When a four-game week starts with a resounding defeat that is subsequently blamed on staying in a haunted hotel, you fear for the remaining three match-ups. And so it proved.
After a resounding 18-point shellacking at the hands of the bustling and vibrant Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks pulled out a rare road win in Philly before rediscovering some of the bad habits that defined their early season in losses to Toronto and Detroit.
With the recent optimism surrounding the Knicks beginning to resonate around the league, their non-performance in Oklahoma was as surprising as it was disappointing. The writing was on the wall from the first of the game when, with Knicks defenders sleepwalking and failing to box out, guard Russell Westbrook unleashed a ferocious put-back dunk. With the home crowd engaged right from the start, the Thunder were – in no particular order – quicker, more atheltic, more committed on defence, more aggressive and more willing than their stagnant opponents.
Led by superstar-in-waiting Kevin Durant’s 30 points, the Thunder opened an early 10-point lead that swelled to 16 at the half and 22 after three. The man JE Skeets calls Durantula was equally effective on the defensive end, using his length to upset the Knicks shooters. His block of a Gallinari corner three will live long in the memory.
The Knicks never looked like getting back into it. Shut down by stifling defence, Mike D’Antoni’s men could only post 38.2% shooting, a figure that was bolstered by an 11 for 16 stretch in fourth quarter garbage time. Danilo Gallinari and Chris Duhon couldn’t muster a field goal between them. Post game, D’Antoni described the performance as “one to flush down the toilet”. It was the most appropriate place for such a performance.
Showing the degree of self-awareness that professional sportsmen are renowned for, the Knicks didn’t blame themselves for the loss. Instead, the offered one of the lamest excuses in sporting history by claiming the Oklahoma hotel in which they stayed was haunted. With their sleep patterns irrevocably disturbed, they clearly had no choice but to play like zombies against the team christened the “Zombie Sonics” by Bill Simmons.
Two nights later, the Knicks rolled into Philadelphia although, judging by the rows and rows of empty seats, they could have been forgiven for thinking they had taken a detour to Charlotte, Memphis or New Jersey. Thanks to a box score stuffing performance from Jared Jeffries and a towering 24-point effort from David Lee, who played despite the death of his 92-year-old grandfather, the Knicks ended a five-year, nine-game losing streak in the Wachovia Center. Lee, inching closer to an all-star roster spot, made each of his first eight shots and, with things getting tight down the stretch, went four for four when it really mattered. Lee’s final bucket, a lay-up with 13 seconds left, put the Knicks ahead for good 93-92.
While his effort and ability to perform the intangibles has been consistently good over for at least 30 games, it is rare Jared Jeffries’ hard work is reflected in the box score. This game was the exception as Jeffries let rip with a (relative to him) nine point scoring explosion in the first quarter. He ended up with 15, along with nine boards, three assists, two steals and a block. Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Al Harrington backed him up with double figure scoring.
Having put the Philly hoo-doo behind them, the Knicks returned to MSG for another divisional match-up against Toronto. The game offered the Knicks a chance to edge even closer into the race for the lower play-off seedings. It was also an all-Italian showdown pitting Gallo against former No 1 pick Andrea Bargnani. Sadly for Gallinari, he was utterly outshone by his campatriot who, despite having a girl’s name, shot the Garden lights out.
Bargnani’s sharpshooting exemplified his team’s efforts in the first quarter. The Raptors shot 63% and poured in 39 points in the opening 12 minutes. By half time, the lead was 24 and the game was over as a contest. Despite a spirited second half fightback led by Harrington’s 31 points off the bench, the Knicks briefly cut the lead to eight only for the Raptors to pull away again. The result gave the Raptors a 3.5 game cushion over the Knicks.
The loss to the Raptors was compunded 24 hours later when the Knicks dropped their final game of the week in Detroit. Whether the problem was fatigue or simply disinterest, the majority of the Knicks simply couldn’t match the energy the Pistons showed through Rodney Stuckey, Chris Wilcox and Jason Maxiell. David Lee kept them in the game early with 16 first quarter point but when he was subsequently shut down by Ben Wallace and Maxiell in the second, Detroit built a formidable lead.
Trailing by 17 after three quarters, the Knicks finally woke up in the game’s final minutes. D’Antoni inserted Nate Robinson and Jordan Hill into the game and finally got the spark his starters had failed to provide. Nate exploded with 11 points in the quarter while rookie Hill showed off post moves and a nice fadeaway as they ate into the lead. Hill’s effort may well be rewarded with more minutes in future games.
Ultimately, it was too little, too late. The Pistons wobbled under the pressure of the Knicks’ late run but Stuckey righted the ship with some timely drives to the hoop. The Knicks cut the lead to just two points in the dying seconds but Detroit iced the game with free throws.
Fortunately, the Knicks have the chance to make up for this loss almost immediately on Martin Luther King Day as they host the Pistons at the Garden. Having lost three of their last four, the game takes on must-win significance for the Knicks to not only regain their early 2010 momentum but to ensure they stay in touch in the race for that final Eastern Conference playoff place.