Knicks rotation. After bursting back into action in his first two games, Bender’s play has levelled off this week. He wasn’t helped by picking up a hip injury against the Bulls but the signs of rust from his four-year NBA exile now appear clearly. His play this week has been turnover-prone and his shot has deserted him. He has, however, shown far more in two weeks than Curry has shown in two years and deserves his minutes. If he can stay injury-free and shed his rust, Bender’s bench-scoring and blocking ability could still prove vital.

David Lee continues to impress everyone who regularly watches him. His numbers this week were superb (18 and 21, 19 and 16, 28 and 10) and he is definitely playing his way into all-star contention. What catches the eye the most about Lee is the way he has worked to add the mid-range jump shot to his game. Last year, defenders would give him open Js along the baseline or from the top of the key and he would hesitate before clanging a short shot off the front of the rim. This season, with a summer of practice behind him, he is taking and making these shots as well as doing his trademark blue collar board-cleaning work. With more teams looking to take away the Knicks’ vaunted pick and roll game, Lee’s ability to shoot from mid-range will be critical as the team look to maintain their play-off push.

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The Sports Bloke’s Top 10 sporting moments of the decade

As the noughties (officially the worst decade name EVER) draw to a close, it’s the perfect time to consider the most magical, unforgettable, outstanding moments of the last 10 years.

It’s a given there will be a rash of these lists in newspapers and online and there’ll no doubt be a a vague consensus as to which moments are the most memorable. You can expect Kelly Holmes’ golden Olympic double, Lennox Lewis’ knockout of a faded Mike Tyson and Liverpool’s Champions League final comeback to feature prominently. None of these moments make my list, and here’s why.

When I thought about the most personally compelling sporting moments of the last decade, I was drawn to memories of utterly unbridled joy, sadness or exhilaration. With the three examples above, I didn’t see Kelly Holmes’ wins live, I don’t care whether Liverpool win or lose and Lewis’ win against Iron Mike was completely one-sided and nowhere near as memorable as his battles with Evander Holyfield. None of these achievements made me scream, shout, punch the air or even exhale with the release of tension.

The moments I’ve chosen are strictly personal. I either witnessed them live in person or was 100% emotionally invested in them when I watched them live on TV. All 10 took my breath away. So, without further ado, here’s the Sports Bloke’s Top 10 sporting moments of the decade.

Cricket: England vs Australia, 2nd Test, Edgbaston, July 2005
It should have been easy. It turned into the most tense, desperate and ultimately joyous conclusion to a test match. England needed two wickets to draw level in the Ashes. Australia needed an unlikely 107 runs for a series-killing 2-0 lead. On the way to the ground we all felt we’d only see half an hour of play. But Shane Warne and fellow tail-ender Brett Lee had other ideas, carving the English bowling to all parts in a desperate effort to reach their unlikely target. When Flintoff forced Warne to tread on his stumps, the target was down to 62. The partisan Edgbaston crowd breathed an epic sigh of relief. Just one wicket to go. But it didn’t come. the confidence of Lee and last man Michael Kasprowicz grew. The target continued to wittle away. Tension enveloped the ground and was made worse by the group of 50 or so Aussie “Fanatics” chanting “(insert number here) runs to go, (insert number here) runs to go” each time a run was scored.

England were going to blow their chance. I had predicted an English Ashes win about six months before the series and started to receive texts from friends blaming me for getting their hopes up. In the ground, people sat with transfixed looks of horror etched on their faces. The target was down to four. Steve Harmison searched for a yorker but produced a full toss. Lee carved it towards the boundary. It should have been the winning runs. But it went straight to the only English fielder in the area for a single. Then came the moment. Kasprowicz gloved a Steve Harmison bouncer. Wicketkeeper Geraint Jones claimed the catch. And oh-so-crucially, umpire Billy Bowden raised his finger. Pandemonium does not describe the crowd reaction accurately enough. Roll unbridled joy, unparalleled relief and emotional exhaustion into one and you might be close. England won by 2 runs and would go on to win the Ashes for the first time in 19 years. Simply the most amazing sporting moment I have ever witnessed in person.

