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Season on the sofa: NBA All Star 2010 game diary

According to legend, everything’s bigger in Texas – even the NBA All Star game. Which is why, after foregoing sleep for the last two nights in exchange for a thoroughly underwhelming Dunk Contest and a high scoring but tedious Rookie/Sophomore game, the Sports Bloke has re-charged his batteries for the third and final night of the All Star weekend. What better way of covering this glorified exhibition game/annual spectacular (delete as appropriate) than with a special All Star season on the sofa diary of the game not quite live and direct from the UK.

11:38pm Only 22 minutes of Valentine’s Day left. The Sports Lass is sound asleep. I’m ready for the All Star game. Excited to see a Knick on the East roster for the first time in nine years. Even more excited to see how Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones are going to pull off a basketball game in front of 100,000 people.

11:40pm No basketball yet. Watching the Winter Olympics luge instead. Torn between whether I’d like to try a luge run or if it would be terrifying. Maybe Bobsleigh is a safer option. The Skeleton is not an option.

11:57pm Just realised League Pass coverage doesn’t start until 1am UK time. Isn’t the game tipping off at 12:45am? I want some build up. Good old P2P, never lets you down. There go the Men In Black. Time for EJ, Chuck and the Jet.

12:02am Good lord, Cowboys Stadium is huuuuuuuuuuuuuge. Hope the people in the nosebleed seats brought their telescopes and binoculars.

12:05am Here comes the Thunderbirds flyover. Barkley looks perturbed. And cold. In other news, One Republic suck. Bland, mediocre major label pseudo indie rock. Get out.

12:15am It’s Kobe doing his “reasonable human being” act. TNT host slurps accordingly.

12:19am Someone should tell that guy with the broom to stop walking across the shot. Good job Christian Bale isn’t on the TNT panel.

12:27am Is this the first sporting event where the scoreboard is bigger than the playing area?

12:43am This pre-game show is starting to drag. Even Mark Cuban can’t save it.

12:57am Is there any league commissioner more polished than David Stern? The man can deflect anything.

1:04am The West players take to the court. I’m buying a ticket for the Dirkus Circus for MVP. How can he fail with J-Kidd and Nash feeding him all night? I also expect Durantula to announce himself to the world tonight (it’s not possible for British people to use the phrase “Coming out party”, too many non-sporting connotations).

1:08am You can’t blame Craig Sager for doing his Nash interview introduction twice. He does have to carry the can for his tie though. Who dresses this man? Stevie Wonder?

1:21am How many Taco Bell five buck boxes has Chuck gone through this weekend? Over under must be around 15.

1:26am Derrick Rose gets a huge pop from the Dallas crowd. As does Chris Bosh in his home state. The starters then come up through the floor with Kevin Garnett proving once again he is the coolest man in the league.

1:30am The organisers of English football’s Charity Shield should take some notes on how to put on a showcase event. They’d have to book someone less totally overrrated than Usher though.

1:32am Dallas erupts for Kobe, who looks resplendent in his grey cardigan. Chris Kaman looks utterly overrawed. Z-Bo looks all business. Huge pops for Kevin Durant amd Jason Kidd. Nothing compares to the ovation for Dirk though. The player introductions have been better than the whole dunk contest.

1:44am West starting backcourt is Nash and Nowitzki. This could be very interesting.

1:51am Two sweet jumpers from Dirk to open the scoring.

1:55am Nash orchestrating things beautifully. Easy baskets for the West. Lots of jumpers from the East. 16-9 West.

1:56am Dwight Howard drains a three. Seriously. Still nowhere near as awesome as the Cowboys Stadium organ.

1:58am Time out, time for Stan van Gundy (SVG) to chew out his players (possibly)

2:01am Did Lebron really just argue a no-call in the All Star game?

2:07am Devastating putback dunk from Chris Bosh. 29-28 East. Aside from one KG block, no D in Dallas tonight.

2:14am Wow, Zach Randolph just fed Pau Gasol a bounce pass for a lay-in. Is that his first assist of the season? First quarter ends with East leading 37-34.

