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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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Raising the white flag: Knicks Season on the Sofa week 15 and 16 review

This weekend David Lee will play in the All Star game, Nate Robinson will go airborne in the Slam Dunk contest and Danilo Gallinari may win the three point shootout and shine in the Rookies vs Sophomores match-up. And when the glitz and glamour of All Star 2010 is over, the New York Knicks will return to their regular season schedule safe in the knowledge that their play-off hopes are already well and truly extinguished for yet another year.

How did it get to this? The Knicks went 9-6 in what was, relative to this team’s penchant for underachievement, a December to remember. One week into the new year, they were just 1.5 games away from the eight seed. One month later, their record stands at a miserable 19-32 after they contrived to lose 12 of their last 16 games at the precise moment when their schedule was at its softest. Of the many recent losses, the defeats to Minnesota (in which they were inexplicably destroyed by Kevin Love) on the road and Sacramento (in which they were torched by Tyreke Evans and, in overtime, Kevin Martin) at home went beyond heart-breaking. They were simply unacceptable.

What is it about the psychology of this Knicks roster that causes the team to subside as soon as they build the slightest shred of momentum? It’s almost as if, at the moment the basketball media reached a consensus that the Knicks were, against all logic, legitimate play-off contenders, a collective notion of “job done” came over this team and caused them to slack off. If Mike D’Antoni convinced this Knick team that they should walk through teams like the Timberwolves and the Kings, he made a severe misjudgement regarding his own players. This team is simply not good enough to turn up without the appropriate effort and walk off the court with a win.

A glaring feature of the recent string of losses has been the failure to execute plays in the clutch. Against the Kings, Chris Duhon jacked up an air ball three at the buzzer. In fairness to the much-maligned guard, he found himself totally without options as four teammates stood motionless as he dribbled his way into trouble. All the while, Wilson Chandler, enjoying his highest scoring game of the season, was starved of the ball.

In the same game, Jared Jeffries ended up shooting a crunch-time three with predictably dire results. This isn’t a criticism of the man I like to call Mr Intangible. Jeffries deserves credit for winning over the Garden crowd with his hustle and defence since being roundly derided in the season’s opening weeks. The point here is that he’s not the man to be shooting a crucial three with the game on the line. Could D’Antoni, consistently hailed as an offensive genius, not have drawn up a better play? Or were his players unable to execute the coach’s plan under pressure?

The Knicks’ slide into irrelevance has coincided with some muddled thinking from Coach D’Antoni. The underperforming Duhon was benched for Nate Robinson at half-time against Washington and the little man sparked what proved to be the Knicks only win of the past fortnight with a 23-point burst. Two nights later against Milwaukee, Nate was named a starter but could only shoot 3 of 12 as the Andrew Bogut-less Bucks cruised to a comfortable 114-107 victory. By the time the Kings came into the Garden, Duhon was back as starting point guard less than a week after losing his job. If you’re going to give the starting reins to Nate, surely he derserves more than three games to soar or stumble. The bottom line is that, whatever D’Antoni is looking for from his point guards, neither Duhon or Nate are able to provide it. With play-off hopes gone, perhaps rookie Toney Douglas will see more minutes in the post-All Star stretch.

In spite of the depressing string of results, some Knicks players can hold their heads high. Since he was initially snubbed for the All Star roster, David Lee, like a true professional, once again raised his game to show the Eastern Conference coaches what they had overlooked. Boosted by a 32-point, 15-rebound game against the Bucks, Lee has now upped his season averages to 20 and 11. More impressively, the league’s best (and only) point-center has also dished the ball better in recent times. His 3.5 dimes a game leads all NBA centers. Thanks to the withdrawal of Allen Iverson, who really had no business going to Dallas in the first place, Lee has finally been granted a deserved All Star spot, the first Knick to be invited to the game in nine seasons.

Wilson Chandler and Jared Jeffries also emerged from the Knicks’ recent run with some credit. Jeffries, a man I once christened Mr Fumbles on account of his inability to catch even the most straightforward of passes, leads the league in taking charges, regularly plays hurt and makes all the hustle plays anyone could want. Playing with increased confidence, he’s even started draining threes, albeit wide open ones in non-crunch situations. The enigmatic Chandler finally shook off his early season woes in January and, despite a small dip in form, bounced back with a career game against Sacramento. Ill Will is the Knicks’ most aesthetically-pleasing player and his athleticism is rivalled only by Nate. With these gifts alone, Chandler should possess the confidence to demand the ball. Against the Kings he was red hot but, when the ball stopped coming his way, his failure to demand it impacted badly on the Knicks as bad shots were hoisted as the offence stagnated.

