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First thoughts on the new look New York Knicks

A new roster, a legitimate franchise player, a core of exciting young players and finally freedom from salary cap hell. On paper, there’s a hell of a lot to look forward to about the New York Knicks in the 2010/11 NBA season.

So, after a basketball-free summer, New York’s presence on the NBA Europe Live tour provided an ideal opportunity for a first look at the new look Knickerbockers as they took their first tentative steps in pre-season match-ups against Olimpia Milano and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

First things first, these two games were the first time the Knicks’ revamped roster had played together in front of a crowd. There was more sloppy play than cohesive play. There were a lot of turnovers. There’s no point dwelling on these things – they are to be expected. Besides, there was a lot more on show in these Knicks outings that provide clues as to what we can expect once the regular season starts.

There’s no better place to start than with Amare, the 100 million dollar man. Stoudemire was in dominant form in the Knicks 125-112 victory over Milano, pouring in 32 points in 28 minutes and getting to the line 13 times. He repeatedly got to the rim and finished after being fouled.

It was a different story against Minnesota. Against tougher opponents, Amare didn’t assert himself on the game. That said, he only played 20 minutes as Mike D’Antoni gave playing time to every member of his squad.

In both games, Stoudemire made some showy defensive plays, swiftly getting into passing lanes to make steals. He also made some telling passes from the high post to players cutting for easy hoops.

The only passive area of Amare’s game was his rebounding, something he was regularly criticised for during his career in Phoenix. How he only managed to pull down two rebounds in 20 minutes against the Timberwolves is a mystery – with his athleticism and strength he should be pulling down at least 10 boards a game.

While Amare’s presence on the roster will more than make up for the scoring lost in the departure of David Lee, the evidence from the Minnesota game suggests D’Antoni has no way of replacing D-Lee’s rebounding.

You’d think that the combined size and length of Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Rony Turiaf and Timofey Mozgov would be enough to fill that void. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. The Knicks were outrebounded 66-37 by the Timberwolves and, at one point in the fourth quarter, were being outscored 24-2 in second chance points.

Simply put, the likes of Knicks reject Darko Milicic and the ever-improving Kevin Love abused Amare and co on the glass. On this evidence, these four guys can’t, or won’t, replicate D-Lee’s hustle, determination and instinct for the ball – his desire to do the dirty work.

However, one thing the Knicks new core of big men can definitely do is block shots. Last season, you’d have had to wait approximately five quarters of basketball to see the Knicks block five shots. Now with Turiaf, Mozgov and Randolph on board and Danilo Gallinari chipping in, you’re likely to see five blocks in any given quarter. There’ll be no shortage of block parties at Madison Square Garden this year.

On the other side of the ball, these big guys all show good passing ability, albeit somewhat inconsistently at this stage of proceedings. One of the best Knicks plays against Minnesota came when Randolph found a cutting Bill Walker on the baseline with a sweet bounce pass. Before they fell in love with the jumper in the third quarter of the Paris loss, the Knicks had 16 assists on 22 made field goals.

The final point to make about the Knicks new core of big men relates to Mozgov. This is slightly harsh criticism based on two meaningless games but the seven-foot Russian picks up fouls so easily that it appears he will struggle to stay on the floor in regular season play. Mozgov seems unable to avoid setting moving screens but can’t get his feet to move at more important times. In Paris, he fouled out in 15 minutes.

The performances of the Knicks’ other major free agent signing Raymond Felton in Europe were curiously understated. The former Bobcat looks solid, calm and tough defensively and, even if his stats against the T’Wolves certainly didn’t reflect it, he’s so, so, so much better than Chris Duhon.

I always felt Duhon struggled to think for himself on the court. At times it seemed like if he was told to distribute he would do that exclusively and not shoot. If he was told to score, he’d do that and his passing game would disappear. He couldn’t think for himself.

Felton appears to have an instinct for what to do and when to do it. I felt he played quietly within himself in this week’s games, bedding himself in with a new system and new teammates. However, when the Knicks struggled for a basket, he sensed this and barrelled into the lane to score at the rim. He’ll need to do this much more come the regular season.

