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Knicks remain a play-off team despite losing streak

Over last the decade, six successive losses, not to mention 12 defeats in the last 18 games, would have been enough to send Knicks fans into fits of distress.

Usually losing runs, particularly mid-season ones, have been emblematic of the dysfunction at the core of the organisation. Not only that, they’ve usually triggered the panic moves that saddled us with, for example, the corpse of Steve Francis at huge financial costs.

This season, however, things are little bit different.

Six of these 12 defeats have come against the league’s best teams (the Lakers, Heat, Magic and Spurs). None of them have been blowouts. Only two, the home losses to Sacramento and Phoenix, count as unacceptable. Only against the Kings have they failed to put forth the effort that fans expect. In this five-week period, the toughest stretch the Knicks face all season, Mike D’Antoni’s men have beat San Antonio and Chicago at home and got the better of Portland on the road.

So what’s the lesson here? For me, it’s that the recent spurt of losses has basically served to calibrate what our expectations should be.

The temptation with a rebuilt team that starts to enjoy some success is to anoint them the rising stars of the league. After all, Boston went from the basement of the Atlantic Division to the title in one year, right? But the overhaul of the Knicks roster last summer wasn’t even close to the reconstruction that happened in Boston. The Celtics ended up with three superstars and a rising star in Rajan Rondo. The Knicks added one all star in Amare Stoudemire and an relatively unheralded point guard in Ryamond Felton who has turned out to be better than anyone could have hoped.

In terms of on-court artillery, the Knicks had enough to become a play-off team, not a title contender. They had teething problems to start, a win streak that garnered national attention soon after and now, as we pass the halfway mark of the season, a string of defeats.

Over 43 games, the ups and downs of back-to-backs, road trips, injuries and developing chemistry level out and show, record-wise, where the Knicks stand. They are – and indeed have been for some time – the sixth best team in the east. They will make the play-offs. Unless the roster undergoes a Melo-dramatic change, they’ll get bounced by a superior team in the first round.

Is that enough? For now, I say it is. And not just because of where this team has languished for such a long time.

Sure, a winning season and a play-off spot will be more than welcome after the interminable failures of the Dolan/Thomas years. But that’s not the main thing here. And that’s because there’s something else Knicks fans can take from the current losing run.

It’s not losing that’s always the problem, it’s how you lose. And while D’Antoni’s reliance on playing his starters up to 40 minutes a night has arguably left his key men gassed and pining for the all star break, at no point has this team looked disinterested or like they’ve surrendered as the losses have begun to pile up.

This week’s games have been a good illustration. Falling by 15 points to Houston to start a tough road trip wasn’t ideal but, two nights later, facing the league’s best team in San Antonio, the Knicks refused to fold, coming back into the game time and again before falling in the final minutes.

One night later, a solid Knicks road performance was rendered fruitless thanks to a Kevin Durant buzzer beater. Once again, the desire to fight and the refusal to mail it in were on show. Sure, Durant’s three denied them overtime. But he’s a top three player in this league. He’s supposed to win games like that. Whether he should have had the opportunity to put the game away is another question. New York’s failure to find buckets in the final minutes is what really cost them this game.

Like I said, it’s how you lose. There’s no quit in this team. And it’s been a long time since Knicks fans could say that.
 
The toughness of Stoudemire and Felton flows through this team. No longer are the Knicks collectively willing to accept losing. Getting beat should never be about lack of effort. But there are superior teams in this league. Over the last five weeks, the Knicks have had to learn to take their lumps.

When will the winning habit return? Well, having a home game against a Washington team with zero road wins all season should certainly help.

The Knicks current slump shouldn’t blind fans to the progress this team has made. No, they’re nowhere near the finished article. Yes, the defence isn’t anywhere near good enough. But the facts are these. The Knicks remain on pace for a 44-win season despite having been through their hardest stretch of games. This team has leadership, talent and toughness to ensure it reaches this mark, something no Knick team has managed since 2001/2. Despite recent setbacks, they remain on the right track. Keep the faith.

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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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