Usain Bolt Olympic 100 metre final, Beijing 2008
If I was totally objective and not obsessed with cricket, Usain Bolt’s devastating performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics 100 metres final would have been a clear No 1 on this list. Bolt’s effort was, in equal measure, breathtaking, awe-inspiring, supremely arrogant and uniquely entertaining as he effortlessly powered his way to a previously unfathomable world record time of 9.69 seconds. Knowing he had left the rest of the field in his wake, Bolt extended his arms and eased up with around 30 metres to go as if to say “look how easily I can do this”. He emphasized his dominance of the event one year later at the World Championships lowering the world record to 9.58 seconds, a time that had only seemed possible on 1980s video game Track and Field. I was at a wedding on the day of the Olympic 100 metre final and, at the reception, deliberately spilt food over myself to create an excuse to go to my room to get a change of tie whereupon I watched Bolt’s record-shattering race live. There was no way I was going to miss it.

NFL: NY Giants win the Super Bowl
On their way to a perfect 19-0 season, the New England Patriots didn’t even consider the possibility of losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants. They’d even printed up 19-0 t-shirts to wear after they’d cruised to victory. But Belicheck, Brady, Moss and Co reckoned without the grit of Big Blue. People will always talk about David Tyree’s amazing one-handed catch or Eli Manning’s Houdini act that help him evade the Pats defence and make the pass to Tyree. For me, Manning’s winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress is the memory that I treaure most. Riveted on a sofa at 3am in London, I saw the pass in slow motion, floating into the end zone with Burress closing in on it and found time to wake up my neighbours by shrieking “CATCH IT, PLAXICO” at the top of my lungs. Plax obliged, the Giants led and there was nothing the Pats could do.

Football: Germany 1 England 5
The result that fooled a nation into thinking Sven Goran-Eriksson was a genius and prompted the classic News of the World headline “Don’t Mention The Score”. An historically emphatic win over Germany shouldn’t have eradicated the pain of losing to them on penalties in Italia 90 and Euro 1996. After all, this was a qualifier and those were semi-finals. The smug Matthaus and Moller were long gone and Germany were a much weaker team then when they dominated international tournament football in the 1990s. But, but, but…… WE BEAT GERMANY FIVE ONE AWAY!!!! Michael Owen’s hat trick, Steven Gerrard’s late first half thunderbolt, Emile Heskey’s golf putt celebration, Sven laughing when the fifth goal went in. Up to this point, I don’t think I’d ever witnessed a sporting event that made me this deliriously happy. In the long run, normal service was resumed. Months later, England were dumped out of the World Cup at the quarter final stage while the German team they thrashed went to the final proving my Dad’s only football mantra: never bet against the Germans.

Boxing: Marco Antonio Barrera vs Erik Morales I
I came very close to including the first Arturo Gatti vs Mickey Ward fight over this but, in terms of excitement, I think Barrera vs Morales I just edges it for me. I had this fight on a video with a Barcelona vs Deportivo la Coruna in La Liga. Depor came from two nil down to win in the Nou Camp in what was one of the best football matches I’ve seen. It was only fitting that Barrera vs Morales I found a home alongside it. The February 2000 showdown was so ferocious it signalled a shift in the focus on boxing from the heavyweights to the little men. I had seen Morales dismantle an opponent in two rounds on the undercard of a Lennox Lewis pay per view in 1999. I knew nothing about Barrera. So what I witnessed in that first fight had elements of surprise and discovery about it.

Fighting for Morales’ WBC Super Bantamweight title, both Mexcian warriors displayed masses of heart and machismo in addition to iron chins concussive punching power. Pride meant neither men would yield the advantage for more than a few seconds. Throughout the fight, they stood toe to toe exchanging haymakers. There was no let-up in the intensity at any point in the 12-round battle. Both men emerged cut and battered after the final bell. Barrera probably edged it on points. Morales won on a split decision. It was voted Ring magazine’s fight of the year. In my mind, it was the fight of the decade.

