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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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The full spectrum of losing: Knicks season on the sofa week 13 review

Knicks fans are well acquainted with losing. So much so, that they’ll be able tell you there’s no set way to lose a game. Sometimes you can compete with a strong team for three and a half quarters only to fall with honour down the stretch. On other occasions, a bone-headed play can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (see Al Harrington hanging on the rim against the Clippers last season). Sometimes, a great player will sink a buzzer beater to extinguish an arena-shaking comeback (KG at the Garden in December). And sometimes, your team can turn in a performance so dismal that they make opposing rookie players look like all stars and get blown out by 50 points.

In a span of 48 hours, the New York Knicks lost two games in which they managed to span the full spectrum of defeat. Against the Lakers, they fell with honour, losing 115-105 after matching the defending champions basket for basket and stop for stop for 40 minutes. Two days later, they were bruised, battered, dissected, destroyed and stomped by a Dallas Mavericks team missing Jason Kidd in a 128-78 blowout that, if it is ever released on DVD, will rank alongside The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a bona fide video nasty.

The omens for the Knicks’ meeting with the Lakers were not good. The game was played on the four year anniversary of Kobe Bryant dropping 81 points on the Toronto Raptors on the court where, 12 months ago, he’d unleashed his famous 61-point burst on the Knicks. As it turned out, these omens counted for nothing as Kobe, inhibited by a broken index finger, was content to play primarily as a facilitator. And, much to Bryant’s irritation, the very players he wanted to feed, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, seemed unwilling to assert their size and strength advantages in the post. This, coupled with stellar offence from David Lee (31 points) and Wilson Chandler (a season-high 28 points) allowed the Knicks to maintain parity throughout the first half and edge a single point lead at the end of the third.

Urged by Bryant, Gasol finally woke up down the stretch. He and Kobe combined for 23 of the Lakers’ 31 points in the final quarter to ensure the visitors had the last word. Simply put, as one of the NBA’s elite teams, the Lakers possessed a higher gear that the Knicks couldn’t match. The Knicks lost the defensive intensity that characterised their efforts in the first half. And where Lee had outbattled bigger opponents to control the boards early on, Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom eventually asserted themselves under the basket.

On the offensive end, energy from the bench dissipated when Nate Robinson left the game through injury and Jordan Hill couldn’t match his eight point, seven rebound first half cameo. To make matters even more difficult, the Lakers chose this night to shoot the lights out from beyond the arc, hitting 52.2% from downtown.

The Knicks played their hearts out but, against a team possessing superior talent and experience, they lost. But they went down fighting and could walk off the court with their heads held high. The same could not be said after Sunday’s game against Dallas.

It’s hard to pinpoint where things went wrong against the Mavericks. The Knicks were so poor in so many areas that, 24 hours later, it’s still impossible to cite one specific reason for the loss. The offence was stagnant, the defence non-existant. When Jared Jeffries is your leading scorer, you know something has gone badly wrong although, in fairness, the man many (ok, just me) are dubbing The Big Intangible turned in a strong first half performance, scoring 14 points to keep the Knicks in touch early.

Nobody else contributed much. Chris Duhon and Danilo Gallinari couldn’t make a shot. Lee battled hard on the boards but was outmuscled by Drew Gooden. Harrington offered next to nothing off the bench and Chandler had one of those anonymous games that were commonplace earlier in the season.

The breaking point probably came in the second quarter when Mavs rookie Rodrigue Beaubois torched the Knicks with 11 points including three three pointers and Jason Terry poured in 15 points to give their team a 16-point cushion at half-time. In the second half, the Knicks were bereft of energy and heart as Dirk Nowitzki added 13 of his 20 points. Unchallenged shots were par for the course. Terry and JJ Barea were given the freedom of the paint.

Benches were emptied as the lead swelled to 53 points, the largest lead in any NBA game this season. Boos rained down from the upper reaches of the Garden. I switched off League Pass to watch the AFC Championship game instead.

While Mike D’Antoni may be happy trotting out his trademark “flush it down the toilet” line after such a heavy defeat, it is a fact that the Knicks are now struggling and the losses are stacking up. After looking like genuine playoff contenders at the turn of the year, they have lost six of their last eight games. A chance for redemption comes quickly as the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves come to MSG tomorrow night, a game that now takes on must-win status. How D’Antoni’s men respond to the record-breaking beating handed down by the Mavs may well determine the course of the remainder of the season.

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Hosted and ghosted, haunted and daunted: Knicks season on the sofa week 12 review

When a four-game week starts with a resounding defeat that is subsequently blamed on staying in a haunted hotel, you fear for the remaining three match-ups. And so it proved.

After a resounding 18-point shellacking at the hands of the bustling and vibrant Oklahoma City Thunder, the Knicks pulled out a rare road win in Philly before rediscovering some of the bad habits that defined their early season in losses to Toronto and Detroit.

