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In position for Donnie Walsh to deliver: Knicks season on the sofa

As the New York Knicks meandered through the final week of another 50+ loss season, I had the pleasure of heading to the States. No basketball for me on this trip. I’m in San Francisco tieing the knot with the Sports Lass (who I guess I should now refer to as Mrs Sports Bloke). We were supposed to head home to England tomorrow but, thanks to an Icelandic volcano and some cancelled flights, are now stuck on the Left Coast until the end of the month. This is a not inexpensive hassle but it does at least give me some time to reflect on the dregs of the Knicks’ season and look forward to what is now a make or break summer for Donnie Walsh.

Two wins and four losses over their final six games meant the Knicks finished 29-53 for the season. The only real bright spots here came in the form of a surprising 104-101 win over the Boston Celtics – in which Danilo Gallinari topped 30 points and flukily banked in a three pointer to seal the win – and a 40-point fourth quarter rally against the Washington Wizards that resulted in an improbable comeback win. In between times, defeats to Miami and Orlando were almost as predictable as the stuttering fourth quarter that cost the team a win in Indiana and the insipid defenceless display in the season finale at Toronto.

But at least this unforgiving season is finally all done and the re-building can begin in earnest. Here’s what we can say for certain: the days of Al Harrington, Chris Duhon, Jonathan Bender and Eddie House as Knicks are over. Sergio Rodriguez, JR Giddens and Tracy McGrady will almost definitely join them looking for work. With next year’s salary cap now announced at a higher-than-expected 56 million dollars and only Gallo, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and the execrable Eddy Curry still on the books, Donnie Walsh has 34 million dollars to spend. And you can trust that he will spend it wisely.

The moves Walsh could potentially make have already been analysed to death. But whether you believe a dream team free agent bonanza of Lebron James and Chris Bosh is imminent or a pipe dream, the fact remains that Walsh has delivered on his promise to get the Knicks to a fiscal position where they become contenders again. The Celtics won 24 games the season before they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and went on to win the title. Things change quickly in the NBA. The true curse of Isiah Thomas’ tenure at the helm was that his awful decisions ensured the Knicks were never in the financial position to improve their circumstances. Now, thanks to Donnie, they are in the conversation for the first time in years.

There’s no point second guessing what Walsh will do this summer. The man has an alphabet of plans he can utilise. He also has the ability and the contacts to keep people off the scent. Did you honestly see the Zach Randolph or Jamal Crawford trades coming before Wlash pulled the trigger? By explaining his plan, sticking to it and delivering on what he promised (to date), Walsh has earned, at least to my mind, the trust of the Garden faithful. People scoffed when he said he’d create room for two max free agents by trading Jared “Mr Intangible” Jeffries. Walsh pulled it off, albeit with a trade that potentially wrecks his prospects in future drafts. He even got rid of Jerome “Big Snax” James, whose acquisition was the symbolic nadir of Thomas’ reign. You have to believe, now he’s put the team in a position to turn the corner, that Donnie will deliver a drastically improved roster mext term.

I don’t believe Lebron or Wade will come to New York. I think Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh might be a more realistic aim. Even if that fails, grabbing Marcus Camby and keeping David Lee for the front court and using what’s left to get a decent point guard for Douglas to back-up will surely be a dramatic improvement on what we’ve watched for the last two years. The potential addition of Camby intrigues me. I’ve just watched him dominate the boards and the paint in Portland’s playoff win in Phoenix. His rebounding and blocking abilities would compensate for Lee’s absent defence  and the pair would surely work well together. There’s plenty of NBA power forwards who play no D but are bailed out by the defensive dominance of their center. Randolph and Marc Gasol in Memphis spring immediately to mind. And who’s to say Lee won’t dramatically improve his defence over the summer as he did with his offensive game last off-season? Despite recently referring to himself in the third person in an interview, the man has heart, has flourished in New York, has elevated him game and wants to be part of the Knicks’ turnaround. For me, he deserves a contract.