PDC World Darts Final 2003: John Part vs Phil Taylor
Darts may be criticised for not being a real sport but I would defy anybody holding that opinion to not be utterly enthralled by John Part’s defeat of Phil Taylor in the 2003 PDC final. Darts purists may point to Raymond van Barneveld beating Taylor a few years later as a better match. For me, Part’s win ranks higher because at the time of his victory, Taylor looked utterly invincible. Relying on 100-120-range three dart checkouts, Part built a 4-1 lead before Taylor won 11 straight legs and roared back into 5-4 lead. The Power seemed certain to bully his way to yet another world title but Part sank pressure doubles to retake the lead six sets to five. Taylor broke back to send the final to a deciding set and again looked favourite to win. But Darth Maple again wound up the pressure on Taylor who, for the first time in nearly 10 years, had no response. Part stayed calm, sank his doubles and slayed the giant of darts to win his second world title.

England vs Australia, Rugby World Cup Final 2003
I’m not going to pretend I’m a huge rugby enthusiast. I watch the England internationals and, like most of the country, fell in love with Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson for six weeks at the end of 2003. If you take cycling and rowing out of the equation, English victories in world cups are extremely rare and should be celebrated accordingly. The 2003 rugby world cup final remains memorable as it was the only time in my life I got drunk three times in 24 hours. The night before the game I nervously hit the sauce with my mate Herman. It was only supposed to be a couple of gentle beers but got out of hand.

The next morning we headed to the then Australian enclave of Shepherd’s Bush for 7am and got on the beers in a pub full of Aussies. Watching this game was one of the last times I truly enjoyed watching sport in the boozer. England dominated the game from the scrum but were stymied by some dodgy refereeing. With the game in the dying seconds of extra time and the game poised to be decided on a drop goal shootout, Jonny Wilkinson stepped up and won the game with that drop goal. I remember almost crying and repeating the phrase “we never win anything” over and over again. We then went to Clapham to meet some mates where I ate a fry-up (it was nearly midday by now) and fell asleep in a pub. When I woke up, we drank in celebration of a rare England world cup victory.

Steve Redgrave’s fifth gold medal, Sydney Olympics
This historic moment happened at around midnight UK time. I had the TV on mute and Alan Green’s commentary on Radio Five. I don’t remember much about the race other than Redgrave, Pinsent, Cracknell and the bloke who looked a bit like Emmanuel Petit starting quickly and hanging on for grim death at the end. What lingers in my mind is Green’s manic Irish intonations, urging a nation of listeners to “get up on your feet and salute the greatest Olympian of all time”. I have goose bumps from typing those words. One of the rare times when a commentator dealt with the moment in the most perfect way.

South Africa beat Australia by one wicket, ODI, March 2006
Sometimes, like with Usain Bolt, you watch sport because you know something great is going to happen. Other times, you stumble on great sporting moments by mistake. I’m still not entirely sure why Sky were televising this game but I’m really glad they did. If the 2005 Ashes was the pinnacle of test cricket, this match was definitely the greatest one day international ever played. Ricky Ponting smashed 164 of 105 balls as Australia set a record one day score of 434 of their 50 overs. Surely there was no way back for South Africa.

Undaunted by the mammoth target, Herschelle Gibbs and Graeme Smith set about the Australian bowling. Smith was eventually dismissed ten runs shrt of his hundred but it was Gibbs who ultimately made the impossible possible. He battered 175 runs in just 111 balls and, by the time he was out, had made South Africa favourites for the win. In typical fashion, the Aussies fought back. When Nathan Bracken dismissed Justin Kemp, South Africa needed 77 of the last seven overs. The teams traded wickets and boundaries until, with one wicket left, Mark Boucher struck the winning boundary off the game’s penultimate delivery. 872 runs had been scored off 99.5 overs. That wasn’t the only record set in this match. Aussie bowler Mick Lewis’ 10 over cost him 113 runs, the worst ever figures in a 50-over game.