2:20am David Lee enters the game at the start of the second quarter. He immediately feeds Wade for an easy hoop.

2:23am Deron Williams sparks a run of more traditional all star plays as he creates an alley-oop and hammers home a dunk of his own. East respond with a D-Wade alley oop. West lead 51-47.

2:30am Lee on the board with a dunk.

2:34am Lee guarding former Knick Randolph. Can’t say I ever thought I’d see that in an All Star game.

2:41am Lebron starting to percolate. A circus shot, a cross-court assist and a monster block on Melo.

2:43am Half time. East leads 76-69. Melo leads all scorers with 17. Bosh and Horford having very nice games off the bench.

2:54am Shakira’s songs may be shit but she has a chart-topping caboose. Props to the TNT cameraman for helping me to notice this important fact.

3:05am Is this Alicia Keys song sending a subtle message to Lebron re this summer? It’s probably the only hope for Walsh and D’Antoni.

3:15am An epic 35 minute half time (and counting). Thank Christ I’m not at work until Tuesday.

3:24am PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE restart the game. Boredom is making me tired.

3:25am Looks like someone should take hold of Chuck’s car keys.

3:27am Howard goes coast to coast and finishes with a dunk. East starting to showboat. 84-71.

3:32am Lebron throws up an ugly air ball. Reggie Miller blames it on the sight lines. I blame bad shot selection.

3:34am Savage baseline alley oop – D-Wade to Lebron. East leads 97-88.

3:49am Lots of scoring but the West can’t get any closer. 115-106 to the East. Bosh continues to fill it up.

3:52am Billups loses his dribble but Durant recovers the ball and nails a long distance three at the buzzer. End of the third. 113-104 to the East.

3:55am Mark Cuban announces the attendance: a whopping 108,713. Biggest crowd to ever watch a basketball game.

3:58am West start quickly in the fourth. Three from Billups. A drive to the hoop from Z-Bo. Fast break finished by trailing Gasol. Two point game.

4:01am 120-119 with nine minutes to go. Things should get serious now.

4:07am Wade hammered by Williams and Randolph. That’s more like it.

4:10am East getting aggressive defensively. Steal by Rondo who then sets up Wade with an alley oop. East lead 128-124.

4:15am West offence stagnating. Lebron hits a long two then Bosh converts an And 1. A steal by Wade leads to a big dunk. The lead goes to nine with four minutes left.

4:17am Blown dunk by Amare. That’s gotta be embarrassing in front of 108,000 people

4:20am Beginning to feel worn down by seeing the same five commercials at every ad break

4:23am Lebron throws up another brick but redeems himself with a steal and a dunk. Billups answers with a three and Dirk hits two free throws. West hanging in down by two. 1:46 remaining.

4:26am Blown alley oop by Bosh. Billups ties the game at 137. Minute to go. West sensing victory.

4:29am Williams stripped then compounds his error by fouling when he had no need to. Wade on the line. Makes both. 139-137 East with 12 seconds left. Bet George Karl wishes Kobe wasn’t out injured now. In his absence, the ball’s going to go to Dirk to be the hometwon hero.

4:32am Ball does indeed go to Dirk who mugs Howard with a pump fake. Nowitzki makes both free throws. We’re tied again at 139. Seven seconds left. Time out East.

4:34am Bosh fouled driving the baseline. He makes both free throws. East by two. Five seconds on the clock.

4:37am Carmelo looks for a three to win it but can only throw up an off balance air ball. Game over. East win 141-139. Wade would be my MVP but it doesn’t really matter. Time for the Sports Bloke to retire to bed. Out.

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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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Donnie Walsh will repay faith of Knicks fans

274 days and counting. That’s how long until July 1 2010, the day when, if team president Donnie Walsh is to be believed, the New York Knicks will be reborn. The day when Lebron James comes to the Big Apple to breathe life into an organisation mired in hubris and humiliation for the last seven years. Assuming, of course, that LBJ not only decides to leave Cleveland but settles on Manhattan as his destination of choice.

