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Finally, the Knicks win in the west – Season on the sofa week 23 review

God bless the Los Angeles Clippers. They are as reliable in their incompetence as Tim Lincecum is with a fastball. Be honest, if you had lost the first four games of a Western Conference road trip and you knew that even a performance for the ages from your best player wasn’t good enough to defeat a team as lowly as the Golden State Warriors, is there another team you’d rather play than the Clippers on the last game of the trip to ensure you at least returned home with one win in your pocket?

Of course not. And, the Clippers being the Clippers, the team no longer coached by Mike “Squinty” Dunleavy duly obliged, falling to the Knicks 113-107 just hours after an earthquake shook downtown Los Angeles. David Lee led the way with 29 points and 10 boards and, for once, was ably assisted by Al Harrington who, with Tracy McGrady resting his ever-ailing sore left knee, made the most of a start with a 26 point return. In a shock reversal of his efforts against the Clippers last season where he virtually handed two Ws to the Clips by drawing a pair of ludicrous technical fouls, Harrington made the difference down the stretch, getting the better of his old running mate Baron Davis and scoring six points (four from the line) in the final 72 seconds to close out the game.

The other noteworthy aspects of this match-up came primarily from the bench. Firstly, the debut of Earl Barron, the seven-foot center signed from the D League on a 10-day deal, gave the Knicks a real boost with 10 points and six rebounds in a 17-minute stint. Sergio Rodriguez dealt out 10 dimes in 22 minutes and Toney Douglas, nonsensically supplanted in the starting line-up by Chris Duhon, shot 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. While the Clippers starters got the better of the Knicks’ first five in the game’s opening exchanges, D’Antoni’s second string, led by Douglas and Rodriguez, brought them back into the game and then into the lead. That, and the first consistent bursts of energy and defence seen on this current road trip, helped the Knicks get over the line.

So, a predictably dire road trip ended on a meaningless high. Good job the degree of difficulty in terms of opponents lessened as the five-game swing went on. Having opened the trip with a shellacking in Phoenix (see last week’s column), D’Antoni and his charges succeeded in lowering expectations to record depths for their visits to Utah and Portland. Both Knicks performances in these games fell into the “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” category.

Against the Jazz, the Knicks fell behind early, giving up 44 points on 85% (YES, EIGHTY-FIVE PER CENT!) shooting – and virtually no defence – in the opening quarter, before rallying back to parity near the end of the third. An ice-cold fourth quarter in which a malfunctioning Knicks offence managed a paltry 11 points sealed the deal in Utah’s favour. No execution down the stretch equals no victory. Yet again.

Facing the Blazers, the Knicks produced the all-too familiar 48 heartless, effortless, distracted minutes on their way to a 118-90 beatdown. As Mike D’Antoni noted, the game started badly at the opening top and “went downhill from there”. The Knicks were manhandled on the boards, out-rebounded 50 to 30. They managed just four fast break points all night. The win clinched a playoff spot for Portland. The loss had Knicks fans reaching for the sick bucket.

How badly to you have to play to lose a game in which one of your players records the NBA’s first 30-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist game in 34 years? Awfully, if the opponent in question is the Golden State Warriors. As is customary when the Knicks play the Warriors, the Oakland hoops police ensured no defence was allowed within five miles of the Oracle Arena and the scoreboard rattled around accordingly. After the Portland debacle, D’Antoni revealed he had appealed to the “competitiveness and pride” of his players. The resulting 128-117 loss suggested that only David Lee was listening.

With his jump shot firing and his pick and roll game restored thanks to the otherwise unwelcome re-introduction of Chris Duhon, Lee scored 37 points, hauled down 20 rebounds and dished out 10 assists. It was the first 30/20/10 return in an NBA game since Kareem Abdul Jabbar completed the feat in March 1976. Lee played 46 minutes, including late fourth quarter garbage time when the game was already lost but that should not diminish his effort.

The one question is does raise is way D’Antoni had Lee out there at all. Could one reading of this be that the Knicks are quietly putting Lee in the shop window for use in a sign and trade this summer? Unlike with Nate, Jordan Hill and, more recently T-Mac, the coach appears to appreciate Lee’s play and, if Donnie Walsh’s plan for next season doesn’t include the former Florida Gator, wants him to land in a good spot.

