Wednesday, December 23, 2009

David Lee is.... The Closer

For the second time during the Knicks' current homestand, with the game hanging in the balance and all the momentum with the road team, David Lee netted the game-altering bucket. This past Friday with past (and future?) Knickerbocker Marcus Camby and the Los Angeles Clippers making their lone pilgrimage to the Mecca, Lee tipped an Al Harrington miss to himself before tipping the ball into the hoop with 30 ticks to play. This bucket edged the home team in front by a lone point, 92-91. Prior to that make it looked like the Knicks' third quarter blitz would account for nothing thanks to their first quarter bed wetting. The fourth frame had been tight, with L.A. seemingly wresting back control of the game in the last few minutes. When Harrington's midrange shot clanged off the rim the game looked lost. At least, it did to me and my youngest brother sitting in the 300-level in a pair of aisle seats that we were not ticketed for. But then Lee, despite having poor position, got a hand on the carom. And then another to nose his side across the finish line and send the patrons out onto Seventh Avenue in high spirits (and not just because we'd ended up more intoxicated then we'd anticipated after twin beer towers at Fat Annie's Truck Stop on 32nd before the game).

Following another home dance with Larry Brown's Charlotte Bobcats -- during which noted hair product connoisseur Danilo Gallinari of the Mialnese Gallinaris conjured the game-winning plays (free throws made and a block to compensate for free throws missed) in the climatic scenes -- another game needed to be sloted into the W column by the Knicks' closer. After running out to an early, seemingly insurmountable lead over Chicago at home last night in the first half, coach Mike D'Antoni's charges found themselves surmounted in the second half. Playing the second of a back-to-back set, the Bulls shook off their early-game stupor and came charging back into contention in the third quarter. The Knicks fled like tourists in Pamplona before the onrushing beasts. After trailing, 53-31, at the intermission, Chicago pulled within 79-80 with 1:40 left on Joakim Noah jumper. Coach D'Antoni immediately called a timeout. Out of that timeout, Chris Duhon immediately missed a layup. And, the team seemed trampled and impaled on the roadside.

But then Lee drew a shooting foul on Noah, something he seems particularly adept at when playing young Gators (and therefore Bulls and Hawks), then sunk both free throws and the Knicks were ahead by three, 82-79. At this point, both teams seemed to lose the plot when the stakes were raised at the risk of losing the game. Coming out of timeout, following two missed free throws by Jared Jeffries, the Bulls had the ball, down by three and with just under half a minute to play, the experiences of the past decade of Knicks basketball one to believe that someone was going to sink a corner three to send this game to overtime. But Derrick Rose turned the ball over. D'Antoni called a 20. Gallo entered the game for Jeffries, spreading the floor. And then Lee hit that 17-footer that All-Star power forwards David West and Carlos Boozer regularly make to ice the game with five ticks yet to come off the clock. Inside and outside, Lee has gotten the crucial buckets during this homestand.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Monday Mudita

Argentine wunderkind Lionel Messi delivers the extra-time game winner in the Final of the World Club Cup with his chest as he dives across the goal mouth. Yes, that's a diving chest goal. I can't say that I've ever seen anything like this done intentionally. The cross was too high and had too much pace to volley and was sinking at too great a rate to get a head on it. So, what does the best footballer on the earth do? Well, he dives and chests it past the Estudiantes keeper in the 110th minute. You've got to watch this clip through to the end to see the close-ups of this shot. The wide-angle view doesn't do it justice.

Just When I Think They Couldn't Possibly Be Any Dumber...

...the Knicks Win Two At Home and Totally Redeem Themselves

After twin come-from-ahead road losses last week (at Charlotte and Chicago, respectively) slowed the Knickerbockers headlong charge into Eastern Conference relevancy, sapping my confidence in coach D'Antoni, the team came home to the Garden and regrouped over the weekend. Well, not at first. Because, at first, they fell behind by 20 to the Clippers. But then, they did regroup and rally for a late win on a David Lee tip on Friday night. Then on Sunday, Danilo Gallinari hit (and missed) clutch free throws before icing the game with a blocked shot in the waning moments against Larry Brown and the Bobcats.

After opening the 2009-2010 campaign with a franchise-worst 1-9 record, the Knicks have hit 10 wins before 20 losses. Now, hop on the back of this moped, Isiah got it for a second rounder in 2008, and let's ride to the Eighth Seed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Finishing Moves

Knicks Drop Second Straight Game At the Death

The last fighting game that I ever developed any proficiency at was Street Fighter, and, to be honest, I wasn't very good unless I was Blanka or Dhalism. One summer I got on a run with M. Bison but I was mostly playing against my younger brother and sister and that hardly counts.

My video game "talents" were better suited for Nintendo than Playstation. So many buttons! I was a fish out of water by the time that my friends were all hooked on Mortal Kombat. I sucked at that game. Hard. When we all sat around playing video games in high school I was content to nurse whatever beers we'd gotten by way of older sisters and consistently be late when calling "next game!" Even though I've always been pretty on point with recalling useless information I never got the hang of all the various finishing moves that each character had. Sub Zero had that ice fatality. And Scorpion had his something or others coming at you. And, for the life of me, I couldn't master these moves. Which meant that even when I managed to mash my way ahead in a fight that I couldn't close the deal. In this regard, my Mortal Kombat playing and my work with my female classmates had much in common. I would struggle to achieve a finishing move as everyone screamed "left-back-square" and "down-straight-select-B" while my opponent invariably healed and destroyed me.