Based on the evidence of season’s last few weeks, Bill Walker and The Earl of Barron both deserve low cost bench spots next year. Barron seems athletic enough to play in Mike D’Antoni’s offence and, more importantly, seemed hell-bent on proving his worth after rotting in the D-League for a season. He’s be a viable back-up for someone like Camby. Walker is impressively athletic and contributes at both ends of the floor. After his original stock in the draft was wrecked by injury, he possesses a similar desire to show what he can do. Give me this attitude of that of a money-hungry mediocre veteran (yes, Mr Harrington, I’m referring to you) any day of the week. New York has long been a home to the league’s waifs and strays. From CBA bag boys (Starks) to unwanted lunatics (Spree), the Garden has always allowed previously unheralded players to become stars or perceived malcontents to attain redemption.

So, yes, the worst is over. Aside from Eddy Curry and Utah’s draft pick, the wretched vestiges of Isiah’s reign are gone. This season, at times truly awful to witness, is finally done and the Knicks are in position to finally turn the corner. In Donnie Walsh, they have the man who will make it happen. For Mike D’Antoni, the time for excuses is over now he’ll have the necessary talent at his disposal. And while it’s far too early for the Garden faithful to start dreaming of long play-off runs and the like, it’s a guarantee that the time is approaching where we can hold our heads high and, whisper it, dare to dream just a little.

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Toney Douglas makes his point: Knicks season on the sofa week 21 review

With a playoff berth well beyond the the New York Knicks, coach Mike D’Antoni has finally bestowed starter’s minutes upon rookie point guard Toney Douglas. The former Florida State guard has taken his chance, undergoing an almost instant transformation from youthful benchwarmer to 2010 keeper.

Despite his inexperience, Douglas has brought impressive levels of poise, responsibility, defensive intensity and athleticism since being named as a starter for the monster win over Dallas. In his last four games, he has scored 20+ points three times, been instrumental in two wins over the ailing Philadelphia 76ers and, after committing three crucial turnovers down the stretch against the Houston Rockets, also learned a quick lesson that life in the NBA isn’t as easy as it first looked.

One of the defining themes in the NBA this year has been the emergence of impressive young point guards. Douglas, drafted 29th last summer, hasn’t yet done enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry and Darren Collison but, since unglueing himself from the Knicks bench, has shown he has what it takes to be successful in this league.

Highly touted for his committment to defence, Douglas’ recent performances have showcased a surprisingly consistent three-point shot, a desire to drive to the hoop and, most importantly for this rudderless Knicks roster, the desire to take responsibility at the end of a game.

In Philadelphia on March 15, Douglas sparked a second half rally, pouring in 20 points and adding seven assists as the Knicks turned a 55-44 half-time deficit into a 94-84 victory. Four nights later, he skewered the Sixers again, scoring 14 of his 22 points and forcing crucial tunrovers in the fourth quarter to propel a Knicks team missing Wilson Chandler and David Lee to a stirring 92-88 comeback win. At one point, he scored 13 consecutive points, a feat all the more impressive given he was playing with five fouls.

Douglas’ efforts in the second Philly game energised the Garden crowd. Just like against the Hawks a week ago, Knick heart and hustle created an atmosphere more reminiscent of a playoff game than an ultimately meaningless late season match-up. On both occasions, the fans and Madison Square Garden showed that they are the biggest reason an all-star free agent would come to play in New York. The desire, no, need of the MSG faithful to see winning basketball is such that they will blow the roof off even for a pointless game. Imagine what a playoff atmosphere in the Garden would be like. Donnie Walsh should send tapes of the Hawks and 76ers games to Lebron, Bosh and Wade immediately.

But back to the point in hand. If TD23 thought this NBA lark comes easily, he was given a rude awakening in a Sunday matinee loss to the Houston Rockets. After three excellent quarters, Douglas again took responsibility down the stretch only this time, thanks to some rookie mistakes and the wily play of former Knick Jared Jeffries, ended up as the goat despite shooting 60% from beyond the arc and scoring a career-high 26 points.

Desperate to respond to a late seven point burst from the ice-cold Aaron Brooks, Douglas was called for two charging fouls on Jeffries and then compounded his errors by turning the ball over a third time. There was no way back. That said, the outcome of this game should not detract from Douglas’ excellent play throughout the week. He will undoubtedly learn from the mistakes he made against the Rockets. What’s more important is, after the immaturity of Nate and the woeful play of Chris Duhon, in Douglas the Knicks now have a keeper who can run this team in 2010/11 and beyond.

