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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 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.

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New hope and big decisions: Knicks season on the sofa week 4

Despite the pain of depriving myself of sleep in order to watch the Knicks slump to their worst ever start to an NBA season, week 4 gave me reason for hope. Why? Well, the Knicks only had two games on their schedule meaning, even if they lost both, their streak of losing three games every week would definitely come to an end.

As it turned out, the Knicks beat both the Indiana Pacers and the lowly New Jersey Nets on the road to creep towards the cusp of semi-respectability with a less-embarrassing-than-we-are-used-to three wins and nine losses.

The key to victory in Indiana was so clear even I, watching bleary-eyed in London at 2am, was able to spot it. Trailing by 19 points in the third quarter, the Knicks finally started to play consistent defence and make some shots.

In a picture-perfect reversal of their loss to the Pacers on November 4, the Knicks sparked a heartening rally, outscoring their hosts 27-7 in the final seven minutes 30 secnds of fourth quarter to record a much-needed 110-103 win. They forced the Pacers to shoot a miserable 25% in the game’s final stanza, stifling and frustrating Danny Granger to such a degree that the Pacers’ chief scorer fouled out.

On the offensive end, the Knicks bench outscored Indiana’s second unit 65-22 with Al Harrington firing a team-high 26 points, including three fourth quarter 3-pointers that instigated the game-winning comeback. Larry Hughes’ player of the game performance featured 21 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

The Indiana victory also marked the return of troubled center Eddy Curry who, having shed 50 pounds, literally looked like a shadow of himself. I’m not wholly convinced it was actually Curry on the court.

The slimmed-down big man claiming to Curry looked exactly like Eddy Curry except for the addition of a thin goatee on his chin. It reminded me of Bender’s nemesis Flexo in Futurama, a robot who looked identical to his rival save for a tiny piece of chin-hair. Either way Curry/Flexo Curry looked surprisingly good in a 12-minute cameo that yielded 10 points and four rebounds. The big man has a long way to go to get back to maximum match fitness but , after all his problems, it was good to see him back and looking able to provide an inside scoring punch.

The three-day gap between the Pacers and Nets games was filled with speculation surrounding the potential signing of free agent Allen Iverson. After an initial flirtation, Donnie Walsh surprised most observers by passing on the former MVP. It’s a good job he did this. After preaching patience and the need to development his core of young players, the addition of AI would not only have robbed the likes of Wilson Chandler and Toney Douglas of minutes and shots but would have made Walsh look indecisive, panic-ridden and, at worst, a hypocrite.

Saying no to The Answer allowed Walsh to stick steadfastly to his long-term plan and show a degree of faith in his young stars. Iverson bringing his me-first ball-hog act to the Garden may have given the Knicks a handful of extra wins this year but the potential for locker room disruption – as witnessed in Memphis – would have been huge. To my mind, Walsh made the right choice.

When a team is on a historically bad losing streak, no-one wants to be their first victim. That fear placed pressure on the Knicks as they faced the 0-12 New Jersey Nets, who were boosted by the return of their best player Devin Harris. With a West Coast swing looming, playing the Knicks at home offered the Nets their best chance of recording a victory before they approach 0-17, the league’s worst ever start held, somewhat predictably, by the 1998 LA Clippers.

The usual deathly silence of the Izod Center was replaced by some relatively raucous travelling Knicks fans who witnessed a fairly comfortable win for their team.

The Knicks shot 45% to lead 52-43 at the half. The offence was balanced with Harrington, Danilo Gallinari and Larry Hughes mixing drives to the hoop with outside shooting. It wasn’t such a good night for Nate Robinson who raised the ire of Mike D’Antoni by jacking up a three point towards his own basket at the end of the first quarter. With only half a second left on the clock, Nate launched the shot just after the buzzer. The shot swished home and a beaming Nate returned to the bench. The smile was wiped off his face by a raging D’Antoni who, after berating Robinson, benched him for the rest of the game. Was it an overreaction from the coach or a way to instill the need to focus into all his players? Probably both.

The Knicks extended their lead to 15 points by the middle of the third and, save for a Chris Douglas-Roberts-inspired fourth quarter 16-2 rally that bought the Nets within two, held on fairly comfortably for a 98-91 win. A 3-point dagger from Harrington, who seems to save his best performances for games against the Nets, sealed the deal. David Lee, who combined with Chris Duhon for some crucial baskets down the stretch, finished with 16 points and 12 boards.