New York Knicks vs Phoenix Suns, January 2006
This one was very personal to me. It was the best basketball game I’ve ever seen in person pitting my team (New York) against my favourite player (Steve Nash) in my favourite sporting arena (Madison Square Garden). The Suns were (and might still be) the most entertaining team in the NBA at this time. New York were (and still are) mediocre at best. On this night, Stephon Marbury and Co came to compete. Nash turned in a 22-assist performance featuring a handful of alley-oop passes to Shawn Marion. For the Knicks, David Lee had a coming out party, scoring 23 points and hauling down 15 rebounds. Eddy Curry had a 20-10 game too.

The Knicks blew a fourth quarter lead and the game went into overtime. In the end, the Suns wilted in the third extra period and the Knicks, led to Marbury’s 32 points, eventually prevailed 140-133. What stays with me about this game is the way that the play of boths teams bought the MSG crowd to life. By the third overtime, people all over the arena were utterly sucked in to what, in the grand scheme of things, was just another regular season game. My favourite player battling my favourite team in a triple overtime classic at the world’s most famous arena with a sold-out crowd going out of their minds. This was the day I properly gave my heart to basketball.

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A cold hard dose of reality: New York Knicks season on the sofa week 8 review

In the wake of last week’s streak of four successive victories and with a series of games coming up against some of the NBA’s more mediocre teams, there was some talk about the New York Knicks becoming a legitimate playoff contender by extending their streak to five, six, maybe even seven games. But the streak ended at four and the Knicks only have themselves to blame.

The Knicks carried their good form through more than three and a half quarters at Charlotte only to collapse in spectacular fashion down the stretch. Leading by double figures in the fourth quarter and by six points with less than four minutes to play, the Knicks surrendered a 15-2 run to lose 94-87. It was a game they should have won.

What precipitated the collapse? It’s no coincidence that the Knicks were in command until Jared Jeffries fouled out of the game with around 3:40 left. The hustling hero formerly known (mainly by me) as Mr Fumbles had filled the stat sheet (again), totalling  11 points, six steals, two blocks, five boards and three assists. Not to mention his trademark defensive intangibles (this was the game where it was revealed that Jeffries has taken more charges than any NBA player this season to date). Without Jeffries, the Knicks fell apart, surrendering a three point play to Stephen Jackson. Flip Murray tied the scores at 85 with a three and then guard Raymond Felton iced the contest with a couple of lay-ups and a pair of free throws.

Much like the overtime loss to the Bobcats earlier this season, this game was a horror-show for the Knicks. They turned the ball over 21 times. They were out-rebounded by their opponents. They could not stop Felton driving the lane in crunch time. And, in a sadly characteristic move, committed a bone-headed move (in this case Wilson Chandler’s charging foul) that gave life to their opponents. They lost after having the game under total control.

Two nights later came a loss that was far more difficult to take. Along with the 76ers and the Celtics, the Chicago Bulls form what I like to refer to as the “axis of evil” for Knicks fans. I hate losing to the Bulls – especially in embarrassing fashion – and this 98-89 loss, in which – to paraphrase De La Soul – three became the tragic number, was bad enough to make any Knicks fan red-faced.

The Knicks drained seven three pointers in the first quarter on their way to an early 17-point lead. As it turned out, this was the worse thing that could have happened. Missing the injured Larry Hughes’ mid-range game and buoyed by their early success from long distance, the Knicks fell in love with the three-ball to such an extent that they set a league all-time record for three-pointers attempted in a first half (29). In the end, they drained just 16 of the 47 threes they shot. They also set another dubious landmark in shooting more threes than twos, the first time any NBA team has done that in over three years.

Could Mike D’Antoni have done anything to quell the long range brick-fest? Calling Nate Robinson’s number might have helped yet. The little man’s ability to drive to the hoop might have varied the offense and helped create better three point attempts for those on the perimeter. But Robinson remained firmly on the bench. With Eddy Curry and Toney Douglas getting three and four minutes respectively, D’Antoni used a six-man rotation and then appeared surprised when his players were out of gas down the stretch.

Presumably forced to involve Curry in another vain bid to drum up trade interest, D’Antoni’s decision to give the big man a brief cameo caused disruption to the offensive flow as finding the open man was discarded in favour of dumping the ball down low. By the time the Knicks went back to their original gameplan, their shooters had cooled off and their momentum was gone. All that remained was a struggle towards a hideous defeat.