It might have even been fitting that Houston edged this encounter as it gave Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill the last laugh after they were sacrificed for McGrady and cap space last month. Both had good outings. Rookie Hill, who was called out by D’Antoni before the game, responded with a career-high 13 points as the Rockets won the bench-scoring battle 52-13. In addition to bolstering his league-leading stat for taking charges, Jeffries also made two crucial blocks in the final four minutes. Although he has been supplanted by Hill in the Rockets rotation, can there be any better place for the man I used to call Mr Intangible than this no-star all-star Houston roster?

As Hill and Jeffries shone against their old team, Tracy McGrady produced a solid display against his former franchise, possibly his best all-round display since becoming a Knick. T-Mac stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, seven boards, five assists, two steals and two blocks in 33 minutes. It was a marked improvement on his two previous games where he had gone 0 for 7 (vs Philly) and 4 for 12 in the 109-97 beatdown against the Boston Celtics. McGrady continues to look like a man who knows the game inside out but is consistently let down by his body. He sees the right passes and makes smart defensive decisions but the promise of him getting consistently stronger is not becoming a reality. The slightest clash of legs or knees leave him limping, ineffective and unable to make shots. Despite this, he remains a tantalising cut-price gamble for next season but the jury’s still out on whether he’ll be back.

The rise of Toney Douglas has also rejuvenated other parts of the Knicks roster. Douglas appears to have developed a nice understanding with Danilo Gallinari that has helped the Rooster emerge from a series of disappointing performances. Gallo’s three-ball accuracy has returned but, more importantly, he now appears willing to mix up his game by driving to the hoop to draw contact. Eleven of Gallinari’s 25 points against Philly came at the line. He shot nine more free throws against Houston. Rather than loiter behind the arc, Gallinari now offers a more balanced scoring threat.

Bill Walker has had a couple of good games in recent weeks. This week, his fellow ex-Celtic JR Giddens got his first minutes as a Knick. Although Giddens is listed at six feet five inches, he looks and plays bigger, ripping down nine rebounds and scoring 10 points in 21 minutes against Philly. Neither Walker or Giddens are good enough to lead a team but, when you add their athleticism to that of Douglas, the Knicks look impressively fast. It’s light years away from the plodding incompetence of Duhon and the me-first shot selection of Al Harrington. Giddens and Walker might only be minor pieces, but they fit what D’Antoni wants to do and, most importantly, are hungry to play their hearts out now they have an opportunity.

For next season, we know Gallinari, Chandler and now Douglas will play key roles for the Knicks. Not only was the young point guard patient and professional while he waited for this chance, he grasped the opportunity when it came and wrenched every last drop from it. If Douglas can continue this form, the parallels with the ascent of John Starks might not be so fanciful after all.

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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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This is a low: Knicks season on the sofa week 19 review

Due to broadband failure at Sports Bloke Towers (thanks a million, British Telecom), the first three Knicks games this week were rendered unwatchable to my tired gaze. I’m still trying to work out whether this was a blessing or a bind.

As it turned out, the games against Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto followed a predictable pattern. The Cavs handed out a regulation shellacking to Mike D’Antoni’s men, the woeful Pistons surrendered limply in a high-scoring 24-point beatdown and the Raptors, after three even quarters, relied on superior execution down the stretch to beat New York even though Chris Bosh was unavailable.

In all three games, the Knicks conceded over 100 points. In all three games they played next to no defence. In all three games, David Lee, despite his consistent offensive output, was abused defensively by bigger and stronger players. With the season now over for the Knicks, D’Antoni took the opportunity to take a longer look at some of his new acquisitions, inserting Bill Walker into the starting line-up and switching the inconsistent Tracy McGrady to the point guard slot. Sergio Rodriguez got extended minutes running the point backing up McGrady.

While these moves arguably made the Knicks more fluid in attack, they bought about absolutely no change on the defensive end. Opposition guards continued to drive the lane with impunity while the likes of Jonas Jerebko and Antawn Jamison recorded double figure rebounding games as they outmuscled the paper-thin, over-matched Knicks interior.