Felton had a poor game against Minnesota and the effect of his sub-par performance on the team’s overall play was shown when Toney Douglas checked in. The team’s overall energy raised about 10 notches as the young guard drained a three then forced a turnover on the very next play.

Assuming Felton beds in, Douglas may end up as the “instant offence” bench guy this year. Having said that, rumours persist that Coach D’Antoni likes the defensive intensity of a Felton/Douglas backcourt partnership. We shall see.

Another facet of Donnie Walsh’s off-season moves was to load the roster with shooting. The idea was to back up Gallo’s three-point prowess with bench guys like Roger Mason, Andy Rautins and Landry Fields.

That’s fine in theory, but the downside of this is creating an environment where everyone falls in love with the outside shot. It happened over and over again last season. Against Minnesota, it happened again. The Knicks shot 9 for 31 from beyond the arc and on occasions in the third and fourth quarters, didn’t look like they knew where the next bucket was coming from.

Taking 30 threes in a pre-season game is nothing short of lazy, especially when you have a core of players able, if not willing, to take the ball to the rack. Although Amare and Randolph got to the line relatively frequently against Milano, they were unable to repeat this against Minnesota.

No-one needs to see Randolph jacking up long twos, let alone the air ball threes he launched when he first got on the court in Milan. Or, as @Coach_D_AntNOTi noted on Twitter, “Randolph’s shot selection reminds me of Lamar Odom’s chick selection. #terrible”.

The other Knicks offender in this area is Gallinari. Time after time we hear about how he’s concentrating on faking the three and driving to the hoop. Two hours later you look at the box score and he’s taken 80% of his shots from three-point land. Take it to the hoop, Gallo!

Neither of this week’s pre-season games provides clear answers to how the Knicks will go this season. As I’ve said, it’s far too early to judge this team. But we do know the 2010/11 Knicks are a younger, more athletic team with superior depth to any MSG roster in recent times.

D’Antoni is no longer handicapped by expiring contracts masquerading as basketball players. He has the players to implement his methods. Because of this, he also has no excuses. I like this Knicks roster and I think might end up loving it when they get used to playing with each other. The new season promises much. And it’s only 19 short days away.

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Knicks take small steps forward as Lebron slips away

At least we know now. After two years of cap-clearing and mediocre performances, the Knicks failed to hit the home run in the Lebron James sweepstakes. The Chosen One will head to South Beach, tarnished reputation in hand, after the bloated hubris of his multimedia campaign on Twitter, online and on ESPN.

Don’t mistake these words for bitterness. Like every Knicks, fan I would have loved Lebron to come to Madison Square Garden. And while it sounds cruel, I couldn’t care less about his supposed betrayal of his hometown fans. Aside from some recent playoff games, the man played his heart out in Cleveland and, after seven years of service, had every right to make the decision he made.

Landing Lebron would have been akin to hitting a big fly out of the park but, remember, there’s more than one way to round the bases. Donnie Walsh’s Plan B is certainly less spectacular than his Plan A but there’s no doubt the addition of Amare Stoudemire, the trade (however painful to accept) of David Lee and the soon-to-be announced addition of a serviceable point guard in Raymond Felton make the Knicks a better team.

It’s just that Walsh has lined a single rather than launched a franchise-changing home run out of the ball park. Remember too that the Knicks’ salary cap woes are a thing of the past. Walsh now has the financial flexibility to make more moves down the line. That might mean a mid-season arrival in exchange for Eddy Curry’s expiring contract. It might even mean the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, a player truly suited to playing in NYC, in 12 months time.

The Knicks decision to fire the first free agency salvo by locking up Amare Stoudemire to a five-year $99 million contract was an impressively bold, if risky, move. Getting Amare to commit to the franchise was a move partly designed to prove to other free agents, particularly Lebron, that the Knicks were serious. After all, Lebron had reportedly lobbied Cleveland for the Phoenix power forward to join him at the trade deadline last season, a request that owner Dan Gilbert was unable to accommodate.