A record of three and nine certainly isn’t anything to boast about but, with a home match-up against Boston and road games in Los Angeles and Denver coming up, winning  both games this week provides D’Antoni’s men with a much needed boost. They’ll need all the confidence and luck they can muster over the next seven days.

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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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Barely worth their place in the NBA: New York Knicks season on the sofa week two review

Knicks fans, fasten your metaphorical crash helmet because, on the evidence of the four games over the last seven days, this season is shaping up to be a true test of faith and loyalty. This season is going to hurt and, most of the time, it is going to be embarassing.

It is two hours after the Knicks walked off the court at the Bradley Center after a truly humiliating 102-87 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks. They conceded 40 first quarter points to a team averaging 87 a game. Their offense was putrid. They turned the ball over repeatedly. The defence was so poor it was inexcusable. In short, the Knicks didn’t even look good enough to be considered an NBA team. They played so badly in this game that Walt Frazier could be heard laughing in disbelief at their collective ineptitude.

The Milwaukee massacre provided a sad end to a week that had begun brightly. Monday night’s game against New Orleans finally gave the Knicks their first win of the season. They appeared to have learned the lessons handed down in their opening three defeats. Gone was the over-reliance on the three, the lack of ball movement and the absence of team defence replaced by Al Harrington slashing his way to the basket, Danilo Gallinari faking threes and creating easy baskets inside for David Lee and, (at times) a swarming defensive effort that forced Chris Paul and Co into bad shots and turnovers. Instead of the sluggish starts that hindered their progress in the season’s opening week, the Knicks came out sharp and slick with Larry Hughes hitting shots propelling the home team into a 12-point lead. When the Hornets made a third quarter run to briefly retake the lead, the Knicks, led by Lee (28 points) and Harrington (24 points), put the game away with a 40-point fourth quarter. They ran out convincing winners 117-111.

Mike D’Antoni described the Knicks’ first win of the season as “a massive step forward” but, as has happened many times, was made to eat his words by his team’s feeble efforts in their next match-up against the Indiana Pacers. A lethargic defensive display and thoroughly anti-clutch 0 for 10 shooting in the game’s final nine minutes resulted in a humbling 101-89 defeat to a severely depleted and previously winless Pacers team playing its second game in two nights. Even though Danny Grainger fouled out with four minutes remaining, the Knicks could not keep up with the Jonses, Dahntay and Solomon.

Fans will accept losing to the likes of the Celtics, the Lakers, the Magic and the Cavs. What will infuriate them is losing badly at home to teams in the bottom halves of their conferences. If the Knicks aspire to respectability, games in the Garden against the likes of the Pacers are games they simply must win.

Being blighted by inconsistency is no way to prepare for the Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The return of the King threatened to be a blow out on paper and so it proved. The game was over was as a contest after one quarter after 19 points from Lebron secured a 40-21 lead. Despite the Knicks playing decent defence in the game’s opening possessions,  the Cavs still started seven for seven. James drained three pointers, created two easy baskets with quality passing, made a buzzer beater and even found time to pat Larry Hughes on the arse after successfully launching a three in his face.

Aside from a couple of mini-runs, the Knicks fell listless for the remainder of the game. Unhappy with the lack of heart and passion shown by his experienced players, Mike D’Antoni gave second quarter minutes to rookie Jordan Hill who made an energetic five-minute cameo during which he made three of five field goals and turned the ball over twice.

As the game meandered to its inevitable conclusion, former Knicks-turned-TV-commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy lamented the Knicks’ ongoing “talent issues” and agreed that their failure to establish a low post and/or pick and roll game was the primary cause of the long periods of offensive stagnation and their field goal and three point shooting percentages. The Knicks reduced the Cavs’ 20 point lead to single figures in the dying minutes of the game to make the final score a semi-respectable 100-91 but that masks how inferior they were to their opponents. James’ 33 point, nine assist, eight rebound performance showed the Knicks everything they are missing. The man is supremely skilled but he is also a fine team mate and leader, revelling in the atmosphere at MSG and enjoying his team mates’ successes. As Chris Rock suggested when he was interviewed courtside, “when Al Harrington is your go-to guy, you know you are in trouble”.

Twenty-four hours later, the Knicks were thoroughly dissected in Milwaukee. After hitting their first four shots, they totally and utterly capitulated to trail the Bucks 66-35 at the half. Don’t bother with the box score for this game. Instead, ask yourself this question. How on earth has D’Antoni avoided criticism for the sad state of his team? His over-hyped, one-dimensional offense only splutters sporadically into life. His team play no defence at all and are regularly out of games by half time. His players amble through increasingly heavier defeats making basic mistakes and looking like they couldn’t care less. There’s no team work, especially on the defensive end.