Like me, the Knicks do not have a finishing move. Nope. They have a quiver full of three-point jump shots to fire hastily over our shoulders in retreat. Those they do have. In record-breaking numbers. But a set play? A go-to guy? Or a stopper? No, they don't have those things. One night after the Knicks stuck with a zone defense down the stretch - even after Jared Jeffries, the player who makes the zone work, had fouled out - and allowed the opposing point guard to dribble straight to the rim for game-sealing buckets, the Knicks stalled with the finish line in sight and couldn't get a stop. Both games had been written in pencil in the W column before being snatched away by Charlotte and Chicago, respectively.

Going Down on D'Antoni
Having fathered the seven-seconds-or-less offense with Steve Nash, out of wedlock no less, in Phoenix, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni has been fawned over by many, myself included. He's been lauded and studied in book-length detail by an SI hoops scribe and tapped by many as a savior at the Garden. Or, at least, he's been thought of as the right man to lure a savior in July 2010.

I'm one of those fanboys who read Jack McCallum's book. I was super psyched when D'Antoni suddenly hit the coaching market and ecstatic when he spurned the Bulls to join the Knicks. And, I still do think that he is capable of wooing important free agents to the Big Apple. My lips are tinted bright red from drinking so much of the Kool-Aid. Yet, I'm down on D'Antoni's work this week. I was appalled that he let Charlotte point guard Ray Felton get all the way to the rim on consecutive plays to put the Bobcats ahead to stay on Tuesday night. And, I write "he let" because of the fact that D'Antoni didn't take the team out of the zone that didn't stop the first drive. No adjustments were made and the Bobcats scored on an identical play to take control of the game with less than a minute to go. I'm not sure if D'Antoni just didn't think that Duhon would have fared any better playing one-on-one defense but regardless I fault him for not adjusting. There are many unkind things that I can write about Charlotte skipper Larry Brown but he does force a team to adjust for something before he goes away from it (which is partially why Eddy Curry did so well while Brown was in NYC). After Felton got right to the rack because the zone sans Jeffries didn't stop the penetration. And Brown had his team go right back at that weakness. Ballgame.

Two nights later in a different time zone, D'Antoni again made, or didn't make moves that cost this team a victory. With Larry Hughes out of the lineup due to a groin injury, the Knicks were shorthanded. One would think that they would then call the number of the shortest guy on the roster. It's been overreported that Nate Robinson has been benched during the team's turnaround. He has been. And the team has been better. Is this a cause-effect situation? I don't know. But Robinson has said the right thing to everyone with a tape recorder and a steno pad. He's cheered actively from the bench and he done everything that you could ask a guy in similar straits to do.

And, last night, when the team was undermanned at his position it seemed the ideal time to get him some non-committal run. This seemed logical as soon as Hughes status was announced. And it seemed glaringly necessary as the game went along. After an explosive 34-point first quarter the Knicks offense stuttered and stalled. They chucked up 47 three-point shots in this game and couldn't get any flow on the offensive end. No one was creating anything and no one was getting into the paint. Yet, the Knicks took a lead into the fourth quarter. Where everything went to pieces.

Aside from Danilo Gallinari's 27 minutes of action, the bench contributed eight minutes. Four from Eddy Curry. And four from Toney Douglas. Four starters played 40+ minutes and Al Harrington played 37. The team was visibly tired and abandoned possessions with early-in-the-clock threes as the game slipped away. All the while, Robinson - a 5-foot-9 inch shot of adrenaline and offense - sat wrapped in a warm-up suit on the pine. If D'Antoni wasn't going to play Douglas more than four minutes then he should have put his ego aside and given Robinson a chance. Which would have given the whole team a chance. If Robinson plays six minutes in the fourth and his teammates catch a breather than the Knicks win this game.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Monday Morning Two-For-One Schadenfreude-Mudita Combo

For those who don't find Derrick Mason's touchdown run joyful or painful enough, take a look at Andrei Arshavin's game-winning score for Arsenal at Liverpool.

And take delight from Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker getting leveled after a short reception.

If, however, you need a laugh on this Monday morning then this last piece of video from the weekend should be just what you need.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friends (and Family) in Low Places

Jets' Slim Playoffs Hopes Fattened By Browns' Win

It's still a longshot, the sort that only old-timey archers capable of splitting arrows in twain and desperate gamblers looking to get out of a hole might take. But the New York Jets are still alive in the AFC playoff hunt. And the defending-champion Pittsburgh Steelers are not, dealt a shock defeat by the Cleveland Browns last night on Thursday Night Football.

Heading into the game, the Steelers, favored by double digits on the road, were among the throng in the AFC sporting 6-6 records and camped out in the far-right "In the Hunt" column of each playoff graphic shown during broadcasts of games this past week. Also in the also-ran column are the Baltimore Ravens, the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets. These four clubs are chasing the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) and the Denver Broncos (8-4), who currently hold the Wild Card spots in the conference. In spite of the myriad tie-breaker scenarios in the NFL, the path to the postseason for the Jets is simple. Win. Win. Win. Win. And hope that these other teams lose. Lose. Lose. Lose.