There are a lot of reasons to like the LA Clippers. The main one is that, unlike the often unpredictable Knicks, they only tend to win games they should win and lose the games they should lose. Far away from their left coast home, in the middle of a road trip and without their No 1 pick Blake Griffin, they were the ideal opponents for a Knicks team looking to rediscover that winning habit.

Things didn’t start well for the Knicks. They trailed 26-8 late in the first quarter when they were spurred into action by an unlikely source. Free agent signing Jonathan Bender entered the game and kickstarted a fightback. Having recently compared Eddy Curry to Futurama character Flexo because of his new chin fluff, I felt it only fitting the Knicks signed Bender. It gave the roster a nice pop culture symmetry.

I couldn’t recall having seen Bender play in his Indiana days but, while it’s stupid to judge anybody on a single 14-minute performance, it looks like he’s an excellent fit in D’Antoni’s offence. While Curry’s entrance into the Chicago game caused stagnation, Bender’s introduction against the Clippers sparked the Knicks into life. The seven-footer drove athletically to the basket for two, then drained and open three and finally swatted a monster rejection away from his own basket. In between, he hammered Eric Gordon with a flagrant foul, making him the first Knick to officially attempt to intimidate anyone in the last five years. Depending on what his body allows him to do, Donnie Walsh’s left field addition of Bender could prove to be a master stroke. In 14 minutes, he showed Darko Milicic what he should have been doing for the team.

Bouyed by Bender’s burst, the Knicks dragged themselves back into the game. With Hughes still resting his groin and Al Harrington limited by flu-like symptoms, it was the pick and roll duo of Chris Duhon and David Lee that allowed the Knicks to get back on level terms. Continuing his improved form of recent weeks, Duhon had 17 points (including a clutch fourth quarter three pointer that was massive in both literal and figurative terms), 10 assists and eight boards. His partner-in-crime Lee dropped 25 points and 11 rebounds and arguably made the play of the game down the stretch.

With 36 seconds remaining, the Clippers led 91-90 after a huge three from Baron Davis. They Knicks looked to retake the lead but Harrington’s shot careered off the rim. Lee outhustled everyone on the inside, tapping the rebound back up into the air before tipping the ball in with his second touch. Rasual Butler had a chance to steal the game in the dying seconds but his shot fell well short. Duhon claimed the rebound, was fouled and iced the game 95-91 from the line.

The win was the Knicks’ fifth come from behind victory of the season and was the biggest deficit they have recovered from in any game this season. It leaves them 9-15, a record that still looks relatively dismal on paper but, in the context of an Eastern Conference containing only five teams with winning records, keeps them within spitting distance of the playoff places. With four more home games coming up over the Christmas period, D’Antoni’s men may have got off the schnide at exactly the right time.

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A December to remember: Knicks season on the sofa week seven review

Things at Madison Square Garden have been so bad over recent seasons that, if you’d said the phrase “streaking Knicks” to me, I would have immediately thought that Stephon Marbury had been making more lurid advances to club interns. But now, after a truly woeful start to the season, the New York Knicks, with four successive wins under their belt, are indeed streaking and, happily, in a wholly appropriate, wholly positive sense.

Cynics will point to the fact that there were mitigating circumstances surrounding New York’s victories over Atlanta (Josh Smith’s second quarter ejection), New Jersey (the one team in the league that, on form, the Knicks should regularly beat), Portland (a team absolutely ravaged by injury) and New Orleans (a fourth quarter salvo of six straight three-pointers that will only happen once in a blue moon). But closer inspection of all four of these games suggests the Knicks may have turned a corner. Whether by design or by chance, Mike D’Antoni appears to have finally settled on a suitable rotation to execute his schemes, his team are playing with coherence, greater effort and fewer errors and the results are starting to come.

Since starting 1-9, the Knicks have won seven of their last 13 games. Aside from one awful performance in Sacramento, the losses have only come against the league’s finest squads: Orlando (twice), Denver, Los Angeles and Boston.