So how was Lee’s historic effort neutralised? A total absence of defensive effort led to Anthony Morrow and Reggie Williams tormenting the Knicks with 35 and 23 points respectively. On the other side of the ball, a lack of interior toughness saw Ronny Turiaf transform into the second coming of Dwight Howard, making five rejections in a 15-minute block party. The Warriors also forced 22 turnovers while giving up only 10. Their victory moved coach Don Nelson within one game of equalling Lenny Wilkens record total of 1,332 NBA wins.

As if such things needed confirmation, the Knicks one and four Western conference swing reeked of the resignation that comes from a team eliminated from the playoff picture with players who know the team will be blown up in the summer. Everyone know the big picture with the Knicks but, as I’ve said at various points this season, knowing things will eventually get better does not provide in the aftermatch of dispirited performances and bad defeats. The only bright spot this season haas been the play of David Lee. The irony is that it seems no matter how hard he continues to play, his future as a Knick looks as bleak as those of the teammates who consistently failed to match the standards he sets.

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When shots drop, the Knicks look top: Knicks season on the sofa week 20 review

Regardless of their numerous shortcomings and the fact that teams from the top, middle and lower tiers of the league have easily exposed these flaws throughout the NBA season, one simple grain of truth about this New York Knicks team remains: when they make shots, they are dangerous and capable of beating anybody – including a team on a 13-game winning streak.

Granted, over the last two months the inconsistent Knicks have been more Hyde  than Jekyll, setting embarrasing records for terrible three point shooting in the process. Yet, in a week where fans feared defeat in all four of the team’s games, the Knicks shot the lights out twice and beat two of the league’s best squads. Better yet, both wins were built on the play of unheralded stars likely to form part of New York’s future.

The Atlanta Hawks must be sick of the sight of the Knicks after losing to them for the third time in four games. 27 points from Danilo Gallinari and 10 for 15 team shooting from downtown were the bedrock of the Knicks win. Despite this, poor execution in the final minutes (yet again) allowed the Hawks to almost eradicate a 10-point deficit down the stretch.

Leading 99-98 in the dying seconds, Toney Douglas committed a potentially game-choking turnover as he dribbled up the court. Former Knicks (and Sixth Man of the Year candidate) Jamal Crawford recovered the ball, drove and fed Josh Smith who went airborne for the winning dunk but was denied by Wilson Chandler’s game-saving block.

The drama didn’t end there as Al Horford gathered the loose ball, fired it at the basket and sunk the shot on a friendly roll. Horford thought he’d won the game but instant replay showed time had expired milli-seconds before the ball left his fingers.

Would Chandler’s athletic defensive play re-invigorate the Knicks’ desire to play strong interior defence for the remainder of the season? Of course not.

Two nights later, the Knicks faced the San Antonio Spurs in the first of three road games against strong South West division opponents. Out-muscled and out-sized inside, Tim Duncan effortlessly cruised to an 18 and 9 night while fellow veteran big man Antonio McDyess had 10 point and 12 rebounds. A resurgent Manu Ginobili drove to the hoop with impunity on his way to a game-high 28 points. The total rebounding numbers told the whole story: 53 to 34 in the Spurs’ favour.

Not that the Knicks gave this one up without a fight. After the Spurs went scoreless for six third quarter minutes, Mike D’Antoni’s men whittled a 15-point lead down to just one. But 83-82 was as close as they would get. Ginobili came back into the game to ice proceedings as the Knicks struggled to execute in the closing minutes.

The really significant aspect of the Spurs defeat was that it was the Knicks’ 42nd of the season. The loss condemned them to a ninth successive losing season, another unwanted franchise record.

Next up came the Memphis Grizzlies who, with the twin towers of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, are a match-up nightmare for the Knicks. The game was effectively over by half-time as the Grizz shot 55% and built up a 29-point lead. Critics of David Lee’s defence were given more ammunition as Gasol executed a fine baseline spin move and dunk that made the Knicks’ all star look weak and leaden-footed.

You’ve heard the story of this game numerous times this season. A sluggish start made worse by no defence and poor shooting from beyond the arc. With the game gone, the Knicks woke up and ate into the lead, pulling within five with a minute left but getting no closer. The final 119-112 scoreline was more respectable than the Knicks’ performance deserved.

Conventional wisdom probably states that the last thing you’d want the night after such a poor performance would be to face the league’s hottest team on their home court after they’d had two days of rest.

