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A new day is coming: Knicks season on the sofa week 17 review

I write this as the new-look New York Knicks take the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Already on a three-game losing streak, the Knicks were gored twice in two nights earlier this week by the Chicago Bulls to continue their slide out of play-off contention. These losses, along with all the other defeats I’ve watched this season, no longer matter. The struggling team that lost those games no longer exists. The team that replaces it will not be fully formed until later this year. But now we know that new team is coming. Thanks to Donnie Walsh, the promise of a new day dawning at Madison Square Garden this summer has become a reality.

Hands up, who actually thought Walsh had any hope of shedding the millstone contract of Jared Jeffries to free up enough cap space to potentially sign two max contract free agents after July 1? Be honest. Yep, me neither. But he did it. After this season, the Knicks will only have Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and the immovable (in so many ways) Eddy Curry on their books. And cap space to woo the league’s best players to the mecca of basketball. Without ceremony or grandstanding, Walsh has delivered exactly what he promised when he took office at MSG almost two years ago, even if he had to surrender what hopefully won’t become crucial draft picks to get there.

In bringing Tracy McGrady and Sergio Rodriguez to New York in exchange for Jared Jeffries, Larry Hughes and Jordan Hill, Walsh also gave up an option to swap 1st round draft picks with Houston (the pick is top 1 protected) in 2011 and a 1st round pick (top 5 protected) the following year. It’s a gamble based on Walsh’s ability to woo the superstars he desires this summer. If he gets them, giving up the picks won’t hurt the Knicks.

Whether you regard the risk Walsh has taken as bold or foolish, his choice is in keeping with his grand masterplan. Walsh preached patience and his focus on the Summer of 2010 free agent sweepstakes. At no point has he wavered from this plan. Walsh has given the Knicks direction. All fans, whether they like it or not, know where they stand. Most teams in the NBA’s cellar make trades that conflict with previous moves as their respective braintrust’s flit from one desperate scheme to another and their problems are compounded.

Under Walsh’s watch, this will not happen again. I hope for Lebron and Bosh this summer. I accept I may end up watching Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire. The key is that getting way, way under the cap ensures the Knicks can finally operate like a functional sports franchise for the first time in almost a decade. With that in place, the allure of Madison Square Garden and the oft-fabled New York market become legitimate tools to attract the players to lift the team out of the doldrums.

So, what of the players that left? I feel for Jared Jeffries. The man I refer to as Mr Intangible won me (and the MSG crowd) over with his hustle, heart and effort after starting the season as an offensive liability and on-court scapegoat. Leading the league in taking charges is the sort of stat that a Knick from the 1990s would be proud of. Houston, full of no-stat all stars like Shane Battier, might be the ideal spot for him. I’d take one JJ over 10 Chris Duhons any day of the week.

While nobody will miss Larry Hughes or Darko Milicic (traded to Minnesota for the hapless Brian Cardinal who was immediately waived by the Knicks), it will be interesting to see how Jordan Hill’s career develops. Thanks to Mike D’Antoni’s obsession with the eight-man rotation, Hill never really got a full run to show his worth as a Knick. The league consensus is that Hill is a ‘project’. If he develops his shooting and understanding of the game to the level where these skills match his obvious athleticism, a tinge of regret may creep into the front office. But, as a necessary chip to complete the trade, Hill had to go.

In what may well have been a present for his coach, Walsh also sent Nate Robinson, fresh from winning the worst slam dunk contest in living memory, to Boston in exchange for Eddie House and benchwarmers/makeweights JR Giddens and Bill Walker.

The little man’s tenure in New York will be remembered far more fondly by the Garden faithful he excited than the coaches he effortlessly seemed to infuri(N)ate. His block on Yao Ming in 2006 remains a favourite moment of mine. This season, his 41-point explosion against Atlanta after riding the pine for 14 games was nothing short of spectacular. On the surface, it seems like, as with Renaldo Balkman, the Knicks got rid of a player D’Antoni didn’t like. That said, the deal did save the Knicks more than one million dollars. House brings a consistent 3-point threat and should be a better offensive fit than Nate in D’Antoni’s system. Getting a draft pick from the Celtics would have made this one a little easier to take.

What about the other new Knicks? Every Knick fan has their fingers crossed that Rodriguez will displace the ever-more-depressing Duhon in the starting line-up within the month. But the real question surrounds McGrady. Are T-Mac’s claims that he’s put his injury woes behind him hot air or realistic?