With former Jets coach Eric Mangini at the helm, the lowly one-win, zero-hope Cleveland Browns upended Little Ben and the Stillers, 13-6, on blustery cold night at creatively named Cleveland Browns Stadium. QB-turned-WR-turned-RB-turned-Incredible-Untackleable-Beast-After-a-Freak-Gamma-Ray-Accident Joshua Cribbs dominated in special teams and on offense. He racked up 200 yards across all phases of the game, setting up the Browns' scores and securing a key first down late in the game. He seemed to be everything that the Jets' slender QB-turned-WR Brad Smith could never be under Mangini. As Deion said after the game, pay the man.

On the other side of the ball, the Browns' defense, coached by Rob Ryan - brother of Jets head coach Rex Ryan - threw a tightly-woven, mouth-breathing, flesh and shoulder pad blanket over the Pittsburgh offense to keep them warm on this wintry night with winds upwards of 15 mph and temperatures dropping below zero with the wind chill. The Browns sacked Roethlisburger 8 times and knocked him down 12. They recorded three passes defensed and made 10 tackles for a loss. They limited Rashard Mendenhal, Willie Parker and Ben to 75 yards on the ground on 22 carries and just 201 in the air on 18 completions. It was a suffocating performance and the NFL Network broadcasters were going out of their way to laud Ryan in the later stages of the game. I couldn't tell how much of this was meant to credit the defensive coordinator or to deflect the spotlight from Mangini.
The Browns' secondary was covering flawlessly as the Steelers made their last two, last-ditch drives to take the lead, and it might have been worth mentioning that Mangini was the secondary coach in New England before his rapid ascension to the head coaching ranks by way of the D-Coordinator gig under Bill Belichick. Some of those 8 sack were most definitely coverage sacks as well. I'm not saying that Mangini deserved all the credit, because he didn't, but I did feel like he was getting short changed slightly by the guys in the booth. Considering that the Browns haven't beaten their division rival in 12 tries there is a chance that this triumph goes a long way towards getting Mangini another shot at coaching this club. For all his personality problems and control issues, I do think the guy still can be a winning football coach. Like when he got that big win at Foxboro in his first year, he does seem to have a knack for rallying the troops against a favored rival. Regardless, the result was surely a nice early Chanukah gift (not as nice as Mark Sanchez but perhaps even nicer than Braylon Edwards) from the former Jets coach and the brother of the current Jets skipper. It sure is nice to have friends and family in low places when you're looking to squeak into the playoffs.

The Four One That Really Got Away
If (err.... when) Rexy's Midday Runners miss out on the Super Bowl playoffs, most fans will tap the twin losses to the Dolphins and the last-second defeat to the Jaguars as the key moments of the season. Those losses at the hands of two of the five clubs in contention for the last Wild Card berth in the AFC cost the Jets in nearly every tiebreaker scenario. For my money, though, the unfathomable overtime home loss to the Buffalo Bills is the game that I'll blame most.

The Jets were caught off guard by the heat and the hunger of the Dolphins in their trip down to Miami. They were outplayed in the trenches that night. They lost. Plain. Simple. There can be no second guessing when you lose that way to a division foe, even if the Jets kept the game close. In the return game with the Dolphins in North Jersey, the Jets were sunk by a superlative effort by return man Ted Ginn. I can't defend special teams coach Mike Westhoff's refusal to kick away from Ginn after the first run back but I also can't get too worked up over a loss in which one player on the other sideline had a career-best day. Again, those things happen. And they cost you games. With such a glaring breakdown in one of the game's three phases it's hard to make a case that the Jets should have won that game no matter how great the defense played. Perhaps the could have but Ginn secured it for Miami. The once-and-then-again draft bust was even named Meast of the Week over at KSK. And, against the Jaguars, the Jets just got beat. The defense couldn't get the big stop it needed down the stretch and the offense couldn't put enough points on the board to put it away when they had a chance. That game was a turnover fest and even Fireman Ed would be hard pressed to say that the Jets deserved that game. They certainly could have won it. But I'm not going to say they should have won it.

But, that loss at home to the Bills? Oh, boy. Now that game was a microcosm of that hoary, overused "same ol Jets" phrase on the tips of the tongues of every talk show host on your AM radio dial. The Jets should have won that game. Thomas Jones rushed for a franchise-best 210 yards. Leon Washington roared for 99 yards of his own. That's more than 900 feet of offense right there. On the other side of the ball, the Jets' defense concussed Bills QB Trent Edwards, knocking him out of the game. Darrelle Revis held Terrell Owens to just three catches for thirteen yards. The Jets mostly kept Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson in check, holding each to less than 65 yards on a ton of carries. But rookie heartbreaker Mark Sanchez tossed five picks in the game. Yet the Jets still were poised to win in overtime when Leon Washington and Thomas Jones plowed their way down to the Buffalo 22 in the opening possession of the fifth quarter. A holding penalty then backed the Jets up ten yards to the 32. Not a bunny but certainly a makeable field goal. Even on a murky, gray day. We never found out, though, as the snap was muffed by the holder who then threw a pick while trying to make amends. Buffalo ball. Several brutal-to-watch exchanges of possession later and the Bills kicked a game-winning field goal of their own. This side of Cleveland, few teams have ever done less than Buffalo that Sunday and managed a victory.