But conventional wisdom didn’t take into account this maddening, inconsistent Knicks team would turn up and make 16 or their 30 three-pointers. Against all expectations, the Knicks torched Dallas 128-94 and ended the Mavs’ 13-game winning streak.

The unexpected rout was triggered by Bill Walker and Toney Douglas. Rookie Douglas replaced Sergio Rodgriguez at starting point guard and set the tone of the game. Douglas provides the consistent scoring threat essential to the successful running of the pick and roll. He scored 18 points of 8 for 10 shooting and dished out eight assists to boot. The Knicks looked organised and poised with Douglas at the point and he should start for the remainder of the season.

Walker continued his excellent recent form pouring in a game-high (and personal best) 23 points in just 25 minutes. In his previous outings, he had shown good athleticism and the ability to cut and get to the rim. In Dallas, Walker showed off his perimiter game, making five of his eight three-pointers. The former Celtic looks more and more like a keeper with each game he plays.

While the Knicks young guns stole the show, their veterans also had a say in the outcome. Al Harrington gave his best performance in some time, reining in his spotty outside shooting in favour of driving and spinning to the hoop. Tracy McGrady showed flashes of the brilliance that made him a premier player in the NBA. In one third quarter stretch, he blocked a gimme lay-up and trotted up court to effortlessly drain a three. Minutes later, he backed up Dirk Nowitzki, changed direction in the blink of an eye and swished an arcing mid range jump shot. I remain torn as to whether T-Mac is shot or halfway down the road to becoming his old self (albeit with heavily reduced athleticism). Only time will tell.

While this excellent Knicks performance came out of the blue, the 50-point shellacking they received on their home court at the hands of the Mavericks in late January must have provided some motivation. Hoots of derision poured from the stands in the second half and, for once, they weren’t directed at the players in orange and blue. In this painful and infuriating season, the illogical Knicks can give you reason to smile, typically of their character, at the moment when you least expect it.

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Indefensible defence: Knicks season on the sofa week 18 review

Pull on your crash helmets and brace yourself for pain. New York’s new day will still come this summer but, on the evidence of the Knicks’ four games this week, the remainder of this NBA season is going to be hard to watch.

Gutted by Donnie Walsh’s trades to bring about free agent nirvana this summer, Mike D’Antoni’s new-look roster seems incapable of competing with even the most mediocre NBA teams for a full 48 minutes. With no Jared Jeffries marshalling their already below-average interior defence, the Knicks have become easier to score on than a female contestant in the Jersey Shore.

None of this is unexpected or unique to the Knicks. Salary dumping in preparation for the summer has been de rigour for many NBA teams over the past couple of seasons. Walsh has stuck steadfastly to his oft-stated plan of getting under the salary cap. In the main, Knicks fans have accepted mediocrity in the present in exchange for the promise of future greatness. The play of Tracy McGrady was supposed to sustain Knicks fans through to the summer and, as T-Mac bought the Garden to life in last weekend’s OT loss to the Zombie Sonics, it looked like the remainder of the season, while 99% certain to yield no playoff spot, would be riddled with memorable McGrady moments.

The sad truth was revealed two nights later as McGrady limped up and down the court in a truly horrible home loss to Milwaukee. His rebuilt knee isn’t strong enough to stand up to the rigours of the NBA schedule. His minutes, much like his future contributions, look like being severely limited. Without McGrady, the Knicks aren’t capable of beating many teams. They eked out a road win in Washington against the only NBA team whose roster has been gutted even more viciously than their own. And there’s no glory in beating a team by shooting a meagre 25% in overtime. Overall, the 118-116 turnover-riddled game was awful to watch. But it did end an eight-game losing streak, the Knicks worst run of the season.

The laboured win over the Wizards was the sole bright spot of a truly miserable week for the Knicks where their lack of size was cruelly and repeatedly exposed. In a home loss to Milwaukee, Bucks center Andrew Bogut eased his way to a 24-point, 20-rebound game shooting 80% from the field. On the defensive end, the seven-foot Aussie had five rejections. On Legends night, the 40th anniversary celebration of the 1970 world championship team, the present day Knicks could only 67 points in 48 minutes and lost comfortably by 16 points in a performance that disgraced the legacies of Frazier, Monroe, Debuscherre and Co.

With Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill gone, the Knicks didn’t have anyone capable of even hoping to stop Bogut. That’s fair enough. What’s unacceptable is the stagnant offensive performance. The additions of Sergio Rodriguez and McGrady had D’Antoni murmuring about playing at pace. But this was more stunned-and-glum than run-and-gun. And with Chris Duhon benched for the entire game, the pick and rolls so key to David Lee’s scoring were absent. Lee managed his customary double double (12 and 13) but only took 12 shots in the game.

If Andrew Bogut feasted on the New York’s undersize interior, former Knick Zach Randolph gorged himself when the Memphis Grizzlies came to the Garden. Randolph took everything he wanted in a 31-point, 25-rebound effort that gave the Grizz a 120-109 win. Z-Bo’s partner-in-crime Marc Gasol got his share too with 25 points, 13 boards and eight assists. Both big men were given the freedom of the paint as they scored at will and grabbed second, and sometimes even third, chance points.

The contrast in how the teams got their points was marked. While the Grizzlies big men scored on easy bucket after easy bucket, the Knicks clung to their coattails thanks only to the three-point shooting of Al Harrington and Eddie House. The Knicks actually led by a point with five minutes left but Randolph sparked an 11-0 to seal the deal. Buoyed by his match-winning contribution, Randolph later joked with reporters about returning to New York in 2011 and praised his former teammate Lee, hilariously dubbing him “the white me”. He’ll never score an easier 30 points.

In between being dominated by Messrs Bogut and Randolph, the Knicks travelled to Boston for a reunion with the recently-traded Nate Robinson. Former Celtic Eddie House got a standing ovation from the Celtics fans, as did Robinson when he made his first ever entrance as a Boston player. Neither guard had any real impact on the game and it was left to Ray Allen, now free from the hassle of trade speculation, to claim victory for his team. Mr Shuttlesworth poured in a team-high 24 points but it was a defensive play that swung things Boston’s way. With the Celtics leading by three in the final minute, Wilson Chandler cut to the hoop as the home defence rotated slowly. Allen, who averages 0.3 blocks a game, soared across the lane and made the rejection. The Celtics ultimately prevailed 110-106 with the Knicks wasting a stellar 28-point, 15-rebound effort from Lee.

At 20-38, the Knicks are sinking further into the basement of the Eastern Conference and the threat of them having to give up a high lottery draft pick to the Utah Jazz looms large. The promise of better days come the summer remains in tact but every loss makes that salvation seem a long, long way away. In the mean-time, perhaps the Knicks could branch out as a shelter for battered children because, unlike violent parents, they don’t look likely to beat anyone any time soon.

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Snubs, surrender, suffering and shellackings: Knicks season on the sofa week 14 review

With attention diverted from their on-court performances to David Lee’s omission from the All Star Game, the Knicks slowly slipped further away from play-off contention with a pair of crushing losses. With Chicago and Charlotte enjoying strong winning runs in recent times, this week’s unnecessary defeats to Toronto and Washington could not have come at a worse time.

The week began in somber fashion with the Knicks reflecting on their now-infamous 50-point shellacking at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. Their chance to atone for that brutal loss came 48 hours later when the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves came to the Garden. Coming so quickly after the Dallas debacle, the game provided a true test of character for the Knicks, one they passed with flying colours.

Showing no scars from their Sunday matinee beatdown, the Knicks poured in 40 points in the first quarter against Minnesota to set up a comprehensive 132-105 thrashing. David Lee lead the way with a dominant 28-point, 10-rebound performance. He was ably assisted by 26 bench points from Al Harrington and another 13 (including a ridiculous looped circus shot that earned an And 1 from Nate Robinson.

As one-time Knick target Ramon Sessions acknowledged after the game, the passionate and committed start the Wolves expected from their hosts ultimately lasted the whole game. If was the perfect response to a heavy defeat and in many ways Minnesota were the perfect opponents, surrendering 21 turnovers and allowing the Knicks to blow them out of the building.

Next up for the Knicks was another home match-up, this time against divisional rivals Toronto, an ideal opportunity to make up ground in the Eastern Conference play-off race. The build-up to the game was overshadowed by the early announcement of the All Star reserves and the omission of David Lee from the East’s bench.

