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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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Donnie Walsh will repay faith of Knicks fans

274 days and counting. That’s how long until July 1 2010, the day when, if team president Donnie Walsh is to be believed, the New York Knicks will be reborn. The day when Lebron James comes to the Big Apple to breathe life into an organisation mired in hubris and humiliation for the last seven years. Assuming, of course, that LBJ not only decides to leave Cleveland but settles on Manhattan as his destination of choice.

The jury’s still out on what happens next July but the moves Walsh has made since taking over at Madison Square Garden now leave the Knicks with more salary cap flexibility than any other NBA team as the league gears up for the 2010 A-list free agent sweepstakes. In a world of knee-jerk reactions and win-now clamour, Walsh’s patience and willingness to play the long game is refreshing. The less he does, the more I trust him.

Cynics may point out that, from the abject state the Knicks were in after five years of Isiah “Doubt Him” Thomas, Walsh had no choice but to take the long view. That’s a fair point but the subtlety of Walsh’s moves and his refusal to be swayed by the fractious New York media give me reason to be optimistic that, come next summer, crowds at MSG will be in thrall to a re-tooled squad boasting two marquee names.
Think about it, Walsh brings in Mike D’Antoni, a coach 75% of NBA players are on record saying they want to play for. Add to that the pull of the world’s most famous arena and the planet’s most intense media market, and you’ve got a legitimate destination attractive to some, if not all, big name free agents.

Then there’s the resolution of the salary cap issues. Thanks to Isiah, the Knicks roster was chock full of has-beens and chemistry killers considered immovable. Oh really? With little or no fuss, Walsh moved on Zach “Black Hole” Randolph, Jamal Crawford and, unbelievably, Jerome “Big Snax” James each time taking back players whose contracts expire at the end of the 2009 season and freeing up more precious 2010 cap space. Walsh knows, like we all know, that Larry Hughes is terrible – but he can live with it because Hughes will be gone by the summer of 2010.

With the blunt realism of a retired New York cop, Walsh has continually admitted that it will take time for the Knicks to improve. Asking fans to accept two seasons of mediocrity before things improve is a real stretch but Walsh seems to have pulled this off to some degree. While I’m far from convinced native New Yorkers are as willing to accept this as I am, I still prefer Walsh’s pragmatic honesty to the smoke and mirrors of his predecessor. Remember when Isiah and Larry Brown referred to Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury as a backcourt pairing akin to Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe in a desperate attempt to paper over the cracks of their ineptitude? Well, I found that far more offensive than being told it would take a year or two for things to get better under Walsh and D’Antoni.

The recent re-signing of David Lee and Nate Robinson offers a window into Walsh’s motivational powers. I’ll admit the league’s current financial climate played a part in helping the Knicks keep their two most popular players but take a closer look at the deals and consider this. Both players were offered terms in excess of their qualifying offers, a show of respect to D-Lee and Nate that might help persuade them re-sign again next summer. Both players were also offered $1m bonuses if the Knicks reach the play-offs. Here Walsh is incentivising his stars to become leaders in the locker room, pushing them to develop closer ties with the team.

I’m not going to pretend that Walsh has been 100% with all the decisions he has made. You could point to the Stephon Marbury buy-out saga last year and point out that Walsh could have diffused the situation by giving Steph all his money and sending him home. Walsh’s initial plan to showcase Marbury in the hope of generating a trade was sound before D’Antoni complicated things by benching the star. Even so, allowing the saga to drag on and on divided fans and humiliated Marbury. Just think how much more Vaseline he could have eaten online if Walsh had bought him out prior to the start of the 2008/09 season.

The challenges for Donnie Walsh will continue into the new season. Somehow he needs to find a way of getting rid of Eddy Curry and Jared ‘Mr Fumbles’ Jeffries to maximise cap space for next season. He must also find a way of getting this Knicks team to 40 wins as it’s hard to envisage the likes of D-Wade, LBJ and Amare lining up for the honour of playing for a bottom-feeding 30-win team.

Walsh must surely be aware that all the work he’s done since arriving at the Garden stands or falls on who he signs next summer. If the pay-off for two seasons of suffering is Lebron, he’ll be a hero. If the big names stay put and the cap room is used to sign ball-hogs or has-beens, he’ll feel the sting from fans and media alike. But, based on what he’s done so far, there’s something about Walsh that makes me think he has the situation under control and that the good times at the Garden are just 274 short days days away.

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