Regardless of how hard it is to watch this struggling Knicks team at present, we all know the reasons for their travails. With this season consigned to the garbage bin, the roster, recently gutted in preparation for the Summer of Lebron (or more likely the Summer of Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh), is imbalanced and undersized. Losing 11 of the last 13 games and conceding an average of 112 points in the process is woeful – but it ultimately doesn’t matter if Donnie Walsh fulfils his promise of big name signings in the off-season. The patience of the majority of Knicks fans, severely tested over the past decade, means these recent performances are (at best) tolerated for now.

But then the Knicks found themselves on the receiving end of a 20-point blowout at home to a local rival who had previously won just six of their 61 games.

Last night’s defeat to the lowly New Jersey Nets was simply unacceptable. The boos that rang out through Madison Square Garden from the second quarter onwards were absolutely justified as the Knicks wasted an excellent opening spell, blewing a 16-point lead and were then outscored by 30 points over the game’s final three quarters. McGrady managed a meagre two points in 23 minutes of play. Rodriguez, for all his perpetual motion and fluid passing, was roundly abused by the speed of Devin Harris and Courtney Lee for most of the game. Brook Lopez and Terence Williams dominated David Lee on the boards.

Predictably, the Knicks couldn’t defend the paint. Neither could they defend the three-point line. The Nets, averaging a paltry 4 made three per game, made 14 of 24 shots from downtown. For a time, it seemed like Courtney Lee, Harris and Kenyon Dooling couldn’t miss. In contrast, the Knicks hit none (I repeat, NONE) of their 18 attempts from beyond the arc ensuring they were not only blown out by the league’s worst team, but also managed to set a truly embarrassing record in the process.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Knicks’ 18 missed 3-pointers sets an NBA record for most attempts without a make. How many times do the Knicks have to go the extra mile to become a league-wide punchline? Off the top of my head, fans have had to endure the heaviest regular season defeat in a nationally televised game (scoring 58 points against Boston on TNT) and having the league’s highest payroll only to finish a season with 24 wins alone. Then there’s all the individual embarrassments: Kobe turning MSG into his own personal playground while torching the Knicks for 61 points; the team recording less blocks combined than Dwight Howard managed on his own over the course of a season; Nate shooting into his own basket; the brawl against Denver. And I haven’t even mentioned Marbury, Eddy Curry or Isiah yet!

D’Antoni reflected on the Nets loss, the Knicks 41st of the season, as follows: “We gotta do a better job, we got to somehow get these guys together and play well and get the year over with and then go on to other things. It’s tough for everybody right now. Obviously, we don’t have the answer now, but we’ll keep looking for it.” These sentiments have become the Cliff Claven-lookalike’s mantra since the early days of the season. But when are we going to see them put into practice on the court?

The Knicks show flashes of coherence that they never sustain. This isn’t a new problem. Save for a consistent stretch in December, it has plagued them throughout the year. They don’t raise their game for the elite teams. They don’t play down to the few lesser opponents they face. They seem to collectively bring the effort when they feel like it. And for a team whose roster has changed and devolved through the season, the coach must take some of the blame.

D’Antoni’s stubbornness is becoming the stuff of legend in New York but it’s his logic that leaves me baffled. He was hellbent on Chris Duhon becoming his NY version of Steve Nash despite the obvious gulf in class between the two. He preached his seven second or less philosophy despite knowing he didn’t have the quality of players to execute it. He let down rookies Jordan Hill and Toney Douglas by eventually giving them minutes and then returning them to the bench before the got a proper run in the rotation.

Most crucially, his constant line-up changes suggest (at best) a coach grasping for answers or (at worst) a coach without a clue. D’Antoni’s reputation is one of being a players’ coach but his two years in New York suggest he can only handle players of a certain quality. He has no answers when stuck with a roster of limited ability.

At least D’Antoni (like the rest of us) only has to suffer for 20 more games. Walsh’s trades have opened the door, albeit at great risk, to a brighter future. The pain of recent losses will eventually subside. Even the debacle against the Nets will fade from memory given time. The onus remains on Walsh to deliver the players that can implement D’Antoni’s plan. I was apoplectic in the aftermath of last night’s game. Twelve hours later, I look at the bigger picture and remain hopeful for next season. But when things do improve, it will be tough to convince me that D’Antoni deserves any credit. When things get better, it will be down to Walsh’s patient franchise fixing and the players he is able to acquire.

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