Let’s be clear, Lee’s effort, numbers and overall improvement this year make him more than deserving of an All Star spot. But deserving players from teams with losing records are overlooked every year. So while it’s nice for Kobe, Shaq and whoever else to go on the record and state Lee should have gone to Dallas, his omission isn’t shocking. Antawn Jamison and Brook Lopez can consider themselves similarly unfortunate, but ultimately not surprised, to miss out.

One of the reasons the Knicks remain a struggling team with a losing record was on full display against the Raptors as they gave away a game should have won not once, but twice, at home, to a team playing the second of back-to-back games.

If Lee was irked by his All Star omission, he responded in the right way, taking out his frustration on the court as he scored 18 points and tore down 10 boards in the first half alone. Early on in the second, the Knicks lead was 16 but stagnant offence and a long-distance brick-fest allowed the Raptors back into the game.

In the third quarter, the Raptors deployed a two point guard offence in an attempt to negate Nate the Great and break the Knicks’ momentum. The energy provided by guard Sonny Weems created turnovers and, with Chris Bosh free to score after Jared Jeffries left the court through injury, the Raptors took control. Jeffries may have also helped stop Hedo Turkoglu who repeatedly attacked the rim and got to the line. His 26 points return was his best as a Raptor.

Staring at another home defeat, the Knicks battled back down the stretch. Boosted by the three point shooting of Harrington and Danilo Gallinari, they caught the Raptors and built up a 102-97 lead with two minutes left. But again they let the game slip away. Harrington is famous for hurting a team as much as he helps it and when he fouled Turkoglu beyond the arc for three made free throws, the momentum shifted back in Toronto’s favour.

The Raptors went on a 9-2 run to seal the win. Between them, Lee, Harrington and Robinson missed four lay-ups in the final two minutes and, when Jarrett Jack missed a free throw to give the Knicks one last chance to force overtime, the Knicks failed to execute an in-bounds play that ended with a lumbering Harrington stomping through treacle towards the hoop before inevitably giving up an offensive foul. The Knicks fell 106-104, wasting a 29-point, 18-rebound all star effort from Lee and letting a game they should have won slip through their fingers.

Things took another turn for the worst two nights later in Washington where Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller torched the Knicks 106-96 in yet another missed opportunity for Mike D’Antoni’s struggling team. Al Harrington missed the game with a bone bruise while Jared Jeffries, afflicted with a similar injury, took a cortisone shot, played all 48 minutes and gave the team a season-high 17 points. David Lee and fellow All Star absentee Antawn Jamison both scored over 20 points but Jamison got the better of his rival on the boards, ripping down 23 rebounds to Lee’s nine.

But the true difference maker in this game was Mike Miller. After sleepwalking through the first quarter, the Knicks had fought back from a 17-point deficit by using a zone to curtail the Wizards’ momentum and draw level at 52-52. Then Miller took over. Clipping his trademark long hair clearly hasn’t sapped Miller of his strength or skill as he drained five three pointers in the third quarter on his way to a match-winning 25 points.

The only pity for Miller was that his performance came in front of an arena that looked about two-thirds empty. Heavy snow in Washington left the inside of the Verizon Center look as sparsely populated as an average Philadelphia 76ers home game.

The defeat in Washington was the Knicks eighth in their last 11 games. This was supposedly the softest part of their schedule. The importance of these losses has been compunded by playoff contenders Chicago and Charlotte winning eight and seven of their last 10 games respectively. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Knicks were half a game away from the eighth seed. Recent results have seen them slip 5.5 games behind the Bulls. With the all star break looming and the promise of harder games in March and April, the Knicks playoff hopes are dangerously close to being extinguished.

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The return of Nate the Great: Knicks season on the sofa week 10 review

After 14 successive games in which his sole contributions were to warm the pine and consistently pump up his teammates with an intensity that would have made 1980s Celtics towel-waver extraordinaire M.L. Carr proud, Nate Robinson emerged from Mike D’Antoni’s doghouse to propel the New York Knicks to a memorable road win over the playoff bound Atlanta Hawks. The effervescent Robinson poured in 41 points from all corners of the court as the Knicks overcame a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime and best their opponents in the extra period.

Robinson had been left out in the cold throughout December after D’Antoni shortened his rotation to the characteristic eight man line-up he had employed thoughout his time in Phoenix. With the Knicks winning nine games in the month, there was no reason for the status quo to change. The seeds for Robinson’s return were sown before Christmas in the road losses to Chicago and Charlotte where a lack of bench scoring saw the Knicks blow double digit leads. However, it ultimately took an embarrassing loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets for the stubborn D’Antoni to re-introduce Robinson to the rotation.

