Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Post Is Prologue: Knicks @ Bulls

Knicks (9-11)
@
Bulls (9-11)
8:30 p.m.
United Center

After a character-building win over the Pistons on Sunday, and with a much-needed day off behind them, the Knicks take the floor tonight in the Second City to take on the Chicago Bulls. No public entity has brought as much shame and disappointment into my life as the Chicago Bulls. During my formative hoops-watching years, they were the team that could not be overcome. Patrick Ewing was Sisyphus and the Bulls were guarding the mountaintop. It pains me even to type about it still.

As (is now) per usual, I've been trading emails today with a blogger who covers the Knicks' opponent. Below you'll find a back-and-forth with noted Bulls blog Bull Riding. We talk about the wonder that is Derrick Rose and I try to get a straight answer on the Jo Jo English incident from 1994.

WWOD?: At WWOD?, the love for Derrick Rose has been effusive to the point awkwardness. Nine months ago I wanted nothing more on this earth than to have him playing 41 home games at Madison Square Garden. But, you can't always get what you want. And, I didn't. In fact, I got Chris Duhon. But, Rose is as good as you could have hoped for, right? Or, is he better? What was the first moment when you just KNEW he was the real deal at the NBA level?
Bull Riding: I knew Rose could be a very special player since seeing him at Simeon his junior year. I was actually pushing for us to somehow get him before the ping-pong balls fell our way. I felt they would bring him along slowly at first because of their commitment to Kirk Hinrich, but he has come in and taken that spot and is almost the unquestioned leader on this team.
I knew he would be good once he was part of the USA select team. Practicing against Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, Kobe, LeBron etc, is going to make you a better player because of the level those guys are at. You also have the 30 point game against Dallas this preseason and you see all his abilities on full display. We have a special talent here in Rose and now it's about surrounding him with the right talent.

WWOD?: Before Mike D'Antoni was coaching the Knicks it looked like he might be coaching the Bulls. What is the view from the Windy City on the way that went down?
BR: The initial feeling was that the Bulls let another opportunity slip away. D'Antoni wanted to coach here and it's scary to think of Rose's averages in that system, but you also have to consider that D'Antoni is an offense oriented coach and he loves using a 7-8 man rotation. Watching the Bulls score over 106 points a night would be very entertaining but if you're John Paxson, watching the opposing team get over 100 every night would be a problem and with the depth we have, a 7-8 man rotation wouldn't sit well with some.

WWOD?: As someone who doesn't get a chance to see the Bulls play too often, what under-the-radar player(s) should I keep an eye on tonight?
BR: Andres Nocioni and Tyrus Thomas. I consider them wildcards. When Nocioni is playing under control and letting the game come to him, he can give you 20 points and 6 rebounds easily, but too many times this season, I have seen him force the issue, but with the way the Knicks run, I expect him to play well. Thomas minutes have been inconsistent and this has led to him forcing things once he's on the floor. He played 6 minutes the last game and his confidence seems to have taken a hit. A game that is in this type of tempo fits his style and I expect him to see some significant minutes. What he does with them is up to him.

WWOD?: Lately, there has been a flurry of Jordan-almost-went-to-the-Knicks stories, how do you recall those events? Personally, I never ever thought it was a real possibility and find the latest accounts a bit revisionist. You?
BR: I haven't heard all the stories, but personally, I believe there is some truth to them. Mike never really saw eye-to-eye with Jerry Krause. He was upset when they kept his minutes limited after he came back from his broken foot, he was angry when they traded Oakley for Bill Cartwright-even though that got them over the hump against Detroit- and the way they handled business with Scottie and Phil Jackson led to the destruction of a team that could have won 3-4 more titles.
Considering what Jordan meant to not only the game, but the world, I believe he was underpaid and undervalued in a sense by Krause. It's no secret Jordan loved the bright lights of NY and it's also his birth place. Just imagine what Nike could have done with Mike being in New York.

WWOD?: What's up with Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, et. al? Two seasons ago Deng played in 82 games and averaged a shade under 19 points. Gordon, meanwhile, was hitting buzzer beaters at the Garden and emerging as one of the more ice-veined scoring guards in the game. Is their seeming malaise just perceived because the team as a whole disappointed last season or is it more real and troubling to Bulls fans?
BR: Gordon and Deng are two very talented players. When Gordon was going off in fourth quarters and Deng was averaging around 19ppg, teams took notice and adjusted. Gordon is being trapped more and it's not as easy to get to the rim anymore so he has to depend on his shooting.
Deng has had injuries that have set him back, but I believe playing with Rose makes life easier for the both of them and they'll find a lot more opportunities instead of having to go one-on-one whenever they receive the ball.

