Monday, March 17, 2008

"Many an opportunity is lost because a man is out looking for four-leaf clovers."-Anonymous

Knicks lose St. Pat's tilt to Pacers
Nothing lets me know it's finally Saint Patrick's Day quite like walking by an obviously intoxicated group of teenage girls from Westchester, who took their fake IDs and the Metro North down to Manhattan, while they're standing outside of an Irish bar in Midtown around noon flirting with three slightly overweight and verging on middle-aged unskilled laborers wearing green and white Yankees caps. Well, nothing else except for the Knicks wearing their green uniforms.The Knicks were resplendent tonight in their green garb as they took on the Pacers in Indiana before several groups of ten and twelve people at Canseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Seriously, the place was empty.

The Knicks are officially and unequivocally just playing out the string at this point. The towel was finally thrown in last week in Dallas when Wilson Chandler went out to take the opening tip in a game in which the Knicks were entirely unprepared to compete and disinterested in the result. Perhaps they've got the mind on four-leaf clovers? Or perhaps it's the four-figures that they earn for every quarter of basketball they play, regardless of the result?

The game was close even though the team gave up an embarrassing 38 points in the first quarter. In fact, the Knicks would hang tight with the Pacers, who are still alive in the chase (or actually, it's more like a scramble than a chase, which implies forward progress) for the last playoff spot in the East. The Knicks hung tight as they usually do in spite of the fact that Mike Dunleavy again terrorized the famously dysfunctional group from the World's Most Famous Arena. He tied his career-high of 36 points, which he set earlier this year at the Garden. He shot over 50% from the field, made 4 threes, 8 of 9 from the stripe and filled out the rest of the scorecard as well. He moves with a purpose and on angles that nobody on our roster can seem to defend. He can split any two people that we throw at him and seems to be so many mental steps ahead of our defenders that they can rarely even foul him in time to keep him from releasing his shot.

In spite of Dunleavy's repeat performance, the Knicks were still in the game. Zach got his numbers. Jamal did the same and Wilson Chandler did rack up 15 points on 15 shots (with two free throws included). With 6 minutes to go in the fourth quarter Nate Robinson hit a three-pointer to pull the Knicks with 89-93. This game was up for grabs down the stretch. No doubt it. At least for the next 15 seconds. Indiana called a timeout less than a half minute after Nate's shot, Isiah pulled the guard and inserted Wilson Chandler into the lineup, the same substitution that gave away that game against the Hornets at the Garden. Chandler would miss three shots and commit two fouls as the Pacers pulled away for in the final minutes of the game while Nate, Jamal and Zach all sat on the bench.

The lack of effort by the team and the lack of effort by the coach, especially relating to the way that minutes were being doled out led MSG announcer Bob Wischusen to wonder what the team what taking from the nights like this if "to a certain extent, [they] forgo trying to win the game."

The only thing that I think I can say with any certainty that they take from nights like this is a paycheck. And, at this point it seems like for some of them that is enough. Otherwise, how could a player like Jamal Crawford who was having a break-out season and was near the top of the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring as of last month not force his way into tight games down the stretch? And, if these games are going to be turned into glorified summer league games then how come Randolph Morris still can barely get on the floor? With no satisfactory answers to questions like these I don't really know how to answer Wischusen's question other than to say that they most definitely are taking away paychecks. And, little else.

Well, unless they're allowed to keep those green jersey.

A Great Day For Television, Except at Third Base

It was a great Sunday for sports and for television watching. Maybe the best non-NFL-playoffs television Sunday of 2008, at least so far.

The day kicked off (at least at my house) with the Hornets and the Pistons on ABC. Chris Paul dished out 6 assists in the first 6 minutes of the game even though he was spinning around the court on a bum wheel. The Hornets seemed to be playing down hill until Jason Maxiell of the Pistons had that devastating block of a Tyson Chandler dunk attempt. From that point on the crowd in the Palace and their team on the floor were different. That block changed the game for the Pistons. And, they took over from there. At this point, it seems the Pistons are beating one of the West's top teams each week.

That potential NBA Finals matchup was followed by a scintillating tilt between the Lakers and the Rockets, which was running parallel to the Big 12 tournament title game between Kansas and Texas. Which itself was coming on with Georgia versus Arkansas and Wisconsin versus a surprisingly game Illinois team. And, all of these programs segued directly in the NCAA Tournament Selection show on CBS, which in turn was only building towards the Simpsons on FOX, the Black Magic documentary on ESPN and the John Adams two-parter on HBO.