When is someone going to ask why this team have quit on the coach seven miserable games into a new season? If there’s truth to the rumour that the players are insulted by the New York media’s focus on Lebron and have decided to sleepwalk through the season, that’s as big an indictment on the coach as anything that happened in the Isiah era. And remember, thanks to Mr Thomas, even if the Knicks tank the entire season there’s no draft pick at the end of it. Donnie Walsh will argue that this current Knicks squad have little bearing on his long term vision for the team. Next year’s roster will bear little resemblance to the one currently embarrassing the Big Apple. It is too much to ask the MSG faithful to sit through performances this bad on the promise of a better tomorrow. While everyone expected the Knicks to be mediocre this year, nobody was prepared for them being this poor. If he cannot coax better effort from his team, Mike D’Antoni will need to grow a thick skin if he is to make it to Walsh’s promised land of free agent nirvana in the summer of 2010.

On this week’s evidence, the NBA’s most popular coach is looking more and more like a fraud. On this week’s evidence, the Knicks are still a total mess. On this week’s evidence, there’s no way Lebron James will be caught dead in a blue and orange uniform next season.

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New York Knicks season on the sofa: week 1 in review

Five days, three games, three overtime periods, two terrible starts, two stirring comebacks, one sorry blowout and, most importantly, three losses. That’s the tale of the first week of the New York Knicks’ opening week and it looks like being a saddening, maddening and occasionally gladdening microcosm of their 2009/10 NBA season.

Offensive speed and fluidity was the calling card of Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams but for long periods against Miami, Charlotte and Philadelphia his current Knicks attack looked stagnant and uninspired. An over-reliance on settling for three pointers combined with atrocious long-distant shooting from everyone bar Danilo Gallinari led to long scoring droughts in all three games. Combine this with their trademark failure to produce consistent defensive stops and you have the cause of the blowout in Miami and the 20-point first quarter deficits against Charlotte and Philly. The maddening aspects of the Knicks psyche were on full display against the Bobcats and 76ers. They drifted through the opening quarter of both games like a late season team in full ‘tanking’ mode only to mount stirring comebacks to force overtime.

In both games, establishing some form of inside scoring enabled the outside shooters to swing the momentum of the game when all looked lost. It’s obvious that players like Al Harrington and David Lee are trying to provide the leadership and inspiration the team sorely needs. But the Knicks have to take the court with this level of intensity, not discover it when they are 20 points down in the middle of the third quarter.

Another concern is the Knicks unerring ability to shoot themselves in the foot. In last night’s overtime period against Philadelphia, they had all the momentum in their favour leading 124-121. Harrington was on fire and had scored 42 points. More importantly, the 76ers had no one who could guard him. After not getting a foul call on a drive to the hoop, Harrington, playing with five fouls, raced down the court looking for retribution. He was called for his sixth foul and extinguished the Knicks’ hope of a first win. Without Al on the floor, the offence again stagnated and Philly took over, racing to a 141-127 win. If Harrington stays on the floor, the Knicks win this game.

In spite of three successive defeats, there have been undoubted plus points from the opening week of the season. The outside shooting of Gallinari stands out the most. The 19-year-old made seven threes against Miami and a franchise record-tying nine against the 76ers, going a little way to backing up D’Antoni’s confidence-boosting claim that the Italian was the greatest shooter he had ever seen. In admittedly small stretches, the offence has clicked, but only once the Knicks have shown a willingness to take the ball to the basket. David Lee’s pick and rolls and Wilson Chandler and Harrington’s willingness to draw contact inside remain key if the Knicks are to run a balanced and fluid offence.

The real surprise of the Knicks’ opening week was the re-emergence of Larry Hughes against Philly. The former Washington and Cleveland guard didn’t make it off the bench in the first two games, looking about as welcome as a fart in a crowded phone box. Last night in the Garden, he had an excellent game, taking sensible shots, making some good passes and playing relatively decent defence. The poor play of Chris Duhon and Nate Robinson offered Hughes this opportunity and he made the most of it. Only D’Antoni can know how much more of him we’ll get to see. If you thought the Knicks would go quietly into the 2010 Summer of Lebron, you thought wrong. Although wins look like being hard to come by this year, there is fight in this team, more than enough for fans to keep the faith despite three opening week defeats.

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