WWOD?: Did Aaron Gray somehow become a more promising Big Man prospect than Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas?
BR: Well what the Bulls are looking for is consistency and production. Gray isn't going to get a lot of touches but you are going to feel the screens he sets and he is big enough to hold his own under the rim. If he can give them 8-10 boards a game, it helps Drew Gooden rebounding numbers and Gray is the only one between Thomas and Noah, who has some post moves.

WWOD?: Since over a decade has passed, can you finally admit that Phil Jackson sent third-stringer Jo Jo English onto the court during the 1994 playoffs just to start a fight with Derek Harper?
BR: (Laughs) I still can't admit that. Phil is one of the best coaches in the game and is probably the best at understanding the psyche of players. He knows that physical talent is no replacement for mental toughness and I believe he put in a player who he knew would get under Harper's skin.

WWOD?: Both the Knicks and the Bulls are 9-11 entering tonight's game. We all know the Knicks are rebuilding and looking to the free agent class of 2010, but what are the Bulls doing? What is their plan?
BR: I believe the Bulls have to find a philosophy and establish an identity. I believe that we are a piece or two away from returning back to prominence. As everyone knows, addressing the front court issues will be key, there are some players like, Paul Milsap, Carlos Boozer, that they should look at this season.
2010 is a long way away and anything could happen but Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh will be available and I believe we can get anyone of those guys but it comes down to Mr. Reinsdorf wanting to spend the money.
My thoughts on what the Knicks are doing; while they can sign 2-3 great players, it will be what they do now to improve themselves to make the situation more assuring. Money is important but LeBron isn't at a thirst for it, he knows his legacy will be left by Wins and championships and currently the Knicks are lacking in some of the areas his current Cavs teams are thriving (rebounding and defense) and how does D'Antoni with his style make those free agents feel when they know the importance of defense and knowing he plays his star players 40+ minutes every night?

WWOD?: And, what makes THIS season a success for Chicago?
BR: This season can be deemed a success if the Bulls can get better as a team. The ones who learn to play with Rose will be around and the ones who haven't will be gone because I believe that Paxson is already formulating plans on what guys he could try to bring in to better this team.
The Bulls are a .500 team in terms of their play, but they could be a lot better. Everyone is learning a new system and learning to play a different style with Rose running the show. I believe by mid-season we'll start seeing their best ball.

WWOD?: Lastly, Mr. Charles Oakley was a member of the Bulls before the Knicks traded for him. What, if any, are the lasting impressions of Oak in the Second City?
BR: Chicago loves Charles Oakley. Like New York, we respect a player who plays hard and physical everytime he takes the court.
One of his proteges, Ben Wallace is now a Cavalier and with that loss, the Bulls lost a certain toughness in the front court that hasn't been replicated by any current Bulls big. Every team would love to have a guy like Oakley.

Weekend at Jimmie's

Or, How Jim Dolan's Knicks Fared Over the Weekend
FRIDAY
Nothing says "Friday night" quite like sitting home alone watching the Knicks lose on the road. Well, watching the Knicks lose on the road and ordering in some food and drinking Miller High Life while still wearing work clothes. TGIF. The Knicks @ Hawks game revealed much about what is and what still could be for the New York Knicks. Still playing shorthanded, in spite of the "returns" of both Nate Robinson and Jared Jeffries (who both left the game early and did not return), the Knicks battled a playoff team and more than held their own.
These Knicks are capable of playing close with most teams on most nights. They had the ball in the hands of their best player - Al Harrington, yup - with a chance to force overtime. Which is really all the Knicks can ask for on any given night. If we have a possession with less than 30 seconds left that can either win or tie the game then we did our part. Unfortunately, for years the player taking that shot in that moment was Jamal Crawford who is plying his trade out in Oakland. And, we learned that Harrington isn't quite ready for prime time just yet. Coming out of a timeout with five ticks to play the Knicks ran a play to Harrington who found the ball in his hands. He was meant to catch and shoot. But he passed it right back to Duhon, who passed it right back to him. His hurried shot just beat the buzzer and never threatened to go in. After the game he said that "it was a great play, because I was open. I don't know, I just, when I turned and looked, I didn't feel comfortable enough so I tried to get it to somebody else."

As I wrote the other day, Harrington has never been the guy on a pro team before and he showed that he isn't quite ready just yet.

Other Notes/Thoughts
-Chandler is getting the game's opening shot as of late much the same way that Q did for the past two seasons. He's now the guy that we need to kick start.

-Q defended Joe Johnson to start the game. Lee flashed double on Johnson's first touch but not on the second. Q still wants to play against each team's best player. I'm not sure how great of an idea it is but I've got to respect his tenacity and passion.

-The confidence level of Duhon is sky-high. Since I took him to task for his lackluster play a few weeks ago he has been a much better player. Which means he's probably reading this right now. He's smiling and jabbering out there. He looks like he finally feels like the Knicks are his team.

