From Seventh Avenue this game is already different than Sunday night. The passers-by are looking for scalpers and the scalpers aren’t bothering with me because even if I wanted tickets I don’t look like someone who can pay as much as they can get elsewhere. It’s dark. There is a chill in the air. It’s November and the Knicks are playing basketball in New York City. There is a good, potentially great Western Conference team in town, and they’ll be playing meaningful basketball whether the Knicks are willing to or not. This is a home opener.
Walking out from the corridor into the open womb of the arena space there is life everywhere. This isn’t a faux, summer baseball sell-out. The place is crowded. Even the corporate comp ticket crowd is here with their dark suits and blood-red ties and artificially revved up conversations. The row of seats behind me is stocked with these guys and as much as they look to be a constant annoyance their presence bodes well. The Garden, at least for tonight, must be looking like a good idea even if the roster hasn’t yet.
Although the player introductions don’t draw noticeably more applause than they did on a gauzy, cotton-mouthed and temporally confusing Sunday, the more spacious announcement of Isiah’s name elicits more than passing disdain. If these folks care enough to boo this wayward coach and misanthropic executive then on some level they want better. And expect better. And, most importantly, they care.
SG Kleiza (?)
For the second night Curry wins the opening tip-off, getting just higher than Marcus Camby, who was the only Denver player to receive a warm reception. Camby included, there a lot of players on the visiting side with history on this floor and with these fans. Allen Iverson has been whirling around this gym for years, first with Georgetown and then with the Sixers. Born in Brooklyn (though he grew up in Baltimore), Carmelo Anthony made his mark playing for Syracuse against St. Johns and during the Big East Tournament during his lone college season in 2003. Kenyon Martin (surprisingly in street clothes) got his NBA start with the cross-river Nets and managed to be a villain while simultaneously endearing himself to the faithful. His hard-nosed play was everything we valued in a power forward, from DeBuscherre to Oakley. Nene was drafted by the Knicks and immediately traded away in the ill-fated reloading-not-rebuilding disaster that was Antonio McDyess’s stint in orange and blue. And, of course, J.R. Smith was the player whose inglorious stumble (after being gloriously leveled by Mardy Collins) in last year’s lone Garden meeting between these two squads precipitated the ugly brawl that exposed Nate’s headless fearlessness and Melo’s surprising lack of hardness (I’m referring to his running away from Jared “coat rack” Jeffries and not to his sucker-punch of Mardy, or, wait, maybe I’m referring to both).
The first Knicks shot is taken by Q who must be hoping desperately to factor in tonight's decision after getting shut out on just two shots the other night against Minny. He hits a three from the right side and must know that he’s playing for his job. Everyone else does. The next Knicks’s possession ends with an ally-oop from Steph to Curry, who looks even broader than normal standing next to Marcus Camby.
It’s a much better start than the other night for the team and the crowd. Maybe we all had to get that Sunday game out of the way to shake off the cobwebs for tonight.
Q hits a bank-shot and the Knicks have sprinted out to a 7-2 lead. After another Nuggets miss, Q grabs the board (thanks in large part to a textbook box-out) and Randolph connects on the other end. So far, so good. Knicks lead 9-2. Q is in the offense. Both the bigs have gotten potentially tone-setting buckets (Curry/In and Randolph/Out). Steph is distributing and is visibly energized by playing against Iverson.
These two have matched up a lot over the past few years and it is always mesmerizing (which is why a trip down to Philly for Knicks/Sixers tilt back in ’05 when both guys sat with injuries will forever be one of the most disappointing games I’ll ever see). They’re styles of play are so similar yet Marbury is all muscled, lowered shoulders and ink while Iverson is the electrified third rail of urban legend whirring by en route to the basket.
Before the crowd can get too far ahead of itself the team goes ahead and does it for us. Carmelo alternates made baskets with Knicks misses. Camby hits a jumper and then Iverson draws a spontaneous (and deserved) roar from the crowd with a beautiful up-and-under lay-up. The Knicks trail 9-10. The Nuggets have scored 8 straight.
Curry drives pass Nene really too easily and puts the Knicks back up front 11-10 but the longer the game goes on the less the scoring can mask the fault lines in the Knicks game. Forgetting the turnovers that are showing up, defensively they are a sieve. This Kleiza fellow whom I’ve never heard of (and whom the guy behind me who seems to have come to the game straight away from auditioning to be Wall Street Murder Victim #4 in the American Psycho sequel, refers to him as “looking like a Milosevic”) has just thrown down two dunks as the first quarter winds down.
The score at the end of the first quarter of play is 34-37. The Nuggets lead. You can’t win games if you’re going to give up 37 points in a quarter. That said, this track meet is as entertaining as anything I’ve seen in this building in a while and I’m not alone in feeling that way.
The Nuggets come out in the second quarter and slowly build up their lead. Denver is soon up ten because no one can stop Carmelo Anthony. Randolph manages to stem the tide with another amazing individual effort. He rebounds a missed free throw and gets a hoop. We've only shown an ability to stay in the game by scoring points.
Still, the rhythmic “DEE-FENSE” chants echoing to the rafters and the banners of Ewing and Reed are no less real for the fact that team isn’t playing any.
Moments after the Randolph bucket, Marbury misses a driving lay-up but quickly snatches the ball from Nene as he lazily looks up the court to make an outlet pass. Marbury swings the ball to Crawford, who throws it back in to Curry. Curry takes it the basket. The shot goes down! Foul! And, he hits the free throw. The Knicks trail 53-57 with a little over three and a half minutes to go before halftime. They’re back in the game. They’re not coasting to stave off embarrassment. They’re trying to win. On purpose and with purpose.
They trade an Iverson two for a Crawford three and they inch ever closer at 56-59. Denver calls timeout and Crawford is coming to the bench pumping his fists and shaking his head. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him this focused in the first half of a game. Maybe someone told him it’s the fourth quarter. Well, they can deal with explaining all of that at the intermission. Eddy Curry and several key offensive rebounds see the game evened up 60 apiece before the away team builds up a six-point lead going into the half.
It’s decidedly a basketball game between professionals, each with a strong desire to win. And, it involves the Knicks. Yes, the New York Knicks.