What a Sunday for Television! Great Pro Ball. Great College Ball. The onset of the Madness, the Simpsons and then a full-fledged new movie starring three great actors in Paul Giammati, Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney (who the Better Half does not care for). But right smack in the middle of all of this at 6 pm, is the Knicks game. And they're playing the Hawks. In Atlanta. Ouch. If the rest of the day's television lineup was like the lineup of the 1927 Yankees then the Knicks game was like an aging Joe Dugan at third base. He was right there in the middle of things but he didn't have much pop left in that bat and he wasn't coming close to batting .300. He was a soft spot in the murderers' row and not really someone you were going to watch or remember. And the same could be said for the Knicks game.

In their first contest since it was revealed that Curry was done for the season the Knicks were handed their seventh loss in eight games by the Hawks, who moved into a tie for the last playoff spot in the East. All you really need to know is that Joe Johnson was the best player on the floor and that a close game was opened up in the fourth quarter by the team that needed the result more. And, that team wasn't the Knicks.

As Zach Randolph admitted after the final whistle, "they just dominated the game."

Monday's Starting Five

1. The Houston Rockets. It’s official. They have won 22 straight games. They are all alone atop the Western Conference. Their 46 wins are third in the Association behind Boston and Detroit (who scored a big win themselves yesterday). They are now owners of the second longest winning streak in the game’s history. The three other teams on the top four winning-streaks list (71-72 Lakers, 70-71 Bucks and the 1999-2000 Lakers) all went on to win the title that season. The Rockets are officially contenders for the NBA title and Tracy McGrady is officially a contender for the MVP Award. There can be no denying it.

2. Rafer Alston. Not since the halcyon days of Volume 1 of the And1 Mixtape have things looked so good for Skip to My Lou, aka Rafer Alston. The Queens native has transformed himself from a Houston pariah before the season to a Houston hero during the streak. When the Rockets drafted Aaron Brooks out of Oregon and re-acquired Steve Francis it seemed that the writing was on the wall for Alston. And, the writing said, “we do not require your services any longer because we are not overly impressed with your point guard play.” It was a long wall. Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon and Alston is raining, high-arcing threes over the outstretched arms of Lakers defenders en route to a career-high 31 points. He scored 16 points in the first quarter to stake the Rockets to an early lead and was clutch down the stretch when Kobe inevitably brought the Lakers back into the game.

3. Shane Battier. Alston was great. McGrady was very good. But, it’s possible that Battier was best. He played 46 minutes (team high for the Rockets), which was only one less minute than Kobe Bryant (game high with 47), who he smothered like spicy mustard on corned beef and cabbage. I don’t remember the last time I saw someone defend Kobe so well. Kobe only scored 24 points and his last bucket came at the 4:56 mark in the fourth. When he hit that shot it was 86-91 in the Rockets favor. It looked like Kobe was about to roll off 8 points in the next minute and a half. I even turned to one of my housemates, who is the biggest Lakers fan ever to be raised in Bergen County, NJ, after Kobe scored his 23rd and 24th points and said, “he’s going to take over right now and finish with 35 points and the Lakers will win.” I said that because that is what Kobe does (Lebron does it too). But he didn’t yesterday. Because of Shane Battier. He doused him like baking soda on a grease fire. And, in 46 minutes of play he only picked up two fouls. He had a hand in his face every time he went up for the ball. He had a body on him every time he received a pass. It was a great performance.

4. Georgia Bulldogs. What a weekend for these guys. On Thursday morning there were 13-16 as they prepared for the first round of the SEC tournament. They were last in the league. Their coach was in danger of losing his job. And even the NIT seemed an impossible pipe dream. What a difference a tornado makes. The Bulldogs reeled off 4 wins in 4 days to snag perhaps the unlikeliest berth in the Big Dance. They had to play a double-header on Saturday after the weather tore a hole in the top of the Georgia Dome on Friday night. The topped Kentucky early in the day on Saturday before re-taking the court six hours later to tangle with Mississippi State, winner of the regular-season SEC West title. And, after navigating those tricky ties the Bulldogs showed up bright and early the next day to tip-off with Arkansas, who had topped Vandy and Tennessee on their way to the conference tourney final. Forty minutes later a coach had some job security and the Bulldogs had a 14-seed in the Dance. Like I said, what a weekend for these guys!

5. The Madness. It’s begun. Are you ready? Do you have an excuse to miss work on Thursday? On Friday? If not, have you set up your account at CBS.com so that you can watch the game from work? Do you know who is going to be this year’s George Mason? Xavier? Drake? George Mason? Who will beat Duke this year? Which top-ranked team will pull a Kansas and bow out early? Memphis? Tennessee? Kansas?

Benched. The Seattle Sonics' defense. Thankfully the citizens of the Seattle are putting up more of a fight to keep their team than the team itself is putting against the opposition. The Denver Nuggets racked up 168 points in regulation yesterday.