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.