So, how have the Knicks started to shake off the stink of being one of the league’s poorest teams?

Shortening the rotation
As coach of the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni was famous for seldomly using more than eight players in his rotation. After ploughing through numerous starting fives and incoherent 10 and 11 man rotations in season’s opening weeks, the Cliff Claven of the NBA has finally settled on the men able to run his system most effectively. He has been able to do this primarily because Chris Duhon has shaken off his funk. While he will never trouble the upper echelon of NBA guards, Duhon’s re-emergence as a facilitator (and, against New Orleans, a scorer) has given the Knicks a solid base on which to build.

D’Antoni’s eight man rotation has also provided offensive focus. As Bill Simmons always notes, every team needs an alpha dog, the go-to scorer who always gets the most shots. Once that player is in place, the rest of the team understands their place place in the scheme of things. Al Harrington is the Knicks’ most potent offensive force and, in the last four victories, has taken the most shots in each game. David Lee and Larry Hughes slot in behind him, then come Gallo, Duhon and Wilson Chandler with Jared Jeffries and Toney Douglas chipping in around the fringes. Everyone has started to understand their role. Contrasting this with the opening 10 games of the season where the offensive focus switched on a nightly basis from Harrington, to Lee, to Hughes, to Nate Robinson and back to Al shows the new coherence in the Knicks’ play.

Benching Nate Robinson
Whether D’Antoni got sick and tired of Nate’s showboating antics or worked out that his lack of discipline and defence was continually outweighing his scoring punch off the bench, it can’t be coincidence that the Knicks’ overall play has drastically improved with the Slam Dunk champion rooted to the pine. Nate scores buckets in bunches but is constantly abused on the defensive end. Maybe Nate is one of the few players for whom plus/minus is a relevant stat. Regardless, the reliable defence Douglas provides makes him, in D’Antoni’s eyes, a more useful first guard option off the bench. To Robinson’s credit, he hasn’t sulked over his demotion and, in all four Knicks victories, has reached 1980s ML Carr levels of bench support for his teammates.

The redemption of Mr Fumbles
A limited offensive game has made Jared Jeffries a target for derision at MSG. Jeffries’ game is all about hard work and intangibles and, over the course of the last few games, the New York crowd has started to see things his way. When he took to the court against Portland, he was positively serenaded from the second he left the bench. Jeffries may have been the biggest victim of D’Antoni’s continual line-up changes early in the season. He rarely played more than 20 minutes a game and regularly found himself in spots almost guaranteed to make him look bad.

Now Jeffries has found some form, possibly his best spell since coming to New York, and he’s providing the things that New York crowds always loved: blocks, steals, hustle and solid defence. Against Portland, he drew three charges, blocked two shots and led the defensive effort that laid the foundations for a comfortable win. Jeffries has played 20+ minutes in the Knicks’ past six games, five of which have ended in victory. A much maligned figure, Jeffries has set the example in finding a way to fit into the team that help win games. Let’s see if he can keep it going.

Team defence, team offence
Ball movement, sweet shooting, sharing the ball, offensive efficiency. All hallmarks of a Mike D’Antoni offence. All absent for the season’s first 10 games. All features of the Knicks’ four successive wins. Watching the Knicks repeatedly find the open man for a bucket was what we expected their offence to look like when D’Antoni took charge. It’s more 17 seconds or less rather than seven, but it’s working.
On the defensive end, the Knicks are obviously short-handed. Darko remains their only true shot blocker and he’s stuck to the bench. What the Knicks seem to have discovered is that it’s possible to defend effectively as a team. Against New Orleans, Gallinari and Chandler joined Lee crashing the boards and helping to disrupt shots. This collective effort caused a strong of important fourth quarter stops before the sharpshooting of Harrington, Duhon and Gallo secured the win.

Despite all the talk about the Knicks now looking like a playoff team, their 8-15 record suggests otherwise. The will for this team to achieve something, anything, is so strong that every win threatens to take on greater significance than it actually merits. They’ve still lost almost two thirds of their games and are a long way short of the .500 mark that should guarantee an Eastern Conference playoff spot. That said, standing only a couple of games outside the eighth spot, and with seven games against mid tier Eastern opponents coming up before the new year, they could, if they can maintain the form of the past week, put themselves in a position to make a serious push for the post season in the new year.