But Amare is far more than mere Lebron-bait. He was arguably the league’s most dominant big man in the second half of last season. Whether he flipped a switch or merely decided to up his level of play to prove he was worth a max deal is immaterial. He is an asset to any team and knows Mike D’Antoni’s system well. The downside? He rebounds sporadically and plays minimal defence. Scaremongers will also point to his injury history but his rebuilt knee and dodgy eye didn’t seem to bother him as he and Steve Nash propelled the Suns to the Western Conference finals, did they?

Most importantly, Stoudemire has the grapefruits to play in New York City. According to those in Phoenix with understanding of his personal history, the travails of the New York media are nothing compared to what the big man has experienced in his life. Give me a player willing to openly embrace a new city over a superstar willing to hold a country to ransom any day of the week.

Lebron’s decision to join the Miami Heat indirectly meant that Knicks fans were forced to say goodbye to David Lee. With no Lebron to show for his efforts, Donnie Walsh went to Plan B and signed-and-traded the Knicks’ most tradeable asset to the Golden State Warriors for Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azuibuke. There’s no doubt Lee will be missed. With the Knicks in almost perpetual turmoil, he elevated himself from a rebounding rookie role player to 20/10 All Star despite being forced to play out of position most of the time. He’s ultimately become a victim of Isiah Thomas’ cap mismanagement. While I will miss him, I really like the trade.

The key prize in the Lee trade is Randolph. He is long, athletic and there’s no limit on how effective he can be. He’s also a natural fit for the D’Antoni system. In April 2009, I was in Oakland to watch him dominate in a Warriors victory over the New Orleans Hornets. The downside? Like Stoudemire, he has a reputation for being injury prone. He also doesn’t have much of a post game. But the positives undoubtedly outweigh the negatives, especially when you add Turiaf’s shot blocking and Azuibuke’s defence.

As things stand, the Knicks will boast a massive frontcourt next season. With the Golden State three joining Amare, Danilo Gallinari, the Earl of Barron and the freshly acquired Jerome Jordan, Lee’s rebounds shouldn’t be missed and the interior defence should improve.

The final piece of Walsh’s free agency puzzle appears to be the acquisition of Charlotte Bobcats point guard Raymond Felton. Unimpressed with Charlotte’s overtures last summer, Felton, now a free agent, has found a ready suitor in the Knicks, agreeing a three-year $25 million deal expected to be finalised today. Felton occupies the middle tier of NBA point guards. He’s no Nash, Paul or Williams but he’s likely to be a more consistent player than Luke Ridnour, his competition for a spot on the Knicks roster. With Felton in place and Toney Douglas backing him up, the Knicks backcourt suddenly looks a lot tougher than it has been in recent years. The only issue may be outside shooting but Douglas showed improvement from beyond the arc when he made his late-season surge.

Felton, Douglas and Wilson Chandler will be joined in the backcourt by rookie guard Andy Rautins. The Canadian second round draft pick is considered a top long-range shooter. He made 282 threes in his last college season alone. But while Rautins undoubtedly will suit the Knicks offence, his selection ahead of New York native Lance Stephenson did raise some questions.

If there’s ever a right time to give your fan base a boost by drafting a local guy who might be a bit of a risky pick, that time is most likely to be in the middle of the second round. Yes, Stephenson, who like Stephon Marbury attended Lincoln High School in Brookyln, was described as a headcase after being anointed as a high school phenom. But, in addition to a stellar year at the University of Cincinnati, he also lost 30 pounds and was reportedly jumping out of the gym during draft workouts. He even thought the Knicks would draft him.

Why not take the chance? It was the 39th pick, Donnie, no-one would’ve complained if it didn’t work out! Can you imagine the scenes in the Garden if, as a Knick, Stephenson could have repeated his recent college form in the NBA? Now we’ll never know.

Thanks to free agency, the draft and sign-and-trades, next year’s Knicks roster has suddenly taken shape. There’s no point dwelling on Lebron or offering grades every time Walsh and D’Antoni make a move (I’m looking at you Berman!). There was only going to one winner of the James sweepstakes. It was key that the teams left disappointed still found ways to make progress.