Judging by the press conference he gave after arriving in New York, he at least knows how to talk the talk. McGrady talked of a fresh start, of having 29 games to show his worth and of his desire to play in New York (for the veteran’s minimum) next season alongside two superstars. There’s been enough big talk (Isiah, Marbury, Francis) that hasn’t come close to being backed up in recent years. This time around though, if McGrady flops, it doesn’t hurt the Knicks one bit. Hands up, who didn’t tune in tonight to see what, if anything, he had left?

As it turned out, McGrady’s MSG debut was better than anyone could have expected. Talk of him as a basketball corpse has been greatly exaggerated. Although he was restricted to limited minutes, McGrady poured in 26 points from all corners of the court against the Thunder, bringing the Garden crowd to its feet as he drained threes, nailed jumpers and attacked the rim. When he rested on the bench, chants of “We want T-Mac” echoed around the arena. His presence and performance created an atmosphere in MSG not felt since the days of Latrell Sprewell and Patrick Ewing.

Ultimately, McGrady’s efforts were wasted as the Knicks imploded in the final minute of regulation, blowing a six point lead when Jeff Green and Kevin Durant rattled in crucial threes to send the game to overtime. Running short of gas, McGrady himself missed two foul shots that would have put New York up by eight and probably iced the game.

McGrady played just 19 seconds in overtime, while Durant played all five minutes and won the game for the Zombie Sonics. After Eddie House hit a jumper off an in-bounds pass from McGrady to give the Knicks a 118-117 lead with 32 seconds remaining, Durant drained a pull-up jumper to give the Thunder a 119-118 edge. He added two foul shots for a 121-118 lead with 10 seconds left. The Knicks blew two chances to tie the game when House rushed a 3-pointer in the final seconds and Gallinari failed to hit a 3 from the corner.

Ordinarily, this loss, the Knicks sixth in a row and one that dropped their record to a dismal 19-35, would have felt like a body blow. After the potentially franchise-changing trades that preceded it, the loss doesn’t feel so bad. Knicks fans now know a new day is coming, that the years of suffering are almost at an end. For the players, the remaining 28 games of the season amount to a tryout for everyone bar the contracted Gallinari, Chandler and Douglas.

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Raising the white flag: Knicks Season on the Sofa week 15 and 16 review

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.

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Snubs, surrender, suffering and shellackings: Knicks season on the sofa week 14 review

With attention diverted from their on-court performances to David Lee’s omission from the All Star Game, the Knicks slowly slipped further away from play-off contention with a pair of crushing losses. With Chicago and Charlotte enjoying strong winning runs in recent times, this week’s unnecessary defeats to Toronto and Washington could not have come at a worse time.

The week began in somber fashion with the Knicks reflecting on their now-infamous 50-point shellacking at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. Their chance to atone for that brutal loss came 48 hours later when the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves came to the Garden. Coming so quickly after the Dallas debacle, the game provided a true test of character for the Knicks, one they passed with flying colours.

Showing no scars from their Sunday matinee beatdown, the Knicks poured in 40 points in the first quarter against Minnesota to set up a comprehensive 132-105 thrashing. David Lee lead the way with a dominant 28-point, 10-rebound performance. He was ably assisted by 26 bench points from Al Harrington and another 13 (including a ridiculous looped circus shot that earned an And 1 from Nate Robinson.

As one-time Knick target Ramon Sessions acknowledged after the game, the passionate and committed start the Wolves expected from their hosts ultimately lasted the whole game. If was the perfect response to a heavy defeat and in many ways Minnesota were the perfect opponents, surrendering 21 turnovers and allowing the Knicks to blow them out of the building.

Next up for the Knicks was another home match-up, this time against divisional rivals Toronto, an ideal opportunity to make up ground in the Eastern Conference play-off race. The build-up to the game was overshadowed by the early announcement of the All Star reserves and the omission of David Lee from the East’s bench.

Let’s be clear, Lee’s effort, numbers and overall improvement this year make him more than deserving of an All Star spot. But deserving players from teams with losing records are overlooked every year. So while it’s nice for Kobe, Shaq and whoever else to go on the record and state Lee should have gone to Dallas, his omission isn’t shocking. Antawn Jamison and Brook Lopez can consider themselves similarly unfortunate, but ultimately not surprised, to miss out.

One of the reasons the Knicks remain a struggling team with a losing record was on full display against the Raptors as they gave away a game should have won not once, but twice, at home, to a team playing the second of back-to-back games.

If Lee was irked by his All Star omission, he responded in the right way, taking out his frustration on the court as he scored 18 points and tore down 10 boards in the first half alone. Early on in the second, the Knicks lead was 16 but stagnant offence and a long-distance brick-fest allowed the Raptors back into the game.