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It’s not a kind of Magic: Knicks season on the sofa week 6 review part 1

Hands up who expected the Knicks to be swept by Orlando and Phoenix in their first three games of the week? Yep, me too. And, true to form, the Knicks got nowhere near the Magic in two attempts, even though Stan Van Gundy’s team sleep-walked their way through the first two quarters of Sunday’s matinee match-up at Madison Square Garden.

Superior shooting from Rashard Lewis sparked a 14-4 third quarter run that the Knicks from which the Knicks could not recover. A one-man fourth quarter rally from Nate Robinson got New York within six points at 92-86 but the Magic’s depth ultimately told and a 114-102 final score didn’t flatter Stan Van Gundy’s men.

The teams faced off again four nights later, this time in Orlando, and the outcome was all too familiar. The Knicks were already trailing when Lewis and Michael Pietrus each drained four 3-pointers in the third quarter to extend the Magic’s lead to 22. Six Magic players scored in double figures including former Maverick Brandon Bass, who had a season-high 17 points. The Magic shot 55% for the game and cruised to a comfortable 118-104 win.

Aside from 20-point games from Danilo Gallinari and (at long last) Wilson Chandler, the only other story of note for the Knicks was Mike D’Antoni’s decision to leave Nate Robinson on the bench for the whole game. The embattled coach cited a “search for consistency” as the reason for Robinson’s omission in the post-game presser but did not elaborate further.

In between twin beating at the hands of the Magic, the Knicks surprised everyone with a stellar performance at Madison Square Garden against the Phoenix Suns. With shots falling and a concerted team defensive effort, the struggling Knicks transformed themselves into an entertaining fluid force as they handed the Suns a shocking 126-99 beatdown. It probably helped that the Suns turned in a performance flatter than roadkill and played next to no defence. The loss ended the Suns’ four-game winning streak and was the first time all season they’d been kept to under 100 points.

Stand-out performances for the Knicks included David Lee’s 24 points (10-13) and Gallinari’s 27 points which included six sweet threes. The much-maligned Jared Jeffries filled the box score with a 25-minute burst that comprised 10 points, four blocks, four asssists, five rebounds, a steal and, most amazingly, no turnovers. Jeffries best moment came when he faked out a charging Amare Stoudemire and drove baseline to score at the hoop. He also guarded Steve Nash for much of the game and kept the free-scoring playmaker in check. Maybe it’s just Jared’s bad luck that he, as a more-than-servicable defensive player, finds himself stuck on an offensively-obsessed team in a system that hardly ever showcases the things he does well.

For most struggling teams, this win would have been hailed as a turning point in the season. However, the Suns were so insipid that not even Mike D’Antoni would label it as such. Combine that with the Knicks’ developing trend for only putting in the required effort once a week (last week it was the road game in Denver, the week before it was the home game against Boston) and you can see why no-one was getting too excited. As it turned out, in view of their loss to Orlando 24 hours later, it was wise to keep the hyperbole in check.

Short of jumping back into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and bringing the Garden greats back to the future, it’s tough to see how the Knicks can change things until July 1, 2010. The team is so used to losing at this stage that every rare win threatens to take on greater significance than it actually has.

The Sports Bloke’s jury is still out on D’Antoni. When he was flying high with Phoenix, nobody stopped to wonder whether his system needed elite players to work. Now, with Chris Duhon and Larry Hughes running the show instead of Nash, it doesn’t look anywhere near as effective. The truly worrying thing is that, deified as an offensive genius, D’Antoni has failed to come up with any alternatives more suitable to the inferior talent on his current roster. Or maybe he, like everyone else, has decided to switch off and see what gifts Donnie Walsh brings him next summer.

Note: this week’s season on the sofa is split in two parts as the Sports Bloke will be away at All Tomorrow’s Parties watching My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Primal Scream this weekend. Part two will follow on Monday

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