With the recent optimism surrounding the Knicks beginning to resonate around the league, their non-performance in Oklahoma was as surprising as it was disappointing. The writing was on the wall from the first of the game when, with Knicks defenders sleepwalking and failing to box out, guard Russell Westbrook unleashed a ferocious put-back dunk. With the home crowd engaged right from the start, the Thunder were – in no particular order – quicker, more atheltic, more committed on defence, more aggressive and more willing than their stagnant opponents.

Led by superstar-in-waiting Kevin Durant’s 30 points, the Thunder opened an early 10-point lead that swelled to 16 at the half and 22 after three. The man JE Skeets calls Durantula was equally effective on the defensive end, using his length to upset the Knicks shooters. His block of a Gallinari corner three will live long in the memory.

The Knicks never looked like getting back into it. Shut down by stifling defence, Mike D’Antoni’s men could only post 38.2% shooting, a figure that was bolstered by an 11 for 16 stretch in fourth quarter garbage time. Danilo Gallinari and Chris Duhon couldn’t muster a field goal between them. Post game, D’Antoni described the performance as “one to flush down the toilet”. It was the most appropriate place for such a performance.

Showing the degree of self-awareness that professional sportsmen are renowned for, the Knicks didn’t blame themselves for the loss. Instead, the offered one of the lamest excuses in sporting history by claiming the Oklahoma hotel in which they stayed was haunted. With their sleep patterns irrevocably disturbed, they clearly had no choice but to play like zombies against the team christened the “Zombie Sonics” by Bill Simmons.

Two nights later, the Knicks rolled into Philadelphia although, judging by the rows and rows of empty seats, they could have been forgiven for thinking they had taken a detour to Charlotte, Memphis or New Jersey. Thanks to a box score stuffing performance from Jared Jeffries and a towering 24-point effort from David Lee, who played despite the death of his 92-year-old grandfather, the Knicks ended a five-year, nine-game losing streak in the Wachovia Center. Lee, inching closer to an all-star roster spot, made each of his first eight shots and, with things getting tight down the stretch, went four for four when it really mattered. Lee’s final bucket, a lay-up with 13 seconds left, put the Knicks ahead for good 93-92.

While his effort and ability to perform the intangibles has been consistently good over for at least 30 games, it is rare Jared Jeffries’ hard work is reflected in the box score. This game was the exception as Jeffries let rip with a (relative to him) nine point scoring explosion in the first quarter. He ended up with 15, along with nine boards, three assists, two steals and a block. Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Al Harrington backed him up with double figure scoring.

Having put the Philly hoo-doo behind them, the Knicks returned to MSG for another divisional match-up against Toronto. The game offered the Knicks a chance to edge even closer into the race for the lower play-off seedings. It was also an all-Italian showdown pitting Gallo against former No 1 pick Andrea Bargnani. Sadly for Gallinari, he was utterly outshone by his campatriot who, despite having a girl’s name, shot the Garden lights out.

Bargnani’s sharpshooting exemplified his team’s efforts in the first quarter. The Raptors shot 63% and poured in 39 points in the opening 12 minutes. By half time, the lead was 24 and the game was over as a contest. Despite a spirited second half fightback led by Harrington’s 31 points off the bench, the Knicks briefly cut the lead to eight only for the Raptors to pull away again. The result gave the Raptors a 3.5 game cushion over the Knicks.

The loss to the Raptors was compunded 24 hours later when the Knicks dropped their final game of the week in Detroit. Whether the problem was fatigue or simply disinterest, the majority of the Knicks simply couldn’t match the energy the Pistons showed through Rodney Stuckey, Chris Wilcox and Jason Maxiell. David Lee kept them in the game early with 16 first quarter point but when he was subsequently shut down by Ben Wallace and Maxiell in the second, Detroit built a formidable lead.

Trailing by 17 after three quarters, the Knicks finally woke up in the game’s final minutes. D’Antoni inserted Nate Robinson and Jordan Hill into the game and finally got the spark his starters had failed to provide. Nate exploded with 11 points in the quarter while rookie Hill showed off post moves and a nice fadeaway as they ate into the lead. Hill’s effort may well be rewarded with more minutes in future games.

Ultimately, it was too little, too late. The Pistons wobbled under the pressure of the Knicks’ late run but Stuckey righted the ship with some timely drives to the hoop. The Knicks cut the lead to just two points in the dying seconds but Detroit iced the game with free throws.

Fortunately, the Knicks have the chance to make up for this loss almost immediately on Martin Luther King Day as they host the Pistons at the  Garden. Having  lost three of their last four, the game takes on must-win significance for the Knicks to not only regain their early 2010 momentum but to ensure they stay in touch in the race for that final Eastern Conference playoff place.

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Wake up and smell the despair: Knicks season on the sofa week three review

Three games, three defeats, shifting starting line-ups and an incomprehensibly bungled rotation. Oh, and the worst start to a season in franchise history. Just another desperate week in the life of the New York Knicks.

Home defeats to Utah, Atlanta and (unbelievably) Golden State laid the Knicks’ frailties bare for all to see. They are an outside shooting team that can’t shoot well. A run and gun team that can’t always be bothered to run. And, of course, a team that cannot defend to save its life and lets most opponents shoot above 60 per cent in first quarters.