In the third quarter, the Raptors deployed a two point guard offence in an attempt to negate Nate the Great and break the Knicks’ momentum. The energy provided by guard Sonny Weems created turnovers and, with Chris Bosh free to score after Jared Jeffries left the court through injury, the Raptors took control. Jeffries may have also helped stop Hedo Turkoglu who repeatedly attacked the rim and got to the line. His 26 points return was his best as a Raptor.

Staring at another home defeat, the Knicks battled back down the stretch. Boosted by the three point shooting of Harrington and Danilo Gallinari, they caught the Raptors and built up a 102-97 lead with two minutes left. But again they let the game slip away. Harrington is famous for hurting a team as much as he helps it and when he fouled Turkoglu beyond the arc for three made free throws, the momentum shifted back in Toronto’s favour.

The Raptors went on a 9-2 run to seal the win. Between them, Lee, Harrington and Robinson missed four lay-ups in the final two minutes and, when Jarrett Jack missed a free throw to give the Knicks one last chance to force overtime, the Knicks failed to execute an in-bounds play that ended with a lumbering Harrington stomping through treacle towards the hoop before inevitably giving up an offensive foul. The Knicks fell 106-104, wasting a 29-point, 18-rebound all star effort from Lee and letting a game they should have won slip through their fingers.

Things took another turn for the worst two nights later in Washington where Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller torched the Knicks 106-96 in yet another missed opportunity for Mike D’Antoni’s struggling team. Al Harrington missed the game with a bone bruise while Jared Jeffries, afflicted with a similar injury, took a cortisone shot, played all 48 minutes and gave the team a season-high 17 points. David Lee and fellow All Star absentee Antawn Jamison both scored over 20 points but Jamison got the better of his rival on the boards, ripping down 23 rebounds to Lee’s nine.

But the true difference maker in this game was Mike Miller. After sleepwalking through the first quarter, the Knicks had fought back from a 17-point deficit by using a zone to curtail the Wizards’ momentum and draw level at 52-52. Then Miller took over. Clipping his trademark long hair clearly hasn’t sapped Miller of his strength or skill as he drained five three pointers in the third quarter on his way to a match-winning 25 points.

The only pity for Miller was that his performance came in front of an arena that looked about two-thirds empty. Heavy snow in Washington left the inside of the Verizon Center look as sparsely populated as an average Philadelphia 76ers home game.

The defeat in Washington was the Knicks eighth in their last 11 games. This was supposedly the softest part of their schedule. The importance of these losses has been compunded by playoff contenders Chicago and Charlotte winning eight and seven of their last 10 games respectively. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Knicks were half a game away from the eighth seed. Recent results have seen them slip 5.5 games behind the Bulls. With the all star break looming and the promise of harder games in March and April, the Knicks playoff hopes are dangerously close to being extinguished.

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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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Gunning for that number eight spot: Knicks season on a sofa week 11 review

I hate it when the Knicks lose their final game of a given week. Especially when they’ve won their previous encounters over those seven days. But a loss on the road to the no-star all-star Houston Rockets isn’t going to dampen my enthusiasm as the Knicks inch towards the respectability of a .500 record and the chance to get shellacked by Boston, Orlando or Cleveland in the first round of the play-offs.

A measure of how far these Knicks have come since the dark 1-9 days of the start of the season that they outplayed the Rockets for half the game. It’s also a measure of how far they still have to go that they were overrun and overhauled by a resurgent Rockets offence in quarters three and four on their way to a 105-96 loss.

Without Al Harrington for the second straight game, the Knicks gave away a 13-point lead when the shots they made in the first half stopped falling in the second. The strong team defence they played in the first half dissipated in the second as Rockets guard Aaron Brooks dissected them off the dribble on his way to the 10 third quarter points that eroded the Knicks early lead.

This game of two halves was exemplified by the performance of David Lee. The potential all-star had 20 first half points (9 of 10) thanks to his trademark array of post moves and mid range jumpers. After the break, he was harrassed by mini-center Chuck Hayes who played him tighter and tougher, aggressively cutting off his route to the hoop as well as his passing lanes. Lee managed just six second half points as the Knicks were outscored 54-39. In addition, the Knicks bench was outscored 48-22 thanks to double figure contributions from Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry and David Andersen.

Rockets defensive stopper Shane Battier best described the Knicks performance when he spoke after the game of the flow of their first half offence and how that makes them such dangerous opponents. Coach Mike D’Antoni spoke of “a game we should have won”. A consistent defensive effort over 48 minutes would have have given him that W.