With the Knicks now certain to miss the post season yet again, what is left to look forward to once the All Star break is over? Perhaps the most interesting moves will come off the court. The T-Mac to the Knicks rumours continue to swirl, the latest word suggesting McGrady will come to New York in a three team trade that moves Al Harrington to Washington and Caron Butler to Houston. What’s in this deal for the Wizards remains a mystery unless they have decided to blow up their entire roster so I wouldn’t count on it actually happening. If it does, the sad fact seems that, With nothing to play for other than pride, the last 30 games of this season could simply be an exercise in gauging what, if anything, a former NBA superstar has left in the tank. If the trade doesn’t happen, all we can hope for is that rookies Toney Douglas and Jordan Hill get enough burn to prove one way or another that they are part of the future at the Garden.

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Gunning for that number eight spot: Knicks season on a sofa week 11 review

I hate it when the Knicks lose their final game of a given week. Especially when they’ve won their previous encounters over those seven days. But a loss on the road to the no-star all-star Houston Rockets isn’t going to dampen my enthusiasm as the Knicks inch towards the respectability of a .500 record and the chance to get shellacked by Boston, Orlando or Cleveland in the first round of the play-offs.

A measure of how far these Knicks have come since the dark 1-9 days of the start of the season that they outplayed the Rockets for half the game. It’s also a measure of how far they still have to go that they were overrun and overhauled by a resurgent Rockets offence in quarters three and four on their way to a 105-96 loss.

Without Al Harrington for the second straight game, the Knicks gave away a 13-point lead when the shots they made in the first half stopped falling in the second. The strong team defence they played in the first half dissipated in the second as Rockets guard Aaron Brooks dissected them off the dribble on his way to the 10 third quarter points that eroded the Knicks early lead.

This game of two halves was exemplified by the performance of David Lee. The potential all-star had 20 first half points (9 of 10) thanks to his trademark array of post moves and mid range jumpers. After the break, he was harrassed by mini-center Chuck Hayes who played him tighter and tougher, aggressively cutting off his route to the hoop as well as his passing lanes. Lee managed just six second half points as the Knicks were outscored 54-39. In addition, the Knicks bench was outscored 48-22 thanks to double figure contributions from Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry and David Andersen.

Rockets defensive stopper Shane Battier best described the Knicks performance when he spoke after the game of the flow of their first half offence and how that makes them such dangerous opponents. Coach Mike D’Antoni spoke of “a game we should have won”. A consistent defensive effort over 48 minutes would have have given him that W.

A road loss to Houston isn’t necessarily the end of the world. With the same degree of pragmatism in mind, blowing out a wretched Indiana team at Madison Square Garden is no reason to start planning for post-season play. That said, the Knicks 132-89 victory over the Pacers was an absolute joy to watch. From the moment Danilo Gallinari elevated over Roy Hibbert to unleash a monstrous one-handed dunk (complete with freeze frame posing when he touched down on the Garden floor), this was the rarest of Knicks games where a win was never in doubt. Leading 38-16 after the first quarter, 74-42 at the half and 107-62 after three, D’Antoni cleared the bench and rested his starters in the final quarter.

Wilson Chandler continued his excellent recent form, leading the Knicks with 23 points. David Lee added 22 and 16. Chris Duhon posted one of his most efficient games in Knicks colours, draining six of his seven three and handing out seven assists without turning the ball over once. The Pacers had won in Minnesota the night before but, without the injured Troy Murphy, Travis Diener and Tyler Hansborough and the benched TJ Ford, had neither the resources or the heart to compete. Their generally shocking defensive effort had me thinking that they had become the team Knicks fans feared their own team would become after witnessing the season’s first 10 games.