The Knicks and Bulls have done this. To my mind, the Nets and the Clippers have not. Next season there will be one dominant team in the East and they won’t be wearing blue and orange. But the moves Walsh has made leave the Knicks as realistic contenders for the sixth, seventh or eighth seeds. And if they can achieve that, acquiring Melo, Tony Parker or Chris Paul in 2011 will be that much easier.

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In position for Donnie Walsh to deliver: Knicks season on the sofa

As the New York Knicks meandered through the final week of another 50+ loss season, I had the pleasure of heading to the States. No basketball for me on this trip. I’m in San Francisco tieing the knot with the Sports Lass (who I guess I should now refer to as Mrs Sports Bloke). We were supposed to head home to England tomorrow but, thanks to an Icelandic volcano and some cancelled flights, are now stuck on the Left Coast until the end of the month. This is a not inexpensive hassle but it does at least give me some time to reflect on the dregs of the Knicks’ season and look forward to what is now a make or break summer for Donnie Walsh.

Two wins and four losses over their final six games meant the Knicks finished 29-53 for the season. The only real bright spots here came in the form of a surprising 104-101 win over the Boston Celtics – in which Danilo Gallinari topped 30 points and flukily banked in a three pointer to seal the win – and a 40-point fourth quarter rally against the Washington Wizards that resulted in an improbable comeback win. In between times, defeats to Miami and Orlando were almost as predictable as the stuttering fourth quarter that cost the team a win in Indiana and the insipid defenceless display in the season finale at Toronto.

But at least this unforgiving season is finally all done and the re-building can begin in earnest. Here’s what we can say for certain: the days of Al Harrington, Chris Duhon, Jonathan Bender and Eddie House as Knicks are over. Sergio Rodriguez, JR Giddens and Tracy McGrady will almost definitely join them looking for work. With next year’s salary cap now announced at a higher-than-expected 56 million dollars and only Gallo, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and the execrable Eddy Curry still on the books, Donnie Walsh has 34 million dollars to spend. And you can trust that he will spend it wisely.

The moves Walsh could potentially make have already been analysed to death. But whether you believe a dream team free agent bonanza of Lebron James and Chris Bosh is imminent or a pipe dream, the fact remains that Walsh has delivered on his promise to get the Knicks to a fiscal position where they become contenders again. The Celtics won 24 games the season before they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and went on to win the title. Things change quickly in the NBA. The true curse of Isiah Thomas’ tenure at the helm was that his awful decisions ensured the Knicks were never in the financial position to improve their circumstances. Now, thanks to Donnie, they are in the conversation for the first time in years.

There’s no point second guessing what Walsh will do this summer. The man has an alphabet of plans he can utilise. He also has the ability and the contacts to keep people off the scent. Did you honestly see the Zach Randolph or Jamal Crawford trades coming before Wlash pulled the trigger? By explaining his plan, sticking to it and delivering on what he promised (to date), Walsh has earned, at least to my mind, the trust of the Garden faithful. People scoffed when he said he’d create room for two max free agents by trading Jared “Mr Intangible” Jeffries. Walsh pulled it off, albeit with a trade that potentially wrecks his prospects in future drafts. He even got rid of Jerome “Big Snax” James, whose acquisition was the symbolic nadir of Thomas’ reign. You have to believe, now he’s put the team in a position to turn the corner, that Donnie will deliver a drastically improved roster mext term.

I don’t believe Lebron or Wade will come to New York. I think Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh might be a more realistic aim. Even if that fails, grabbing Marcus Camby and keeping David Lee for the front court and using what’s left to get a decent point guard for Douglas to back-up will surely be a dramatic improvement on what we’ve watched for the last two years. The potential addition of Camby intrigues me. I’ve just watched him dominate the boards and the paint in Portland’s playoff win in Phoenix. His rebounding and blocking abilities would compensate for Lee’s absent defence  and the pair would surely work well together. There’s plenty of NBA power forwards who play no D but are bailed out by the defensive dominance of their center. Randolph and Marc Gasol in Memphis spring immediately to mind. And who’s to say Lee won’t dramatically improve his defence over the summer as he did with his offensive game last off-season? Despite recently referring to himself in the third person in an interview, the man has heart, has flourished in New York, has elevated him game and wants to be part of the Knicks’ turnaround. For me, he deserves a contract.