The jury’s still out on what happens next July but the moves Walsh has made since taking over at Madison Square Garden now leave the Knicks with more salary cap flexibility than any other NBA team as the league gears up for the 2010 A-list free agent sweepstakes. In a world of knee-jerk reactions and win-now clamour, Walsh’s patience and willingness to play the long game is refreshing. The less he does, the more I trust him.

Cynics may point out that, from the abject state the Knicks were in after five years of Isiah “Doubt Him” Thomas, Walsh had no choice but to take the long view. That’s a fair point but the subtlety of Walsh’s moves and his refusal to be swayed by the fractious New York media give me reason to be optimistic that, come next summer, crowds at MSG will be in thrall to a re-tooled squad boasting two marquee names.
Think about it, Walsh brings in Mike D’Antoni, a coach 75% of NBA players are on record saying they want to play for. Add to that the pull of the world’s most famous arena and the planet’s most intense media market, and you’ve got a legitimate destination attractive to some, if not all, big name free agents.

Then there’s the resolution of the salary cap issues. Thanks to Isiah, the Knicks roster was chock full of has-beens and chemistry killers considered immovable. Oh really? With little or no fuss, Walsh moved on Zach “Black Hole” Randolph, Jamal Crawford and, unbelievably, Jerome “Big Snax” James each time taking back players whose contracts expire at the end of the 2009 season and freeing up more precious 2010 cap space. Walsh knows, like we all know, that Larry Hughes is terrible – but he can live with it because Hughes will be gone by the summer of 2010.

With the blunt realism of a retired New York cop, Walsh has continually admitted that it will take time for the Knicks to improve. Asking fans to accept two seasons of mediocrity before things improve is a real stretch but Walsh seems to have pulled this off to some degree. While I’m far from convinced native New Yorkers are as willing to accept this as I am, I still prefer Walsh’s pragmatic honesty to the smoke and mirrors of his predecessor. Remember when Isiah and Larry Brown referred to Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury as a backcourt pairing akin to Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe in a desperate attempt to paper over the cracks of their ineptitude? Well, I found that far more offensive than being told it would take a year or two for things to get better under Walsh and D’Antoni.

The recent re-signing of David Lee and Nate Robinson offers a window into Walsh’s motivational powers. I’ll admit the league’s current financial climate played a part in helping the Knicks keep their two most popular players but take a closer look at the deals and consider this. Both players were offered terms in excess of their qualifying offers, a show of respect to D-Lee and Nate that might help persuade them re-sign again next summer. Both players were also offered $1m bonuses if the Knicks reach the play-offs. Here Walsh is incentivising his stars to become leaders in the locker room, pushing them to develop closer ties with the team.

I’m not going to pretend that Walsh has been 100% with all the decisions he has made. You could point to the Stephon Marbury buy-out saga last year and point out that Walsh could have diffused the situation by giving Steph all his money and sending him home. Walsh’s initial plan to showcase Marbury in the hope of generating a trade was sound before D’Antoni complicated things by benching the star. Even so, allowing the saga to drag on and on divided fans and humiliated Marbury. Just think how much more Vaseline he could have eaten online if Walsh had bought him out prior to the start of the 2008/09 season.

The challenges for Donnie Walsh will continue into the new season. Somehow he needs to find a way of getting rid of Eddy Curry and Jared ‘Mr Fumbles’ Jeffries to maximise cap space for next season. He must also find a way of getting this Knicks team to 40 wins as it’s hard to envisage the likes of D-Wade, LBJ and Amare lining up for the honour of playing for a bottom-feeding 30-win team.

Walsh must surely be aware that all the work he’s done since arriving at the Garden stands or falls on who he signs next summer. If the pay-off for two seasons of suffering is Lebron, he’ll be a hero. If the big names stay put and the cap room is used to sign ball-hogs or has-beens, he’ll feel the sting from fans and media alike. But, based on what he’s done so far, there’s something about Walsh that makes me think he has the situation under control and that the good times at the Garden are just 274 short days days away.

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