If the Jets don't eventually take advantage of the gifts bestowed upon them by the Browns (beating the Steelers), the Raiders (beating the Steelers last week), the Packers (beating the Ravens) and the Colts (beating the Titans) then I'll be looking back on that Sunday when Sanchez gave away a game to a Ryan Fitzpatrick-quarterbacked and Dick Jauron-coached team. For my money (and it was literally for my money as I dropped $100 on ticket in the 300-level), that's the loss that may ultimately doom this season. Oh, and that was also the game we lost nose tackle Kris Jenkins for the season. So, that certainly hasn't helped us down the stretch, either.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

So, You're Saying There's a Chance!

Ben (NYC)
Any chance Rubio starts his career [as] a Knick?

David Thorpe (12:41 PM)

David Thorpe (12:42 PM)
Yes. I'm saying there's a chance.

Being a glutton for both punishment and hoops and frequently seeking out the intersection of the two (read: frequently/compulsively watching the Knicks), I stopped by David Thorpe's chat over at The Thorpedo is a trainer, analyst, scout and lover of movie quotes. He's trained Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and even players who aren't under contract for the Chicago Bulls. He fielded a few Knicks related queries this afternoon and, for once, the answers weren't totally depressing. As you can see, he told "Ben" that we've got a chance to acquire Rubio from the Timberwolves by way of Barcelona.

I'd hope that Knicks GM Donnie Walsh has operatives strolling La Rambla wearing Oakley jerseys, pumping the 1994 rendition of "Go NY Go NY Go" on their over-the-shoulder boombox, and lamenting how much they'd rather be on Seventh Avenue. That's probably happening, though, so nothing to worry about there.

Covert psychological ploys aside, Walsh hopefully is keeping in touch (by way of underlings) with sportswriter-turned-General Manager David Kahn about the No. 5 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft who has yet to don a T-Wolves uniform. Following draft day, Rubio flirted with Minnesota but ultimately signed a multi-year pact with Barcelona, who bought out his previous contract. He cited the Wolves' inability (thanks to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement) to pick up his buyout and his desire to fine tune his game close to home as reasons for staying in Spain. Everyone else cited his displeasure with being drafted by a team that hails from Minneapolis.

I still hold a glimmer of hope, flickering in the dark recesses of my soul, that the Knicks can somehow find a way to bring Rubio aboard before the start of next season. It's obviously all up to Kahn, who probably will gauge any prospective deal based on its on-court merits as well as its public relations implications. Such a move is the stroke of luck (or creative GMing) that this franchise needs before July 2010 arrives and the free-agent wooing period opens. Even though everyone hates on the Knicks' roster, a top-flight (even a second-flight) point guard puts this team into a very enviable position going forward. And, a youthful European point on the same team as Danilo Gallinari would give the Knicks the most internationally relevant team in the Association. Just the sort of thing that would likely appeal to the sort of fellow with aspirations of becoming a "global icon."

Nick (NY)
Is Gallo and Lee a strong supporting cast for LBJ to come, or do they really need a 2nd max FA?

David Thorpe (12:26 PM)
Actually, if those two keep developing, they may not need a max guy, but they will need better overall players at 1 and 2.

This response marked two times in an hour that Thorpe provided very qualified but not altogether deflating answers to Knicks-related questions. And, I'll take it.

Because It's Raining And You Could Use a Laugh

A Foot In the Hand is Worth Six on the Ground

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Date Which Will (Also) Live in (Lesser But Still Significant) Infamy

Aside from being my mom's and Larry Bird's birthday, Dec. 7 is also the anniversary of the surprise attack by the Japanese Navy on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The following day US President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt delivered speech to a joint session of Congress. During his address he referred to the previous day as "a day which will live in infamy." Less than an hour after completing his remarks a formal declaration of war was made and it was on. The US had entered WWII.

The day, Dec. 8, of the "infamy" address is also itself a date that has a tragic legacy. On Dec. 8 1980, John Lennon was gunned down outside of his apartment building in New York City. He was returning home when he was shot in the back. Although the assailant was captured and imprisoned there was no formal declaration of war. No famous piece of American oratory. There was, however, a moment of national shock when the news was relayed by sportscaster Howard Cosell during a Monday Night Football telecast.

Making the moment (slightly) more poignant was the fact that Lennon had previously been a guest in the booth with Cosell on Monday Night.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Black ROV....Bullet Holes....

Knicks Slowly Figuring Things Out, Win Again

Coming off wins in three of their last four contests (PHX, @ATL, NJ), the Knicks turned up last night at the Garden to face the Portland Trailblazers. Al Harrington is still in the starting lineup. Larry Hughes isn't. Eddy Curry is in uniform. And, Nate Robinson might not need to be. Unlike last week, when I set up camp in the Garden, I'm back home catching this one on the MSG Network. I ate some Target-brand sugar frosted flakes and watched a DVRed episode of PTI (and was glad to hear TK and Wilbon side with Joakim Noah in his recent spat with Lebron) before switching over to the game. And, while I love folding myself into seat at the Garden, stuffing my jacket and bag under the seat, with a draft beer to wash down the No. 2 meal I just ate at the Nathan's across Seventh Avenue, it is relaxing (especially on a Monday) to sink into the couch and watch a game on television. The unsung bonus of watching a Knicks game from home, of course, is that if the 6-15 squad falls behind due to terrible play then I can just change the channel. Sweet, merciful choice. Thank you, Paul Gottlieb Nipkow.