A road loss to Houston isn’t necessarily the end of the world. With the same degree of pragmatism in mind, blowing out a wretched Indiana team at Madison Square Garden is no reason to start planning for post-season play. That said, the Knicks 132-89 victory over the Pacers was an absolute joy to watch. From the moment Danilo Gallinari elevated over Roy Hibbert to unleash a monstrous one-handed dunk (complete with freeze frame posing when he touched down on the Garden floor), this was the rarest of Knicks games where a win was never in doubt. Leading 38-16 after the first quarter, 74-42 at the half and 107-62 after three, D’Antoni cleared the bench and rested his starters in the final quarter.

Wilson Chandler continued his excellent recent form, leading the Knicks with 23 points. David Lee added 22 and 16. Chris Duhon posted one of his most efficient games in Knicks colours, draining six of his seven three and handing out seven assists without turning the ball over once. The Pacers had won in Minnesota the night before but, without the injured Troy Murphy, Travis Diener and Tyler Hansborough and the benched TJ Ford, had neither the resources or the heart to compete. Their generally shocking defensive effort had me thinking that they had become the team Knicks fans feared their own team would become after witnessing the season’s first 10 games.

The Pacers game also marked Nate Robinson’s official return to the Knicks rotation at the expense of the struggling Larry Hughes. After his 41-point explosion against Atlanta and a standing ovation when he entered the game, Nate the Great was one of the few players to emerge from the Indiana game without credit, shooting an awful 2 of 11 in 22 minutes. But one poor performance was never going to ruin the Knicks night. The 43-point differential at the end of the game was their largest win in fifteen years. The 132 points they scored was also their highest total this season.

In between the win over the Pacers and the defeat to the Rockets came the game that gave the best perspective of where the Knicks currently stand in this league. Like the Knicks, the Charlotte Bobcats are on the fringes of the playoffs. Like the Knicks, they are a steadily improving team with flaws still to iron out. Unlike the Knicks, they are a truly awful team to watch with stodgy half court sets and an overall lack of inspiration and athleticism that sends the League Pass neutrals running for cover.

To give Charlotte their due, their approach has been effective. They had won two of the three games against New York so far, including and early season game that may well have been the ugliest and least exciting overtime game I have ever watched. The Knicks vs Bobcats match-up is an obvious clash of styles and D’Antoni’s men won the fourth and final clash between the teams by lulling their opponents into trying to play their game. Stephen Jackson led the Bobcats with 26 points, but he took 26 shots to get them and, like many of his teammates, launched bad shot after bad shot down the stretch as they tried to match the free-flowing Knicks offence. Captain Jack rightly argued his team had every chance to win the game but the Knicks prevailed 97-93, a win that crucially tied the season series.

The turning point of the game came in the third quarter. Trailing 71-61 late in the third quarter, the Knicks went on a barnstorming 15-0 that bought MSG to life. Nate Robinson had eight of the 15, with 2 three-pointers and a dunk, giving the Knicks the bench spark that D’Antoni wants him to consistently provide. In the fourth quarter, Gallinari stroked in three killer 3s and Wilson Chandler, leading all scorers with 27, iced the game with a pair of free throws.

The Knicks were rampant on the offensive end but the biggest play of the game was a defensive stop provided (as usual) by the underrated Jared Jeffries who, with the score at 82-78, stepped off his man to block a Flip Murray jumpshot straight into Chris Duhon’s hands. Duhon fed Lee who scored in transition for a six point lead.

While the Knicks completed the win, they still showed flickers of the maddening mistakes that characterised their early season form. As JE Skeets noted on The Basketball Jones podcast this week, on one possession they can look like one of the league’s finest offensive teams and the very next second they can fail to make a basic in-bounds pass. Robinson is the epitome of this sporting schizophrenia. He sparked the Knicks comeback in the third quarter but, in the game’s dying seconds, threw a terrible pass to Gerald Wallace (one of his seven turnovers) that allowed the visitors to cut the lead to two. Fortunately, this mistake ultimately went unpunished.

The Knicks end the week 15-21, tenth in the East and 1.5 games out of that eighth playoff berth. With games in the next week against Oklahoma, Philly, Toronto and Detroit (twice), their playoff push can continue if they can sustain their current form and strive for the consistency on defence that cost them an unexpected win in Houston.

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The return of Nate the Great: Knicks season on the sofa week 10 review

After 14 successive games in which his sole contributions were to warm the pine and consistently pump up his teammates with an intensity that would have made 1980s Celtics towel-waver extraordinaire M.L. Carr proud, Nate Robinson emerged from Mike D’Antoni’s doghouse to propel the New York Knicks to a memorable road win over the playoff bound Atlanta Hawks. The effervescent Robinson poured in 41 points from all corners of the court as the Knicks overcame a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime and best their opponents in the extra period.

