Monthly Archives: November 2010

Return of Ronny Turiaf resuscitates Knicks

Everywhere he’s played, the reports on Ronny Turiaf have always been the same: great energy guy; defensive leader; huge locker room presence; team mate par excellence.

Hampered by a knee injury and a bench role offering him limited minutes, Turiaf had been powerless to prevent the Knicks sliding to five successive losses. Rusty on his return from injury on the road against Denver, his main contribution was getting posterised by Nene and Shelden Williams in another New York loss.

The following night, inserted into starting line-up for the first time, Turiaf shook off the rust as he provided what the Knicks had been missing: the defensive anchor necessary to launch Mike D’Antoni’s high speed offence.

The result? A road win over Sacramento and, most importantly, thanks in part to Turiaf’s rebounding, blocks and the shots his interior defence altered, the first signs of consitently fluent offence from these new look Knicks.

While Turiaf will never drop 20 points to win a game, his presence on the offensive end could prove to be just as useful as his defensive contributions. Back on his old stomping ground against Golden State, Turiaf handed out eight assists in a 125-119 Knicks win.

Regularly taking the ball from Raymond Felton at the top of the key, Turiaf initiated much of the Knicks’ offence against the Warriors – just as David Lee did last season. Singlehandedly, Turiaf’s passing ability solved one of the Knicks’ biggest problems: using Amare Stoudemire correctly.

No longer receiving the ball far away from the hoop and expected to make the offence happen from a standing start, STAT’s back to doing what he does best, getting the ball on the move and filling the hoop with powerful interior play and mid-range jumpers.

Slotting Turiaf in as starting center has conincided with the improved overall efficiency of the Knicks’ offence. Over the last three games, Felton, Stoudemire and Danilo Gallinari have found their offensive games.

Against the Warriors, Stoudemire went 10 for 12 from the field and 6 for 7 from the line. Not having to initiate the offence means he takes better shots, makes better decisions and turns the ball over (a little bit) less.

With Felton and Stat tearing into the opposition over the opening three quarters of games, Gallo has emerged as a fourth quarter closer, taking less shots overall but looking like a killer in the final stages of games, effortlessly hitting crucial threes at vital moments.

Against the Kings, Gallo only took eight shots but notched 27 points because he went to the line 17 times. While everyone was marvelling at Blake Griffin’s spectacular one-man show against the Knicks, Gallo took 11 shots and finished with 31 points (13 from 13 from the line) and Amare added 39 as the Knicks secured a comfortable road win, their third in four nights.

What can you read into this successful Knicks road trip? It’s a fair point that the teams they defeated are not the strongest teams in the Western Conference. That said, the Warriors were unbeaten at the Oracle Arena until New York showed up.

And while they undoubtedly wobbled in the games in Sacramento and Oakland, the Knicks disposed Clippers were disposed of relatively ruthlessly, something that suggested they are improving at closing games out.

Against both the Warriors and the Clippers, the Knicks faced a player playing out of his skin (Ellis and Griffin), found a performance to match them (Felton against Golden State and Stoudemire in Los Angeles) and still came away with the win.

After defeat in Denver plunged the Knicks to a desperate 3-8 record, finishing this road trip at 6-8 is a state few fans thought possible. With two winnable games against Charlotte coming up, D’Antoni’s men could be back to .500 in a week’s time. Things suddenly look a lot brighter.

With the New York speedball offence now grounded on a defensive rock called Ronny, it looks like the Knicks have found the formula to run weaker teams into submission. The question, as it always been with Mike D’Antoni’s teams, is how this turbo-boosted system will stand up against the NBA’s better squads.

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New season, same old problems for the New York Knicks

The diagnosis nine games into the season? No defence; bullied on the boards; prone to turnovers and making boneheaded plays at vital moments; a oft-stagnating offence with an over-reliance on the three-ball. Welcome to the 2010/11 New York Knicks – a roster of new players seemingly afflicted with exactly the same problems as last year’s vintage.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not if you believed the hype. Upgrades at point guard and power forward. Young players with another year of experience under their belt. A player able to defend multiple positions with limitless upside. Oh yes, and a coach finally with the players he wanted at his disposal.

But instead of revelling in a new look team and their obvious playoff potential, these early season Knicks performances bear an awful similarity to the dross served up in Madison Square Garden over the last 18 months or so.