As Al Trautwig said to open his pregame remarks, "as for the Knicks, it's their best week of the season and it's not even close." The 13-8 Blazers, on the other hand, came to New York one game after losing Greg "Logan 5" Oden to the sands of time a season-ending knee cap injury and coach Nate MacMillan to an Achilles injury suffered while working with his players. The Blazers had been beset by numerous other injuries even before Oden went down. They had just 9 active players when the ball went up at midcourt to open the action. Standing in to vie for the tip was Joel Pryzbilla aka "The Vanilla Gorilla." He is a lower middle class man's Emeka Okafor. He is tall, strong and knows exactly what his role is. These sorts of fundamentally sound centers have killed the Knicks for nearly a decade. If he puts up 15-15 then the Knicks lose this game.

Announcers Mike Breen and Kelly Tripucka (subbing for Clyde) trip over themselves talking about how well Harrington has been playing during the Knicks' recent run of good fortune and how difficult he is to match up against. To listen to them you can't help but wonder why Al hasn't been starting all season. Note: I was already wondering that. With Harrington in the starting lineup, D'Antoni has moved Larry Hughes to the bench and inserted Jared Jeffries into the first five. Chris Duhon is running point. Wilson Chandler is at 2. Al is at the 3. JJ is the four. I guess. And Lee is out of position per usual at center.

The Blazers counter the Knicks' first flight with Pryzbilla at the 5, Lamarcus Aldridge at power forward, Martell Webster at small forward, Brandon Roy at shooting guard and Steve Blake running the point. And, we're off. Even without Oden and Rudy Fernandez, the Blazers still present a more talent-rich roster than the Knicks at nearly every spot. Roy is the most skilled and driven guy in the building (well aside from Chris Rock, sitting courtside).

First Quarter
Early on it's all Pryzbilla and Roy. Hustle and flow. Roy serratedly slices across the lane, slowly, powerfully, waiting for the foul. He takes the contact and powers up a left-handed runner. Good. +1. Meanwhile, the VG is under the rim, pushing back into players when he has a notion about the angle of the rebound. He's thinking offensive board before his teammates have even brought the ball to midcourt. He grabs six caroms in the first quarter and scores on a putback to give the Blazers an early 5-4 lead.

The former Maryland Terrapin Blake is described as "one of those throwback type of players" after a slashing drive to the hoop, which seems a very clear euphemism for "white guy who busts his tail and is more effective than his measurable physical attributes would suggest." This probably jumps out at me because of the interesting story that was in The New York Times over the weekend about an upper-crust, Manhattan-raised white high schooler who transferred to a predominantly black school in Brooklyn in hopes of raising his hoops profile. There was also the mildly provocative, yet weirdly self-serving, segment on ESPN's Behind the Lines featuring self-promoting former Notre Dame standout Kyle Mcalarney that ponders the dearth of white Americans in the NBA. As an aside, I dig the premise of the piece and think it's worth discussing candidly but think that a shoot-first, three-point specialist point guard with a history of being arrested during his collegiate career is not the test case to use.

All pigment issues aside (after all, as an overly intellectual twenty-something white guy I'm in the sweet spot of blogger demographics), Harrington appears unnerved by his success and all the kind words that we've all had for him. He's pressing early on. Missing both free throws during a trip to the stripe. Traveling. A bad shot. The offense is erratic, in part due to Harrington's lack of poise, but I can't help but wonder if the team is missing Larry Hughes on the floor.

When Hughes enters the game for Chandler, he stops to chat with Blake at the arc while Aldridge is at the line. The former Wizards teammates shared a few words and sly smiles as Hughes fidgeted with his head band. Once the ball is back in play, Hughes picked up right where he left off on Sunday. Well, after a somewhat lazy pass results in a turnover (but it's clear he came in to handle the ball). He hits two line drive shots, giving the Knicks their first lead since the opening moments. The team picks up the tempo in transition and one defense and finishes the quarter knotted at 18.

Second Quarter
During the last week, coach D'Antoni has whittled down his rotation to eight guys (at the expense of Nate, Jordan Hill and Darko). He has juggled the starting lineup (at first out of necessity but now out of preference). And he seems to have happened upon a group within the group that can be successful. The hallmarks of the recent Knicks' success have been defensive activity - not sweltering shutdown coverage but energy - and more consistent point production. The team has mostly fended off long scoring droughts by reining in their halfcourt offense while still emphasizing transition speed. It's a combination of hoping to score in 5 seconds or less tempered by the maturity to score in 15 seconds or more when the break is not available.

For me, the most welcome difference is that Duhon isn't trying to quick-shoot the opposition a few times per game. Nothing was more dispiriting then watching him walk the ball up the court after a miss and then, once he's approaching the three-point line, seem like he's in a huge hurry to get a shot off, taking a jumper before even passing the ball. There's less of that. Which is nice. As a whole, the team appears (because it's too small a sample size to say anything definitive) to be moving the ball better.

Removing Nate from the rotation has given additional guard minutes in the New Knicks Order to Hughes and Toney Douglas, who both bring specific ill intentions to the defensive end. Neither are the athlete that Nate is but they are focused in ways that he sadly isn't. They both are prone to gamble on a steal like Nate but that risk is part of an overarching style of defense (rather than a one-off flight of fancy that may later manifest itself in hula hooping, stone skipping or wrong-basket shooting) that yields results when maintained over the course of an entire game.

