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.