Based on the evidence of season’s last few weeks, Bill Walker and The Earl of Barron both deserve low cost bench spots next year. Barron seems athletic enough to play in Mike D’Antoni’s offence and, more importantly, seemed hell-bent on proving his worth after rotting in the D-League for a season. He’s be a viable back-up for someone like Camby. Walker is impressively athletic and contributes at both ends of the floor. After his original stock in the draft was wrecked by injury, he possesses a similar desire to show what he can do. Give me this attitude of that of a money-hungry mediocre veteran (yes, Mr Harrington, I’m referring to you) any day of the week. New York has long been a home to the league’s waifs and strays. From CBA bag boys (Starks) to unwanted lunatics (Spree), the Garden has always allowed previously unheralded players to become stars or perceived malcontents to attain redemption.

So, yes, the worst is over. Aside from Eddy Curry and Utah’s draft pick, the wretched vestiges of Isiah’s reign are gone. This season, at times truly awful to witness, is finally done and the Knicks are in position to finally turn the corner. In Donnie Walsh, they have the man who will make it happen. For Mike D’Antoni, the time for excuses is over now he’ll have the necessary talent at his disposal. And while it’s far too early for the Garden faithful to start dreaming of long play-off runs and the like, it’s a guarantee that the time is approaching where we can hold our heads high and, whisper it, dare to dream just a little.

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Finally, the Knicks win in the west – Season on the sofa week 23 review

God bless the Los Angeles Clippers. They are as reliable in their incompetence as Tim Lincecum is with a fastball. Be honest, if you had lost the first four games of a Western Conference road trip and you knew that even a performance for the ages from your best player wasn’t good enough to defeat a team as lowly as the Golden State Warriors, is there another team you’d rather play than the Clippers on the last game of the trip to ensure you at least returned home with one win in your pocket?

Of course not. And, the Clippers being the Clippers, the team no longer coached by Mike “Squinty” Dunleavy duly obliged, falling to the Knicks 113-107 just hours after an earthquake shook downtown Los Angeles. David Lee led the way with 29 points and 10 boards and, for once, was ably assisted by Al Harrington who, with Tracy McGrady resting his ever-ailing sore left knee, made the most of a start with a 26 point return. In a shock reversal of his efforts against the Clippers last season where he virtually handed two Ws to the Clips by drawing a pair of ludicrous technical fouls, Harrington made the difference down the stretch, getting the better of his old running mate Baron Davis and scoring six points (four from the line) in the final 72 seconds to close out the game.

The other noteworthy aspects of this match-up came primarily from the bench. Firstly, the debut of Earl Barron, the seven-foot center signed from the D League on a 10-day deal, gave the Knicks a real boost with 10 points and six rebounds in a 17-minute stint. Sergio Rodriguez dealt out 10 dimes in 22 minutes and Toney Douglas, nonsensically supplanted in the starting line-up by Chris Duhon, shot 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. While the Clippers starters got the better of the Knicks’ first five in the game’s opening exchanges, D’Antoni’s second string, led by Douglas and Rodriguez, brought them back into the game and then into the lead. That, and the first consistent bursts of energy and defence seen on this current road trip, helped the Knicks get over the line.

So, a predictably dire road trip ended on a meaningless high. Good job the degree of difficulty in terms of opponents lessened as the five-game swing went on. Having opened the trip with a shellacking in Phoenix (see last week’s column), D’Antoni and his charges succeeded in lowering expectations to record depths for their visits to Utah and Portland. Both Knicks performances in these games fell into the “stop me if you’ve heard this one before” category.

Against the Jazz, the Knicks fell behind early, giving up 44 points on 85% (YES, EIGHTY-FIVE PER CENT!) shooting – and virtually no defence – in the opening quarter, before rallying back to parity near the end of the third. An ice-cold fourth quarter in which a malfunctioning Knicks offence managed a paltry 11 points sealed the deal in Utah’s favour. No execution down the stretch equals no victory. Yet again.