It was one such characteristic moment of hustle by Douglas, on the offensive glass, that first turned this game in the Knicks' favor. He'd been flying around the beneath the rim, keeping balls alive on the offensive end, since coming into the contest. After grabbing an offensive board, he got the ball to Chandler who lays it in. This second-chance point put the Knicks ahead of the Blazers, 28-27. From there, the team finds its outside shot. Duhon, Gallo and Lee can deep-to-long jumpers while Hughes gets a layup to increase the margin, 38-31.

With the Blazers on the run, the Knicks' evident energy blow the doors off the game with one play. Following a made bucket by Duhon, Gallo pushes towards Blake at the baseline in an impromptu one-man full-court press. Pryzbilla holds the ball a beat rather than try to get it around the nearly seven-foot Italian. Second-year combo guard Jerryd Bayless comes back to the ball, seeing that Blake is covered. Duhon, attentively notcing what's happening cuts off his backpedal, darts in front of Bayless as he flashes to the ball. Duhon intercepts the bass from the VG. He pushes the ball into Lee, who's coming barreling down the floor, on the block. As the defense collapses on Lee, he skips a cross-court pass to Harrington on the far wing. Three!

This sequence of instinctive, hungry team ball pushed the lead to 41-31 and opened the game as halftime came into sight. Just a few possessions later, Duhon gets a paw on the ball as he flashes through a passing lane on the wing. It looked like Pryzbilla was passing it back out of the post but it's possible that Duhon just picked his pocket as he lifted the ball to shoot. Anyway, momentum carries him out of bounds, into/onto the scorer's table. The ball, meanwhile, is free on the floor. Before a Blazer can fall on it, Duhon is back on the court and wrapping up the loose ball. 10 seconds later, Harrington was flushing the ball through the rim off a pretty north-south feed from Gallo as the Portland defense flowed past Al in the paint to cover the perimeter. Less than a minute later, the Knicks reached the half with a 49-38 edge and complete control of the contest.

Third Quarter
The third quarter brought more of the same. There was no letdown by the home team. And no explosion by the Blazers. The flood gates opened. Three-point shots poured through, submerging Portland's hopes of winning the game. Through an honest effort, the Knicks had gutted their way to a lead in the second quarter. In the third quarter, they showed the mental toughness to keep up the effort. They saw what worked (or were told by the coaching staff during the intermission) and they did it again. The O's got to the right spots on the floor while the X's seemed a step behind.

Like Chunk, fingering those holes in the back of that black truck in the garage of the old summer place that the Fratellis took over, these Knicks seemed to be putting the pieces together. Hmmmm.... so, if we play hard on defense and play smart on offense then we can win ballgames? (and like Chunk, nobody will actually believe me when I tell them this...).Jeffries was hitting jump shots (well, not "shots" but "a shot") and taking charges and Gallo was showing further evidence that he might eventually be a shot blocker. The first six buckets of the third quarter were assisted and most of those were three-point shots. The barrage of long-range bombs opened up the driving lanes and the Knicks added to their haul with layups and free throws as the third quarter wore down. Hughes' fourth three-pointer of the frame ballooned the lead to 23. The rout was on.

Fourth Quarter
From that point, the Blazers, led by Roy (with a helping hand from Bayless), did their best November Knick impression, clawing their way back into the game during the fourth thanks to a theretofore absent sense of urgency and a slightly relaxed (due to the large lead) foe. And, like those November Knicks, the Blazers fell short in their comeback bid. The blow that warded off the barbarians at the gates was a cool, calm three by Gallo to push the lead back to 12 after it had been cut to single digits with about six minutes to play. It was the "answer shot" that veterans take when their teams need a bucket and the other squad is building momentum. I'm always impressed by the guys that know when to take and how to make these shots. For all of his insanity, Stephen Jackson just knows when to take the "answer shot." I'm thrilled to see Gallo take it. It's the next step beyond the FU heat-check shot that he took against Phoenix to put that game out of reach last week. That bucket was capping a Knicks' run whereas this was ending a Blazers' one.

-Jared Jeffries will be tradeable by the deadline if he continues to play the way that he did last night. He consciously sought charges (which he has always done), blocked shots, and just played glue defense against a long Blazers frontcourt. There was/is so much to dislike about his contract and the Isiah-era miscalculation that it represents but he is a solid and versatile hustle player that could play rotation minutes on a good team. Watch this space.
-Lamarcus Aldridge is bigger, taller, stronger and awesomer than I remember. The 6-foot-11, squarely-built power forward was 7 for 15 from the field last night with 13 boards, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block. He's not polished yet but I'm impressed.
-Chris Duhon has undoubtedly improved along with the team. Harrington gives him a lot of credit for the uptick in results (which, of course, raises the question of whether or not he was to blame for the franchise-worst 1-9 start) but there is still plenty to dislike about his game. What jumped out to me last night was his apparent inability to recognize mismatches in the flow of the game. Once he had Lee being guarded by Steve Blake and he didn't get him the ball. He did peer into the post but then moved the ball along the perimeter as if there was no opportunity to exploit. Similarly, he didn't abuse Joel Pryzbilla when the center got switched onto him at the top of the key. Duhon is always praised for his steady hand but I think his steadiness comes at the expense of opportunism and creativity.
-Nate Robinson was an energetic cheerleader on the bench. He's also said all the right things about being dropped from the rotation. I'm not saying that should get him back in the game on Friday, but I do think it's worth noting. Lots of players (read: Jerryd Bayless) ask out of town when they get benched.