Robinson had been left out in the cold throughout December after D’Antoni shortened his rotation to the characteristic eight man line-up he had employed thoughout his time in Phoenix. With the Knicks winning nine games in the month, there was no reason for the status quo to change. The seeds for Robinson’s return were sown before Christmas in the road losses to Chicago and Charlotte where a lack of bench scoring saw the Knicks blow double digit leads. However, it ultimately took an embarrassing loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets for the stubborn D’Antoni to re-introduce Robinson to the rotation.

The night before that particular debacle, the Knicks had crushed a woeful Detroit Pistons team 104-87 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. A 30-point, 12-rebound performance from all-star candidate David Lee was the cornerstone of the victory. The Knicks double-double machine abused veteran Ben Wallace, former Knick Chris Wilcox and anybody else the desperate Pistons threw at him. He was ably assisted by Wilson Chandler who, having now fully emerged from his early season funk, slashed to the basket and got his mid-range jumper flowing on his way to 23 points. Overall, the Knicks shot 51.3% and dominated the glass, outrebounding the Pistons (the league’s second best rebounding team) 44 to 33 and handing them an eighth consecutive defeat.

Frustratingly, the Knicks were unable to reproduce this high level of performance when they played the Nets 24 hours later, falling 104-95 to the NBA’s worst team. It was a game they never looked like winning. While weariness may have been a contributing factor to the loss, the truth is too many Knicks played poorly. Danilo Gallinari had as many turnovers as made shots. Larry Hughes’ scoring stupor continued. Al Harrington led the Knicks in scoring (as is now traditional against the Nets) but turned the ball over five times. David Lee got the better of Brook Lopez statistically but conceded seven crucial offensive rebounds to the Nets big man. The Nets were buoyed by being able to field their preferred starting line-up for the first time since the opening night of the season. Lopez’s 21 points, 14 boards and four blocks were backed up by Yi Jianlian’s 22 points, Devin Harris’ 17-8-7 performance and 17 points from Chris Douglas-Roberts. As it turned out, this disappointing but deserved loss would be the catalyst for change.

And so, exactly one month after he last set foot on the court, Nate Robinson usurped Larry Hughes in the Knicks rotation and unleashed a spectacular scoring burst that gave the Knicks a surprising comeback road win over the Atlanta Hawks. Robinson had already kept the Knicks in the game with bursts of scoring in the second and third quarters but he saved his best for crunch time. With his team trailing 89-75 with nine minutes left, Nate simply took over the game on the offensive end scoring 19 of New York’s final 21 points including the final four baskets in regulation, the highlight being the baseline teardrop that earned him a bear hug from David Lee.

Robinson then dominated overtime by scoring 11 of the Knicks’ 13 points. Overall, Nate shot 18 of 24 with three 3-pointers and eight assists. He was absolutely unstoppable. Thanks to his dominance, it was easy to overlook the fact the fact that Wilson Chandler contributed 24 points and 17 rebounds. Credit should also go the swarming team defence, led by Jared Jeffries, that shut down the Hawks in the fourth quarter while Nate ate into the lead on the offensive end. Jeffries and Chandler’s help defence forced Atlanta into numerous tough shots, bad passes and turnovers.

New York being New York, Nate’s match-winning performance raises more questions as well as providing answers. Did D’Antoni play him out of necessity or did he swallow his pride and deem that his guard had served his penance? Will Robinson now permanently supplant Hughes in the rotation? What happens when Nate plays but is not the focal point of the offence? Will he play consistent defence?

Based on recent evidence, D’Antoni is likely to ride this wave for as long as it continues to work for him. Having already proven that a short rotation is the way to go, Hughes is now likely to ride the pine instead of Robinson until D’Antoni’s new winning formula runs out of steam. It may end up being nothing more complicated than Robinson providing the burst of energy from the bench in January that Jonathan Bender offered the team through most of December until he hurt his hip. It may well be someone else’s turn to step up when February rolls around.

With the extremely beatable Indiana Pacers coming to MSG on January 3, the Knicks stand at 13-20 and close to the eighth seed. Ten wins since December 1, including some over the league’s better teams, have made them relevant after that atrocious 1-9 start to the season threatened to make them look like a laughing stock. Debate will rage over whether D’Antoni was lucky to stumble upon the formula that turned things around or if the improvement is testament to his coaching ability.

What is certain is slowing down the offence to suit the particular skills of his roster and shortening the rotation so that everyone understands their role has played a role in the Knicks’ resurgence. D’Antoni’s stubborn streak has frequently been noted and often criticised, but it may just be the antidote to the unenviable pressure of coaching in New York.

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