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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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Basketball in Britain mirrors soccer in the States

In two short hours, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz will tip-off at London’s 02 Arena in front of a sell-out crowd. It’s the third successive year that an NBA pre-season game has taken place in London and, for the third year in a row, all the tickets were snapped up months before the game.

Although the league has only taken tentative steps in the UK, interest in the NBA here is definitely rising. With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, we have a competitive national team, a couple of recognisable faces playing significant minutes for NBA teams and some TV commitment from Channel 5 and possibly ESPN.

Basketball is starting to gain traction in the UK in exactly the same way the English Premier League (EPL) is enjoying increasing popularity in the States. Why? Because people want to see the best. The British Basketball League (BBL) can’t boast players of the same calibre as the NBA just as Major League Soccer can’t compare to the quality of play in the EPL, La Liga or Serie A. Forget patriotism, fans want the spectacle, the stars and the big crowds that come with the top sports products.

Thanks to satellite TV and the Internet, US soccer fans and British NBA fans now have easy access to sports that were previously all but inaccessible. Two seasons ago, I survived on one NBA game a week and got my basketball fix by going to a few BBL games. Last season, I subscribed to NBA League Pass Broadband and was watching 20-25 games a week.

The same thing is happening with soccer in the US now. Major League Soccer, boosted by the David Beckham hype machine, draws decent crowds but, beyond the die-hards, has no impact on American sporting culture. It’s visibly an inferior product. However, once ESPN began showing the UEFA Champions League and the EPL in the States, people sat up and took notice.

With the likes of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard appearing on American screens, the interest started to grow. NBA writer Mark Stein revealed himself to be a long-time Manchester City fan who makes an annual trip to Britain to watch games. The Champions League was discussed semi-regularly on PTI. Even Bill “I don’t do British” Simmons, opined on his methods of selecting a Premier League team to root for. As a lifelong West Ham fan, it absolutely killed me he, just like Steve Nash, picked our arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

What else do Americans get from watching English soccer? I think the crowds play an enormous part. I’ve been to NBA and MLB games in the States and there’s definitely a vibe of enforced participation. it’s easy to tune out snatches of music, organ riffs and instructions to clap your hands and become a silent spectator. Imagine if this is your traditional experience of live sport and then you see, say, a Liverpool vs Manchester United game with unprompted full-on chanting and singing for the entire 90 minutes. Surely you’d be hooked, or at least want to experience that for yourself in person.

So, how will basketball capture the imagination of British sports fans? The American emphasis on each game being an “event” will definitely help. The draft adds to the impression that any team is capable of winning a championship. There’s a lot of jaded football fans in Britain tired of a league that only two or three teams can win. What’s the point in paying throught the nose for a season ticket when the best your team can realistically do is finish 11th? I’ve followed the New York Knicks for 20 years. The last seven seasons have been awful. But free agency in the NBA gives fans hope. The Premier League can’t say the same.

And with that said, I’m off to the 02 to watch some high quality hoops.

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Filed under Basketball, Football, nba, Sport