The night before that particular debacle, the Knicks had crushed a woeful Detroit Pistons team 104-87 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. A 30-point, 12-rebound performance from all-star candidate David Lee was the cornerstone of the victory. The Knicks double-double machine abused veteran Ben Wallace, former Knick Chris Wilcox and anybody else the desperate Pistons threw at him. He was ably assisted by Wilson Chandler who, having now fully emerged from his early season funk, slashed to the basket and got his mid-range jumper flowing on his way to 23 points. Overall, the Knicks shot 51.3% and dominated the glass, outrebounding the Pistons (the league’s second best rebounding team) 44 to 33 and handing them an eighth consecutive defeat.

Frustratingly, the Knicks were unable to reproduce this high level of performance when they played the Nets 24 hours later, falling 104-95 to the NBA’s worst team. It was a game they never looked like winning. While weariness may have been a contributing factor to the loss, the truth is too many Knicks played poorly. Danilo Gallinari had as many turnovers as made shots. Larry Hughes’ scoring stupor continued. Al Harrington led the Knicks in scoring (as is now traditional against the Nets) but turned the ball over five times. David Lee got the better of Brook Lopez statistically but conceded seven crucial offensive rebounds to the Nets big man. The Nets were buoyed by being able to field their preferred starting line-up for the first time since the opening night of the season. Lopez’s 21 points, 14 boards and four blocks were backed up by Yi Jianlian’s 22 points, Devin Harris’ 17-8-7 performance and 17 points from Chris Douglas-Roberts. As it turned out, this disappointing but deserved loss would be the catalyst for change.

And so, exactly one month after he last set foot on the court, Nate Robinson usurped Larry Hughes in the Knicks rotation and unleashed a spectacular scoring burst that gave the Knicks a surprising comeback road win over the Atlanta Hawks. Robinson had already kept the Knicks in the game with bursts of scoring in the second and third quarters but he saved his best for crunch time. With his team trailing 89-75 with nine minutes left, Nate simply took over the game on the offensive end scoring 19 of New York’s final 21 points including the final four baskets in regulation, the highlight being the baseline teardrop that earned him a bear hug from David Lee.

Robinson then dominated overtime by scoring 11 of the Knicks’ 13 points. Overall, Nate shot 18 of 24 with three 3-pointers and eight assists. He was absolutely unstoppable. Thanks to his dominance, it was easy to overlook the fact the fact that Wilson Chandler contributed 24 points and 17 rebounds. Credit should also go the swarming team defence, led by Jared Jeffries, that shut down the Hawks in the fourth quarter while Nate ate into the lead on the offensive end. Jeffries and Chandler’s help defence forced Atlanta into numerous tough shots, bad passes and turnovers.

New York being New York, Nate’s match-winning performance raises more questions as well as providing answers. Did D’Antoni play him out of necessity or did he swallow his pride and deem that his guard had served his penance? Will Robinson now permanently supplant Hughes in the rotation? What happens when Nate plays but is not the focal point of the offence? Will he play consistent defence?

Based on recent evidence, D’Antoni is likely to ride this wave for as long as it continues to work for him. Having already proven that a short rotation is the way to go, Hughes is now likely to ride the pine instead of Robinson until D’Antoni’s new winning formula runs out of steam. It may end up being nothing more complicated than Robinson providing the burst of energy from the bench in January that Jonathan Bender offered the team through most of December until he hurt his hip. It may well be someone else’s turn to step up when February rolls around.

With the extremely beatable Indiana Pacers coming to MSG on January 3, the Knicks stand at 13-20 and close to the eighth seed. Ten wins since December 1, including some over the league’s better teams, have made them relevant after that atrocious 1-9 start to the season threatened to make them look like a laughing stock. Debate will rage over whether D’Antoni was lucky to stumble upon the formula that turned things around or if the improvement is testament to his coaching ability.

What is certain is slowing down the offence to suit the particular skills of his roster and shortening the rotation so that everyone understands their role has played a role in the Knicks’ resurgence. D’Antoni’s stubborn streak has frequently been noted and often criticised, but it may just be the antidote to the unenviable pressure of coaching in New York.

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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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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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