Facing the Blazers, the Knicks produced the all-too familiar 48 heartless, effortless, distracted minutes on their way to a 118-90 beatdown. As Mike D’Antoni noted, the game started badly at the opening top and “went downhill from there”. The Knicks were manhandled on the boards, out-rebounded 50 to 30. They managed just four fast break points all night. The win clinched a playoff spot for Portland. The loss had Knicks fans reaching for the sick bucket.

How badly to you have to play to lose a game in which one of your players records the NBA’s first 30-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist game in 34 years? Awfully, if the opponent in question is the Golden State Warriors. As is customary when the Knicks play the Warriors, the Oakland hoops police ensured no defence was allowed within five miles of the Oracle Arena and the scoreboard rattled around accordingly. After the Portland debacle, D’Antoni revealed he had appealed to the “competitiveness and pride” of his players. The resulting 128-117 loss suggested that only David Lee was listening.

With his jump shot firing and his pick and roll game restored thanks to the otherwise unwelcome re-introduction of Chris Duhon, Lee scored 37 points, hauled down 20 rebounds and dished out 10 assists. It was the first 30/20/10 return in an NBA game since Kareem Abdul Jabbar completed the feat in March 1976. Lee played 46 minutes, including late fourth quarter garbage time when the game was already lost but that should not diminish his effort.

The one question is does raise is way D’Antoni had Lee out there at all. Could one reading of this be that the Knicks are quietly putting Lee in the shop window for use in a sign and trade this summer? Unlike with Nate, Jordan Hill and, more recently T-Mac, the coach appears to appreciate Lee’s play and, if Donnie Walsh’s plan for next season doesn’t include the former Florida Gator, wants him to land in a good spot.

So how was Lee’s historic effort neutralised? A total absence of defensive effort led to Anthony Morrow and Reggie Williams tormenting the Knicks with 35 and 23 points respectively. On the other side of the ball, a lack of interior toughness saw Ronny Turiaf transform into the second coming of Dwight Howard, making five rejections in a 15-minute block party. The Warriors also forced 22 turnovers while giving up only 10. Their victory moved coach Don Nelson within one game of equalling Lenny Wilkens record total of 1,332 NBA wins.

As if such things needed confirmation, the Knicks one and four Western conference swing reeked of the resignation that comes from a team eliminated from the playoff picture with players who know the team will be blown up in the summer. Everyone know the big picture with the Knicks but, as I’ve said at various points this season, knowing things will eventually get better does not provide in the aftermatch of dispirited performances and bad defeats. The only bright spot this season haas been the play of David Lee. The irony is that it seems no matter how hard he continues to play, his future as a Knick looks as bleak as those of the teammates who consistently failed to match the standards he sets.

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Two steps forward, three steps back: Knicks season on the sofa week 22 review

With just two games, as Fighting Talk legend Greg Brady would say, on the docket, the last seven days have been relatively short on excitement in Knick-land. As has become customary this season, momentum built in an excellent, if ultimately fortunate home win over the Denver Nuggets was halted almost immediately by a heavy road loss to the Phoenix Suns.

As this stuttering season draws to its conclusion, the real stars of the year once again stood tall. I’m not talking about David Lee, Danilo Gallinari or the rising Toney Douglas. I’m referring to the Madison Square Garden crowd. Against Denver, in another ultimately meaningless game, the Garden crowd created yet another play-off like atmosphere as the Knicks overcame 36 points from the NBA’s purest scorer Carmelo Anthony to pull out an unlikely 109-104 win.

Hours after going on the record with his desire to regularly guard the opposition’s best player, Gallinari backed up his bravado as his third quarter scoring burst allowed the Knicks to take control of proceedings. Gallo’s duel with Melo was the feature of the game. The pair traded huge shots, jawed at each other and ended the game with obvious mutual respect. Anthony’s 36 points suggested he won their individual battle, but the final score proved The Rooster won the war.

