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.