Two-Timing Touch (and Broken Zones)

A lot has gone down since we all last left our cubicles, officles and assorted places of business at quitting time on Friday afternoon/evening. For starers, the temperature dropped dozens of degrees in and around the Big Apple, leading me to learn the difference between a "coat" and a "jacket" from both my girlfriend and her mother. With Phish giving Garden fans the best performance they've seen in a while on Friday night, a college-football Saturday chock full of BCS implications and awesome games, a frigid wintry Sunday with 10 early games on the NFL slate, and fantasy football playoff berths on the line; there wasn't a lot of attention paid to the Knicks two-game sweep of the weekend. Well, attention must be paid. As Linda Loman might have said, the Knicks may be a small team but a small team can be just as exhausted as a great one.

And, the Knicks should have slept well last night after racking up a road win @ Atlanta on Friday and icing a home rodeo with the Nets at 1 p.m. on Sunday. The New York Knickerbockers have won three out of their last four games. They unimpressively beat the New Jersey Nets - who are threatening to become the worst team, by record, in the history of the NBA - on "Kids Day" at MSG. Most assuredly, this is nothing to write home about. But then again, I'm not writing home. I'm writing on a website checked by some sports enthusiasts and actually read by the few Knicks fans in that group. And this sort of win is exactly the thing to blog here about. Because the Knicks are a bad team. Being a bad team, it is important to beat the worse teams. Bad should always be better than worse. And, in the Eastern Conference where at least one sub-.500 team has reached the postseason during each of the previous five years there is something to be said for beating those worse than you whenever you play them. For a mediocre (and, yeah, I guess it's a stretch to even call this Knicks club mediocre, but I'm an optimist) club, the games against the few lesser teams are really the only must-win contests on the schedule. The highly publicized (remember Dream Week 2008?) games against the league's best are really not nearly as important. Unless you win. In which case they are anecdotally significant. But in the quest to accumulate the 30-something wins that might get you the No. 8 seed it is of paramount importance that you beat the Nets.

Time Two: Cutting Down the Nets
So, predictably the Knicks dragged and spazzed through the first two quarters like some Ambien-addled sleepwalker, putting throw pillows in the oven and letting the Net's bench players build an 11-point edge in the second quarter. We're going to let Trenton Hassell and Keyon Dooling drop 13 points in 3 minutes? Really? Yup. Obviously.

With Nate Robinson still tethered to the bench, even as the hundreds of children in attendance wailed for him at various points, the Knicks looked toothless and coach D'Antoni looked witless. But Larry Hughes, the guy who was in the D'Antoni doghouse in the preseason before inexplicably (and thankfully) emerging, came out of the tunnel to start the third with a chip on his shoulder. He didn't want to lose to the Nets. Not at home. Not after what went down on Friday (keep reading...). No way, sir. And, he played like it. Getting to the line for three shots to open the second half and asserting himself on the offensive end. He got layups. He got free throws (one of which pulled the Knicks level at 71). He handed out assists (one of which led to a basket that pushed the Knicks ahead, 74-71). And he got his team back in the game. Once the Knicks got out in front they held tight. The same way they did down the stretch in Jersey a few weeks ago. Al Harrington, David Lee and Danilo Gallinari finished what Hughes had begun. And for the second straight game a Knickerbocker that my uncle doesn't particularly care for lifted the squad to a win.

Time One: You Can Call Him Al
Sitting at Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents' apartment there were three group conversations that I participated in. The first was about health care reform. The third was about a family sky-diving outing spearheaded by my grandfather. The middle discussion was, not surprisingly, about the New York Knicks. My dad's younger brother buys all the tabloids each morning to read about the game that he stayed up late the night before to watch on cable television in Connecticut. And, after starting in the team's loss at Sacramento the previous night, he abruptly stops himself to ask me, "Well, which guy on the team do you think I like the least?"

"Well, I know that you don't think too highly of Duhon. But I'd say it's got to be Harrington... "

And, before I could spit out "or Hughes" he was nodding his head. To my uncle, Al is a ball stopper and a one-on-one player. Those flaws bother him more than anything (more than Duhon's dignified "team-first" ineptitude). And, I don't entirely disagree with his criticism of Al. Perhaps, I've just watched players like Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph for so long that I've come to wrongly accept certain traits as unavoidable in a scorer. Maybe.

Either way, I found myself becoming a Harrington apologist. Because, you see, he is the most talented guy on the roster. That's not my choice. But it's not up for debate until Gallinari matures physically and strategically, a bit more. Al can shoot. Al can handle (for a guy his size). Al can drive. And, more than a lot of guys, he digs being a Knickerbocker. I think, after all the drama of the past few years and all the scrutiny, there are some guys on this team that wouldn't mind being shipped somewhere else by way of trade. I don't think Harrington is one of those guys. I think he gets what it means to play in this town and that he wants to succeed here. For me, the combination of potential and intention make up for his stategic lapses and tendency to try to go it alone on offense. I told my uncle that I see Harrington as a guy with a good attitude who just needs to be coached. I argued that we've got an allegedly great coach and that I blame D'Antoni just as much as Harrington for the NJ product's lack of consistent production. I then closed my case by saying that the fact that he's gone to the bench selflessly says more about him as a person than his bad habits of playing selfishly. And, I mean those things.