If David Lee ever decides to quit basketball, he may find alternative employment in legal circles. With under three minutes left, the Knicks all star was called for a blocking foul, his sixth of the game. Somehow, he was able to convince the officials his feet were outside the restricted area under the basket. He wasn’t. But the officials believed him and overturned the call. It was a crucial turning point in the game. Had Lee fouled out, a characteristic final minute meltdown may have ensued as the Nuggets tightened the screw. Lee remained on the court and marshalled the Knicks to the win.

While Gallo vs Melo stole the headlines, rookie Toney Douglas again demonstrated why he is a 2010/11 keeper. He had three fouls and no points at the half but, as is becoming customary, did not let his head drop. Douglas bounced back with gusto in the second half, pouring in 16 points and handing out seven assists. Once again he overcame individual problems to play a key role in a team win.

Any satisfaction Mike D’Antoni took from the Denver victory was summarily erased by his former players when the Knicks travelled to Phoenix for the first match-up of a five game Western conference road trip. It was a brutal night as Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and company took revenge for the shellacking they received at Madison Square Garden last December.

The Suns started off with a 14-3 burst that effectively ended the game as a contest. The Suns scored 30+ points in every quarter and outscored their opponents by 10+ points in three of the four stanzas. The Knicks mailed it in to such an extent that Channing Frye, the former Knick widely regarded as the softest player in the league after Eddy Curry, pulled down 11 rebounds, Nash and STAT only had to play for 27 minutes and Goran Dragic dished out 10 assists. The Suns were allowed to shoot 55% from the floor and outrebounded New York 56 to 38.

The sadness in a performance as poor as this is that it’s not even surprising. The game was a carbon copy of the week road effort against the Celtics a couple of weeks ago. We know the Knicks are undersized and over-matched by the league’s better team but surrendering by 36 points when you’re facing four more touch road games in quick succession is unacceptable.

With Utah and Portland up next, it’s hard to see how D’Antoni will lift his team to a level approaching respectable effort. The only meagre positive for these games is that the Knicks trademark inconsistency means they might raise their game at the time we least expect it. At least this Friday’s game at the equally defence-less Golden State should be a rollicking, entertaining score-fest for people of all ages to enjoy.

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Toney Douglas makes his point: Knicks season on the sofa week 21 review

With a playoff berth well beyond the the New York Knicks, coach Mike D’Antoni has finally bestowed starter’s minutes upon rookie point guard Toney Douglas. The former Florida State guard has taken his chance, undergoing an almost instant transformation from youthful benchwarmer to 2010 keeper.

Despite his inexperience, Douglas has brought impressive levels of poise, responsibility, defensive intensity and athleticism since being named as a starter for the monster win over Dallas. In his last four games, he has scored 20+ points three times, been instrumental in two wins over the ailing Philadelphia 76ers and, after committing three crucial turnovers down the stretch against the Houston Rockets, also learned a quick lesson that life in the NBA isn’t as easy as it first looked.

One of the defining themes in the NBA this year has been the emergence of impressive young point guards. Douglas, drafted 29th last summer, hasn’t yet done enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry and Darren Collison but, since unglueing himself from the Knicks bench, has shown he has what it takes to be successful in this league.

Highly touted for his committment to defence, Douglas’ recent performances have showcased a surprisingly consistent three-point shot, a desire to drive to the hoop and, most importantly for this rudderless Knicks roster, the desire to take responsibility at the end of a game.

In Philadelphia on March 15, Douglas sparked a second half rally, pouring in 20 points and adding seven assists as the Knicks turned a 55-44 half-time deficit into a 94-84 victory. Four nights later, he skewered the Sixers again, scoring 14 of his 22 points and forcing crucial tunrovers in the fourth quarter to propel a Knicks team missing Wilson Chandler and David Lee to a stirring 92-88 comeback win. At one point, he scored 13 consecutive points, a feat all the more impressive given he was playing with five fouls.