Opposing players enjoying record-breaking nights courtesy of an uncommitted and porous defence. Bad shooters jacking up 25 plus threes every night and (apart from in Chicago) missing most of them. And, worst of all, an inability to make plays when they matter most – in the final moments of a game.

Face it, if you heard Kevin Love had recorded the NBA’s first 30 point, 30 board game in 28 years but didn’t know the schedule well enough to know who Minnesota’s opponents were, would it have taken you more than two guesses to identify the rebound-allergic Knicks as the team on the receiving end?

Let’s try another. If you were told an NBA team’s first three home losses of the season each came in games in which they held the lead with less than five minutes left, how long would it take you to identify the hapless team in question as the New York Knicks. Yeah, thought so.

This particular statistic is the reality for anyone happy that, unlike last year, the Knicks “are in every game they play”. Last time I checked, the standings don’t have a column for ‘moral victories’. And losing, it seems, is a harder habit to break than the off-season optimism suggested.

I won’t pretend I haven’t been scarred by the turgid performances on the road at Minnesota and Milwaukee. But not to the point where I’ve been blinded to (the admittedly few) positives the Knicks have shown to this point.

So here’s another question. If the San Antonio Spurs had drafted Landry Fields in the second round and the young rookie had earned a place as a starter with his characteristcally efficient play, how long would it take the NBA cogniscenti to hail Gregg Popovich a genius once again?

Fields looks to be an excellent all-round player. He’s athletic, he’s selective and (apart from fouling three point shooters) he’s intelligent. His consistency is at odds with the hot and cold nature of the Knicks but his willingness to do the little things well at least provides Mike D’Antoni with a bona fide building block in his starting five.

Another plus point has been the presence of Rony Turiaf. I say presence, rather than play, because the Frenchman’s court time has been limited by injury. Is there any other layer in this league who so obviously enjoys the succcess of his team mates as much as Turiaf?

That might seem like an insignificant thing but, during a long season with as many ups and downs as the Knicks are bound to have, a locker room presence as strong as that provided by Turiaf could be crucial to team harmony.

And don’t think I didn’t notice his on-court contributions helping the Knicks to become the league’s leading shot blocking team. Yes, it hasn’t actually made any major difference in terms of wins but after what seemed like a block-free 2009/10 season, seeing some regular swats is a welcome sight.

Not that Fields or the injured Turiaf could do anything to stop the Knicks sliding to four successive losses after a decent 3-2 start. The buck stops with Mike D’Antoni.

Even if he hadn’t coached Amare Stoudemire for five years in Phoenix, you’d think acquiring a $100 million player would mean you’d have some idea of how best to use his talents. Stoudemire is at his best in the pick and roll or in the high post. He needs the ball on the move or with space to work. Dumping the ball down to him in the low post where he is STAT-ic absolutely kills the Knicks.

If Amare has no room to work, the ball invariably ends up being passed around the perimeter before a poor trey is launched at the basket. The result? The offensive stagnation that has blighted the Knicks for full quarters at a time in virtually every game they have played. No wonder teams have started to employ the zone against them.

Stoudemire’s problems have also led to him leading the league in turnovers. Dribbling balls off his feet and throwing ridiculous passes when faced with defensive pressure is one reason. The failure of Stoudemire and Raymond Felton to click in the pick and roll is the other. D’Antoni must know Stoudemire is at his best in the pick and roll. Why this wasn’t made a point of emphasis in pre-season fails me.

Felton is a tough and solid player and I expected him and Amare to click on the pick and roll right away. I mean, even Chris Duhon was able to do this with David Lee. This play should be the Knicks’ biggest weapon and, right now, their principal players can’t run it consistently well. And without it, shooters like Danilo Gallinari struggle to get into the game.

D’Antoni’s “we’re working on it, it’ll get better” mantra isn’t providing much comfort. From memory, both Fields and Gallo have hooked up Stoudemire in the pick and roll at points – maybe that’s the way forward, especially in the closing minutes of games – if Felton can’t get it done.

Ultimately, the Knicks offence remains an undeniable mess. And D’Antoni, the once universally acknowledged offensive genius, can’t deny it. He has the ‘athletic’ players he wanted to implement his schemes – there are no excuses.