-Walt Frazier and Gus Johnson are a great broadcast team, Frazier's first-quarter observation about the "hard rims" at Philips Arena affecting the way that ball needs to gathered off the glass (more long rebounds meaning guards can't fall back on defense as quickly as they usually do) exemplified the unvarnished insights that lie beneath all his flashy vocabulary and Gus's prompting of Frazier to compare those rims to the "soft rims" at MSG showed his understanding of his role as the facilitator in the team.

-Tim Thomas enters the game for the first time. Moments later the Hawks run an out-of-bounds play that ends with Joe Johnson getting a free hoop. These things are not unrelated.

-After hearing all of D'Antoni's effusive praise for Jeffries during training camp we finally got a look at what he was talking about. Jeffries is as active a player as there is on the court. He's getting rebounds at both ends of the floor and contesting shots. And, he really is playing taller than I remember. On defense and around the rim, he's an even longer version of Tayshaun Prince. Except, he can't shoot. Which is fine, actually, since everyone else on the roster wants to score. In just 16 minutes he scored six points, grabbed 7 rebounds, had three assists, one steal and man-defended Joe Johnson, the Hawks bigs and the guy selling soda in the mezzzanine.

SUNDAY
The seventh of December is my mother's birthday. It has been for years now, decades even. A wonderful woman, she is the matriarch of an anarchic brood of four. She also takes care of my father and an overweight labrador retriever. Who she claims is not overweight at all. Not even a little bit. She's a busy gal, who still holds down a Monday-Friday gig and doesn't have a heck of a lot of time to do things for herself. And, Sunday the seventh was her day. So, where was she at noon? At a fancy brunch in Westchester? Getting a pedicure at a posh spa in Manhattan? Embarking on relaxing hike in North Jersey? Nope. She was sitting next to me in the 400 level at Madison Square Garden watching the Knicks take on the Pistons. Is this where she would have picked? Probably not. Is this really the best my hoops-addled brain could come up with? Yes. What does that say about me? Unprintable things. But, there we were, accompanied by my father and my sister. In the cheapest seating section (the small pocket of $10 seats behind the hoop in the upper tank) to watch a sub. 500 team play ball. Happy Birthday, Mom!
Thankfully, the Pistons found the situation even less interesting than my mother may have. They slept-walked through the early stretches, looking as unaccustomed to getting up early on a Sunday as my college-aged brother who begged of his mom's b-day plans because he had a party the night before. The Knicks, on the other hand, were sharp. They stormed out to a 10-0 lead on two three pointers, two free throws and a slam dunk. It was a nice start against a team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Alright, it is hard to compare the team that took the floor Sunday with last year's club: The Iverson-for-Billups swap has clearly had a seismic effect on the team and Kwame Brown actually started for the Pistons (who are waiting for McDyess to return).
Rasheed Wallace finally got the Pistons on the board after they had missed their first seven shots, but Wallace would not score again for the remainder of the first half. The team from the Motor City played with the confidence of the American auto industry in the first half. The were so listless that it was almost disappointing. When you pay to see Allen Iverson play you hope to see him flying around the court small and fierce like a tattooed wolverine. And, when you pay to see Rasheed you want to see postseason 'Sheed, when he's calling for the ball on offense and posting guys up and then stepping outside to bury the three.
On the other hand, when you pay to see the Knicks play you do want to see them win. So, we were quite fine with the early returns. Q and Al Harrington were hitting from deep, Chandler was hitting from midrange and Duhon was going at the rim enough to keep everyone honest on defense for Detroit. It was a fine thing to behold. It was the game of basketball being played by professionals.
Fueled by pony-tailed forward Walter Herrmann, the Pistons opened up the fourth quarter on a 11-1 run. All of sudden we were watching an 8-point game with more than eight minutes to play. Once the luxuriously-locked Argentinian got the Pistons pumping, Iverson and Afflalo took over (these two also carried the load in the second quarter for Detroit) and kept the game competitive down the stretch. In fact, they did more than keep it competitive. They made it look like the Knicks were going to collapse. And lose. My mom, thought this was going to be a "shame." I thought we were going to get to "experience Knicks basketball." But a funny thing happened on the way to the latest Knicks collapse. The team bowed their backs and held. They never let the Pistons overtake them. They energized the crowd and they got some stops (well, the Pistons also just missed some shots). David Lee and Wilson Chandler were huge in the fourth. And Al Harrington hit the dagger 3-pointer (which was fitting considering what went down on Friday) that closed it out. Harrington's 3 pushed the lead back to nine points with less than 90 seconds left. The Pistons called a timeout and Harrington pointed to his heart and the New York emblazoned on his chest as the near-sellout ate it up.
In the end it was as enjoyable as a win as you could hope for. And, without a doubt, the best performance by a NY-based team on Sunday, much to the chagrin of area football fans. Not only did we get to see the Knicks running roughshod over a foe in the first half but then we got to see them duel a decent team down to the wire and come out on top. If it were my birthday, I would have been pretty psyched about it. Just saying...