The Pacers game also marked Nate Robinson’s official return to the Knicks rotation at the expense of the struggling Larry Hughes. After his 41-point explosion against Atlanta and a standing ovation when he entered the game, Nate the Great was one of the few players to emerge from the Indiana game without credit, shooting an awful 2 of 11 in 22 minutes. But one poor performance was never going to ruin the Knicks night. The 43-point differential at the end of the game was their largest win in fifteen years. The 132 points they scored was also their highest total this season.

In between the win over the Pacers and the defeat to the Rockets came the game that gave the best perspective of where the Knicks currently stand in this league. Like the Knicks, the Charlotte Bobcats are on the fringes of the playoffs. Like the Knicks, they are a steadily improving team with flaws still to iron out. Unlike the Knicks, they are a truly awful team to watch with stodgy half court sets and an overall lack of inspiration and athleticism that sends the League Pass neutrals running for cover.

To give Charlotte their due, their approach has been effective. They had won two of the three games against New York so far, including and early season game that may well have been the ugliest and least exciting overtime game I have ever watched. The Knicks vs Bobcats match-up is an obvious clash of styles and D’Antoni’s men won the fourth and final clash between the teams by lulling their opponents into trying to play their game. Stephen Jackson led the Bobcats with 26 points, but he took 26 shots to get them and, like many of his teammates, launched bad shot after bad shot down the stretch as they tried to match the free-flowing Knicks offence. Captain Jack rightly argued his team had every chance to win the game but the Knicks prevailed 97-93, a win that crucially tied the season series.

The turning point of the game came in the third quarter. Trailing 71-61 late in the third quarter, the Knicks went on a barnstorming 15-0 that bought MSG to life. Nate Robinson had eight of the 15, with 2 three-pointers and a dunk, giving the Knicks the bench spark that D’Antoni wants him to consistently provide. In the fourth quarter, Gallinari stroked in three killer 3s and Wilson Chandler, leading all scorers with 27, iced the game with a pair of free throws.

The Knicks were rampant on the offensive end but the biggest play of the game was a defensive stop provided (as usual) by the underrated Jared Jeffries who, with the score at 82-78, stepped off his man to block a Flip Murray jumpshot straight into Chris Duhon’s hands. Duhon fed Lee who scored in transition for a six point lead.

While the Knicks completed the win, they still showed flickers of the maddening mistakes that characterised their early season form. As JE Skeets noted on The Basketball Jones podcast this week, on one possession they can look like one of the league’s finest offensive teams and the very next second they can fail to make a basic in-bounds pass. Robinson is the epitome of this sporting schizophrenia. He sparked the Knicks comeback in the third quarter but, in the game’s dying seconds, threw a terrible pass to Gerald Wallace (one of his seven turnovers) that allowed the visitors to cut the lead to two. Fortunately, this mistake ultimately went unpunished.

The Knicks end the week 15-21, tenth in the East and 1.5 games out of that eighth playoff berth. With games in the next week against Oklahoma, Philly, Toronto and Detroit (twice), their playoff push can continue if they can sustain their current form and strive for the consistency on defence that cost them an unexpected win in Houston.

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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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A December to remember: Knicks season on the sofa week seven review

Things at Madison Square Garden have been so bad over recent seasons that, if you’d said the phrase “streaking Knicks” to me, I would have immediately thought that Stephon Marbury had been making more lurid advances to club interns. But now, after a truly woeful start to the season, the New York Knicks, with four successive wins under their belt, are indeed streaking and, happily, in a wholly appropriate, wholly positive sense.

Cynics will point to the fact that there were mitigating circumstances surrounding New York’s victories over Atlanta (Josh Smith’s second quarter ejection), New Jersey (the one team in the league that, on form, the Knicks should regularly beat), Portland (a team absolutely ravaged by injury) and New Orleans (a fourth quarter salvo of six straight three-pointers that will only happen once in a blue moon). But closer inspection of all four of these games suggests the Knicks may have turned a corner. Whether by design or by chance, Mike D’Antoni appears to have finally settled on a suitable rotation to execute his schemes, his team are playing with coherence, greater effort and fewer errors and the results are starting to come.

Since starting 1-9, the Knicks have won seven of their last 13 games. Aside from one awful performance in Sacramento, the losses have only come against the league’s finest squads: Orlando (twice), Denver, Los Angeles and Boston.

So, how have the Knicks started to shake off the stink of being one of the league’s poorest teams?

