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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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When shots drop, the Knicks look top: Knicks season on the sofa week 20 review

Regardless of their numerous shortcomings and the fact that teams from the top, middle and lower tiers of the league have easily exposed these flaws throughout the NBA season, one simple grain of truth about this New York Knicks team remains: when they make shots, they are dangerous and capable of beating anybody – including a team on a 13-game winning streak.

Granted, over the last two months the inconsistent Knicks have been more Hyde  than Jekyll, setting embarrasing records for terrible three point shooting in the process. Yet, in a week where fans feared defeat in all four of the team’s games, the Knicks shot the lights out twice and beat two of the league’s best squads. Better yet, both wins were built on the play of unheralded stars likely to form part of New York’s future.

The Atlanta Hawks must be sick of the sight of the Knicks after losing to them for the third time in four games. 27 points from Danilo Gallinari and 10 for 15 team shooting from downtown were the bedrock of the Knicks win. Despite this, poor execution in the final minutes (yet again) allowed the Hawks to almost eradicate a 10-point deficit down the stretch.

Leading 99-98 in the dying seconds, Toney Douglas committed a potentially game-choking turnover as he dribbled up the court. Former Knicks (and Sixth Man of the Year candidate) Jamal Crawford recovered the ball, drove and fed Josh Smith who went airborne for the winning dunk but was denied by Wilson Chandler’s game-saving block.

The drama didn’t end there as Al Horford gathered the loose ball, fired it at the basket and sunk the shot on a friendly roll. Horford thought he’d won the game but instant replay showed time had expired milli-seconds before the ball left his fingers.

Would Chandler’s athletic defensive play re-invigorate the Knicks’ desire to play strong interior defence for the remainder of the season? Of course not.

Two nights later, the Knicks faced the San Antonio Spurs in the first of three road games against strong South West division opponents. Out-muscled and out-sized inside, Tim Duncan effortlessly cruised to an 18 and 9 night while fellow veteran big man Antonio McDyess had 10 point and 12 rebounds. A resurgent Manu Ginobili drove to the hoop with impunity on his way to a game-high 28 points. The total rebounding numbers told the whole story: 53 to 34 in the Spurs’ favour.

Not that the Knicks gave this one up without a fight. After the Spurs went scoreless for six third quarter minutes, Mike D’Antoni’s men whittled a 15-point lead down to just one. But 83-82 was as close as they would get. Ginobili came back into the game to ice proceedings as the Knicks struggled to execute in the closing minutes.

The really significant aspect of the Spurs defeat was that it was the Knicks’ 42nd of the season. The loss condemned them to a ninth successive losing season, another unwanted franchise record.

Next up came the Memphis Grizzlies who, with the twin towers of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, are a match-up nightmare for the Knicks. The game was effectively over by half-time as the Grizz shot 55% and built up a 29-point lead. Critics of David Lee’s defence were given more ammunition as Gasol executed a fine baseline spin move and dunk that made the Knicks’ all star look weak and leaden-footed.

You’ve heard the story of this game numerous times this season. A sluggish start made worse by no defence and poor shooting from beyond the arc. With the game gone, the Knicks woke up and ate into the lead, pulling within five with a minute left but getting no closer. The final 119-112 scoreline was more respectable than the Knicks’ performance deserved.

Conventional wisdom probably states that the last thing you’d want the night after such a poor performance would be to face the league’s hottest team on their home court after they’d had two days of rest.

But conventional wisdom didn’t take into account this maddening, inconsistent Knicks team would turn up and make 16 or their 30 three-pointers. Against all expectations, the Knicks torched Dallas 128-94 and ended the Mavs’ 13-game winning streak.

The unexpected rout was triggered by Bill Walker and Toney Douglas. Rookie Douglas replaced Sergio Rodgriguez at starting point guard and set the tone of the game. Douglas provides the consistent scoring threat essential to the successful running of the pick and roll. He scored 18 points of 8 for 10 shooting and dished out eight assists to boot. The Knicks looked organised and poised with Douglas at the point and he should start for the remainder of the season.

Walker continued his excellent recent form pouring in a game-high (and personal best) 23 points in just 25 minutes. In his previous outings, he had shown good athleticism and the ability to cut and get to the rim. In Dallas, Walker showed off his perimiter game, making five of his eight three-pointers. The former Celtic looks more and more like a keeper with each game he plays.

While the Knicks young guns stole the show, their veterans also had a say in the outcome. Al Harrington gave his best performance in some time, reining in his spotty outside shooting in favour of driving and spinning to the hoop. Tracy McGrady showed flashes of the brilliance that made him a premier player in the NBA. In one third quarter stretch, he blocked a gimme lay-up and trotted up court to effortlessly drain a three. Minutes later, he backed up Dirk Nowitzki, changed direction in the blink of an eye and swished an arcing mid range jump shot. I remain torn as to whether T-Mac is shot or halfway down the road to becoming his old self (albeit with heavily reduced athleticism). Only time will tell.

While this excellent Knicks performance came out of the blue, the 50-point shellacking they received on their home court at the hands of the Mavericks in late January must have provided some motivation. Hoots of derision poured from the stands in the second half and, for once, they weren’t directed at the players in orange and blue. In this painful and infuriating season, the illogical Knicks can give you reason to smile, typically of their character, at the moment when you least expect it.

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