With nine games played, there’s obviously lots of time to rectify what has turned into a disappointing start. Making a desperation move for the freshly divorced Steve Nash isn’t going to do it. It’s down to the coach. D’Antoni has to do a better job – starting tonight at home against Houston.

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Why the San Francisco Giants are a different kind of team for the ages

I was always jealous of fans who got to enjoy a universally-acclaimed great team. Why couldn’t I have got to experience what it felt like to follow the 1986 Boston Celtics, 1978 Portland Trailblazers or the 1970 New York Knicks, squads whose unselfish team-play became the high watermark in the NBA?

Or a football team like Barcelona who annually impose their beautiful style on opponents as they pass, pass, pass their way to domestic and European titles?

The World Series triumph of the San Francisco Giants has changed all this for me. I can’t pretend I’ve been a fan long enough to enjoy Bruce Bochy’s men bringing an end to 56 years of torturous hurt. I don’t have the privilege of being from the Bay Area and rejoicing in the story of my local team winning it all.

Hell, I live more than 5,000 miles away from The City. But, as I outlined a week or so back, the Giants are a team that even someone halfway across the world can (and, in my case, did) fall in love with. They are a team worth taking an 11-hour flight to see in the flesh (at least) once a season.

Even people who were closest to this Giants team will acknowledge they won’t be remembered for being as dominant as the teams mentioned above. They didn’t have the best hitters. People said they didn’t have the best pitchers (until results proved otherwise). They epitomized team play and selflessness in a different way. They humanised it.
This team triumphed not because of a huge payroll or MVP-calibre players.

They triumphed through qualities that are much less tangible: clutch performances under pressure; defensive work-rate; the ability to park individual egos, work together and enjoy each other’s successes.

No wonder Giants fans responded the way they did. This was a team that made you want to take a day off work and travel south to take over an opposition ball park. And this fervent support just served to invigorate the players that much more.

So many sporting triumphs end up getting credited to one or two players. Rarely is a championship attributed to the hard work of the entire roster. In this Giants season, every player had a chance to be a hero and most of them grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Edgar Renteria’s hitting and the shutdown pitching of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and bearded phenom Brian Wilson seem the standout performances right now. But wind things back a week or two and you’d be citing Juan Uribe’s clutch hits, Cody Ross’ emergence as a play-off clean-up slugger, Javier Lopez’s almost unfair dominance over the vaunted Philadelphia offence.

That’s not even counting Madison Bumgarner’s victorious eight inning effort in game four of the World Series. Or Jonathan Sanchez’s pitching (and hitting) against San Diego that got the Giants to the playoffs in the first place.

This team will be remembered for its collective strength and unselfishness. Aubrey Huff laying down the first ever sacrifice bunt of his long Major League career might jump out here. Or Pablo Sandoval, despite losing his starting spot, staying ready to produce a meaningful pinch hit late in a game.

I’d prefer to highlight how Barry Zito handled the embarrassment of being kicked off the post season roster only to attend every single game, in uniform, ready to offer advice and assistance to the team’s young pitching guns.

In an age where egotistical athletes, egged on by their agents, often make team chemistry seem like an unattainable fantasy, Zito – however hurt he must have felt inside – was a class act. More than anyone, he deserved the cheers he received from the orange multitudes at yesterday’s victory parade.

That’s why, as an Englishman who watched or listened to about 90% of this season’s games (as I’ve done for the last three years) and saw four of them live (much to my wife’s ongoing chagrin), I can say I’ve never enjoyed supporting a team as much as this. Regardless of the geography, you can’t call me a bandwagon jumper.

This team made me want to live and die with them so many times this year. It’s just that I was usually empathizing with them between 3am and 6am.

The national media can call the 2010 Giants castoffs or misfits. Some Bay Area fans may be offended at this description. I don’t think it matters. And here’s why.

Behind the rally thongs, facial fuzz and references to Prop 19 lays the collective heart of champion. I know this because I watched Buster Posey get interviewed during the procession to Civic Center Plaza.

The interviewer tried to tell him not to expect this sort of thing to happen every year. Buster’s reply? “Why not?”.

And he’s right. The Giants have young pitching talent, heart and time on their side. This World Series triumph shouldn’t be viewed as the end of a title drought, rather the birth of something truly special and (whisper it) the start of a potential a baseball dynasty.

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