Shortening the rotation
As coach of the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni was famous for seldomly using more than eight players in his rotation. After ploughing through numerous starting fives and incoherent 10 and 11 man rotations in season’s opening weeks, the Cliff Claven of the NBA has finally settled on the men able to run his system most effectively. He has been able to do this primarily because Chris Duhon has shaken off his funk. While he will never trouble the upper echelon of NBA guards, Duhon’s re-emergence as a facilitator (and, against New Orleans, a scorer) has given the Knicks a solid base on which to build.

D’Antoni’s eight man rotation has also provided offensive focus. As Bill Simmons always notes, every team needs an alpha dog, the go-to scorer who always gets the most shots. Once that player is in place, the rest of the team understands their place place in the scheme of things. Al Harrington is the Knicks’ most potent offensive force and, in the last four victories, has taken the most shots in each game. David Lee and Larry Hughes slot in behind him, then come Gallo, Duhon and Wilson Chandler with Jared Jeffries and Toney Douglas chipping in around the fringes. Everyone has started to understand their role. Contrasting this with the opening 10 games of the season where the offensive focus switched on a nightly basis from Harrington, to Lee, to Hughes, to Nate Robinson and back to Al shows the new coherence in the Knicks’ play.

Benching Nate Robinson
Whether D’Antoni got sick and tired of Nate’s showboating antics or worked out that his lack of discipline and defence was continually outweighing his scoring punch off the bench, it can’t be coincidence that the Knicks’ overall play has drastically improved with the Slam Dunk champion rooted to the pine. Nate scores buckets in bunches but is constantly abused on the defensive end. Maybe Nate is one of the few players for whom plus/minus is a relevant stat. Regardless, the reliable defence Douglas provides makes him, in D’Antoni’s eyes, a more useful first guard option off the bench. To Robinson’s credit, he hasn’t sulked over his demotion and, in all four Knicks victories, has reached 1980s ML Carr levels of bench support for his teammates.

The redemption of Mr Fumbles
A limited offensive game has made Jared Jeffries a target for derision at MSG. Jeffries’ game is all about hard work and intangibles and, over the course of the last few games, the New York crowd has started to see things his way. When he took to the court against Portland, he was positively serenaded from the second he left the bench. Jeffries may have been the biggest victim of D’Antoni’s continual line-up changes early in the season. He rarely played more than 20 minutes a game and regularly found himself in spots almost guaranteed to make him look bad.

Now Jeffries has found some form, possibly his best spell since coming to New York, and he’s providing the things that New York crowds always loved: blocks, steals, hustle and solid defence. Against Portland, he drew three charges, blocked two shots and led the defensive effort that laid the foundations for a comfortable win. Jeffries has played 20+ minutes in the Knicks’ past six games, five of which have ended in victory. A much maligned figure, Jeffries has set the example in finding a way to fit into the team that help win games. Let’s see if he can keep it going.

Team defence, team offence
Ball movement, sweet shooting, sharing the ball, offensive efficiency. All hallmarks of a Mike D’Antoni offence. All absent for the season’s first 10 games. All features of the Knicks’ four successive wins. Watching the Knicks repeatedly find the open man for a bucket was what we expected their offence to look like when D’Antoni took charge. It’s more 17 seconds or less rather than seven, but it’s working.
On the defensive end, the Knicks are obviously short-handed. Darko remains their only true shot blocker and he’s stuck to the bench. What the Knicks seem to have discovered is that it’s possible to defend effectively as a team. Against New Orleans, Gallinari and Chandler joined Lee crashing the boards and helping to disrupt shots. This collective effort caused a strong of important fourth quarter stops before the sharpshooting of Harrington, Duhon and Gallo secured the win.

Despite all the talk about the Knicks now looking like a playoff team, their 8-15 record suggests otherwise. The will for this team to achieve something, anything, is so strong that every win threatens to take on greater significance than it actually merits. They’ve still lost almost two thirds of their games and are a long way short of the .500 mark that should guarantee an Eastern Conference playoff spot. That said, standing only a couple of games outside the eighth spot, and with seven games against mid tier Eastern opponents coming up before the new year, they could, if they can maintain the form of the past week, put themselves in a position to make a serious push for the post season in the new year.


Filed under Basketball, nba, New York Knicks, Season on the sofa