The Utah game followed the pattern of most of the Knicks losses to date. Down by 21 points in the third quarter, the Knicks mounted an ultimately futile comeback propelled by the cut and thrust of rookie Toney Douglas. Having closed the deficit to a single point, they went scoreless for the game’s final 76 seconds and lost 95-93.

Two nights later, the Knicks managed a rare solid start against Atlanta, running up a 14-point first half lead before being outscored 37-23 in the third quarter on the way to a lop-sided 114-101 loss. A sequence of Jared “Mr Fumbles” Jeffries bobbling a pass out of bounds as he tried to make a gimme lay-up and Al Harrington letting the chance of an uncontested dunk literally slip through his fingers sent the MSG diehards to the exits in the fourth quarter.

Last night, the dysfunctional Golden State Warriors thumped the Knicks 121-107, shooting 64 per cent in the first quarter and leading for most of the game. This loss, their sixth straight, reduced the Knicks to a historically terrible 1-9, the worst ever start to a season. With Darko Milicic, Douglas and fellow rookie Jordan Hill in the game, the Knicks briefly paid some D in the third quarter and pulled within six points. Any hopes of a comeback win were immediately extinguished when the Warriors opened the fourth hitting four successive shots, including three three-pointers, to ice the game.

Why is D’Antoni powerless to coax consistent effort from the majority of players on this woeful Knicks team? One theory thrown out this week suggested that a clique of Knicks were sick of the circus surrounding Lebron James and his potential move to New York in 2010. The enormous LBJ billboard outside Madison Square Garden is said to have raised their ire. If there is truth to this story, it is nothing short of a disgrace. There’s been countless unheralded Knicks players who became heroes in MSG (John Starks and Anthony Mason spring to mind) because they earned the respect of the supporters with effort and hard work. So Jared, Al, Chris and whoever else is behind mailing in the entire season, man up and leave it out on the floor. You might even earn yourself a contract for next year (although I seriously doubt it).

Whether or not the players are staging an early season revolt, some questions must be asked of the coach. You wonder if D’Antoni’s reputation as an offensive genius that he forged in Phoenix relied heavily on the quality of players that he had. With Steve Nash as your floor general and leader, how often did D’Antoni have to struggle to motivate his charges? Now, with a squad of vastly inferior players, he looks powerless to stop the Knicks sliding into embarrassment. The constant tinkering of the starting line-up and the desperately muddled rotation during the games suggest, for all his searching, he cannot find a single answer.

Could the “Summer of 2010” hoopla actually be having a legitimate psychological effect? You could argue it is far easier for fans to accept Donnie Walsh’s long-term plan than it is for the players and coaches. Has any NBA coach ever been given a two-year free pass where losing doesn’t really matter that much? Has a group of players ever been brought to (and traded from) a club solely on the basis of when their contracts expire? Does knowing this somehow mentally undermine the people in question (particularly D’Antoni, Harrington and Larry Hughes)? Is it possible to take pride in your performances when everything points to the fact that you are a pawn in a larger, longer game? All fans would answer in the affirmative. Knowing the glaring limitations of this team, they are steeled to accept defeats this year. What they will not tolerate is the consistent lack of effort and heart. Even the dismal, winless New Jersey Nets get total commitment from their depleted roster.

Are there any positives to take from this week of defeat? Surprisingly, yes. Though the jury remains well and truly out on Jordan Hill, the play of Toney Douglas has been worthy of note. The rookie point guard forced D’Antoni into giving him more minutes after single-handedly reviving the Knicks against the Jazz. He’s not afraid to take the ball to the hoop and has, over three short games, established an explosive scoring touch. Douglas’ emergence should also signal the end of Chris Duhon as a Knick. In this losing mire, Duhon has arguably been the worst player on the roster this year. A starting backcourt of Douglas and Larry Hughes might just give the Knicks some defence. With Nate Robinson back from injury to back them up, you have an improved three guard rotation.

Another sign of how desperate the Knicks are for good news came in the drastically smaller shape of Eddy Curry. The troubled big man returned to practice this week and appeared to have made good on his word to get in playing shape. In a post-practice interview, Curry looked chiselled (yes, I said chiselled) confirming stories that he had lost more than 50 pounds. Pinning hopes on Eddy to revive the Knicks’ fortunes may be a bit of a stretch – he’s played 12 minutes in the last 12 months – but getting him on the court must be a good thing. If he can re-establish his low post game, surely that will open up the three point game for Gallinari and Hughes.

The final plus point is the five day break the Knicks have until their next game. In the midst of a slump, time to “go back to the drawing board” is crucial. Perhaps whatever grievances the players have can be aired and rectified. Perhaps D’Antoni can pull some tricks from his magic hat of offence. Perhaps they might settle on a nine man rotation. Perhaps Donnie Walsh has a trade up his sleeve. Perhaps David Lee will stop whinging about every call that goes against him. And perhaps Eddy Curry will suit up when the Knicks travel to Indiana on November 18.

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