Douglas’ efforts in the second Philly game energised the Garden crowd. Just like against the Hawks a week ago, Knick heart and hustle created an atmosphere more reminiscent of a playoff game than an ultimately meaningless late season match-up. On both occasions, the fans and Madison Square Garden showed that they are the biggest reason an all-star free agent would come to play in New York. The desire, no, need of the MSG faithful to see winning basketball is such that they will blow the roof off even for a pointless game. Imagine what a playoff atmosphere in the Garden would be like. Donnie Walsh should send tapes of the Hawks and 76ers games to Lebron, Bosh and Wade immediately.

But back to the point in hand. If TD23 thought this NBA lark comes easily, he was given a rude awakening in a Sunday matinee loss to the Houston Rockets. After three excellent quarters, Douglas again took responsibility down the stretch only this time, thanks to some rookie mistakes and the wily play of former Knick Jared Jeffries, ended up as the goat despite shooting 60% from beyond the arc and scoring a career-high 26 points.

Desperate to respond to a late seven point burst from the ice-cold Aaron Brooks, Douglas was called for two charging fouls on Jeffries and then compounded his errors by turning the ball over a third time. There was no way back. That said, the outcome of this game should not detract from Douglas’ excellent play throughout the week. He will undoubtedly learn from the mistakes he made against the Rockets. What’s more important is, after the immaturity of Nate and the woeful play of Chris Duhon, in Douglas the Knicks now have a keeper who can run this team in 2010/11 and beyond.

It might have even been fitting that Houston edged this encounter as it gave Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill the last laugh after they were sacrificed for McGrady and cap space last month. Both had good outings. Rookie Hill, who was called out by D’Antoni before the game, responded with a career-high 13 points as the Rockets won the bench-scoring battle 52-13. In addition to bolstering his league-leading stat for taking charges, Jeffries also made two crucial blocks in the final four minutes. Although he has been supplanted by Hill in the Rockets rotation, can there be any better place for the man I used to call Mr Intangible than this no-star all-star Houston roster?

As Hill and Jeffries shone against their old team, Tracy McGrady produced a solid display against his former franchise, possibly his best all-round display since becoming a Knick. T-Mac stuffed the stat sheet with 15 points, seven boards, five assists, two steals and two blocks in 33 minutes. It was a marked improvement on his two previous games where he had gone 0 for 7 (vs Philly) and 4 for 12 in the 109-97 beatdown against the Boston Celtics. McGrady continues to look like a man who knows the game inside out but is consistently let down by his body. He sees the right passes and makes smart defensive decisions but the promise of him getting consistently stronger is not becoming a reality. The slightest clash of legs or knees leave him limping, ineffective and unable to make shots. Despite this, he remains a tantalising cut-price gamble for next season but the jury’s still out on whether he’ll be back.

The rise of Toney Douglas has also rejuvenated other parts of the Knicks roster. Douglas appears to have developed a nice understanding with Danilo Gallinari that has helped the Rooster emerge from a series of disappointing performances. Gallo’s three-ball accuracy has returned but, more importantly, he now appears willing to mix up his game by driving to the hoop to draw contact. Eleven of Gallinari’s 25 points against Philly came at the line. He shot nine more free throws against Houston. Rather than loiter behind the arc, Gallinari now offers a more balanced scoring threat.

Bill Walker has had a couple of good games in recent weeks. This week, his fellow ex-Celtic JR Giddens got his first minutes as a Knick. Although Giddens is listed at six feet five inches, he looks and plays bigger, ripping down nine rebounds and scoring 10 points in 21 minutes against Philly. Neither Walker or Giddens are good enough to lead a team but, when you add their athleticism to that of Douglas, the Knicks look impressively fast. It’s light years away from the plodding incompetence of Duhon and the me-first shot selection of Al Harrington. Giddens and Walker might only be minor pieces, but they fit what D’Antoni wants to do and, most importantly, are hungry to play their hearts out now they have an opportunity.

For next season, we know Gallinari, Chandler and now Douglas will play key roles for the Knicks. Not only was the young point guard patient and professional while he waited for this chance, he grasped the opportunity when it came and wrenched every last drop from it. If Douglas can continue this form, the parallels with the ascent of John Starks might not be so fanciful after all.

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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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