I hope my uncle remembered some of that conversation on Friday night when Harrington drove the Knicks past the Hawks during the first half in Atlanta. The former Hawk was pushed into the starting lineup due to a forearm injury suffered by Gallo and played like he's belonged there all year. At 6 foot 9 inches tall he's too quick for most power forwards and too long and strong for most threes. In the first quarter he had four dunks/layups and nailed three three-pointers. He was an All-Star for one night. It was an eye-opening performance for those who don't like this guy.

The Hawks, being right in the thick of the chase for the Eastern Conference title, predictably came back in the game, even without do-everything Josh Smith, who'd been ejected. The exuberant athleticism that Harrington showed to get the Knicks their lead was matched by the poise of Larry Hughes in holding it down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, Hughes had four assists, hit two jumpers, dropped in a layup and hit four free throws. Like Harrington, Hughes is a guy with a less than sterling rep amongst many fans. Like Harrington, Hughes is also a guy that can be effective on the court. They're not perfect but this isn't about building the perfect player (he plays in Cleveland, remember?) this is about winning nearly as many games as you lose.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Return to Form

Knicks Lose @ Orlando, 118-104

With the Magic decked out in 1990s throwback uniforms and the Knicks outfitted with cement high-tops, everything got back to normal. The Knicks lost. By a lot. They didn't have any better luck covering the spread (which varied from 12 to 13.5 depending on where you looked) than they did covering Rashard Lewis (who knocked down 8 three-pointers).

The reasons/excuses not to get too riled up about this loss are legion: It was the second night of a back-to-back set that had the team traveling down to Florida after Tuesday night's game. It was a loss at the defending conference champs. It came after the inspiring victory over Phoenix. And you can't - or at least this team can't - win 'em all. And, by "all," I mean consecutive games. Of course, the real reason that I'm not too troubled by this game is that I didn't watch it. I was back at the Garden again last night for a performance even more epic than the one I saw on Tuesday. On the 26th anniversary of the band's first gig, Phish came back to the Mecca and opened up a three-night residency on Seventh Avenue.
And, while the story coming out of the Garden may have been about the first rendition of Frank Zappa's Peaches En Regalia in a decade, the face melting Light or the aggressive shredding of the Tweezer Reprise that closed out the show (after A Day in the Life opened the encore), the buzz out of the Orlando had to do with the fact that coach D'Antoni hung a DNP-CD on Nate Robinson. His latest transgression was a needless foul away from ball during the win over Phoenix. To be honest, I don't clearly recollect this from being at the game but it's gotten plenty of play in the papers in the last 48 hours. Toney Douglas got the spare minutes and chipped in 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting in 21 minutes. Not too shabby.

I'm all for discipline and I'm all for figuring out some way to harness Robinson's talent. After all, the little guy scored 22 fourth-quarter points the other night. And, he's capable of changing the game every night. So, I hope this is an effort by D'Antoni to motivate him rather than some punitive move for his mental errors. This episode does shine a light on the issue bothering me most with this team right now: allocation of minutes and lineup choice. Douglas can play and should get more run. It shouldn't take Nate being benched to get the rookie out there. Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure what I think should be happening so I'm not going to complain when I'm not yet ready to alter a more nuanced alternative than BENCH DUHON.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Knicks Also Rise

"Well, I can't believe that just happened," muttered the floppy-haired, Old-Navy-dressed college-aged kid climbing over the back of his $10 (+ fees) seat in the last row of section 416 and into the aisle as the buzzer closed out the Suns @ Knicks game tonight. I would guesstimate that about 20 guys who own property in the Phoenix were similarly surprised by the night's action.

The 3 wins-and-14-losses New York Knickerbockers had just done to the 14-wins-and-3-losses Suns what the Saints had done to the Patriots on Monday night, romping 126-99 at the Garden. They took what that club was known for and just did it better and faster and then over again until the other team was shockingly and totally bludgeoned into submission. Mike D'Antoni's Knicks pushed the ball between the three-point lines, and scored at will for long stretches -- dropping in deep shots, stretching the defense, and then finding lanes to drive and seams to thread passes to cutting frontcourt players for dunks and layups. Mike D'Antoni's Knicks woodshedded Alvin Gentry's Suns by playing like Mike D'Antoni's Suns used to play.

For one night at least, Knicks fans got what we've were promised when Knicks President Donnie Walsh installed D'Antoni on the sideline.

Just like in the home win over the Hornets last month, the Knicks' effort was so complete and the team's talent so manifest that it almost obscured how rare of a performance this was for them. Like, they looked so at ease with their good play that it may have been difficult for someone watching this team for the first time to comprehend their longstanding ineptitude. For me, though, it was there, lurking. The knowledge of how poorly this team could play kept me in my seat until the shot-clock violation with less than a second left ended the affair. Because if any team was going to squander a 27-point fourth quarter lead it was going to be the Knicks. And if any team was going to get up and down and drop 45 in the fourth it was likely to be the Suns. But that didn't happen. The Knicks won. And they did so in dominating fashion over the team that started the night with the best record in the Association. So, yeah, there were a lot of people on hand and watching at home (or just seeing the scores tick across the bottom of their screen while watching the first night of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge) that most definitely couldn't believe what just happened.

As they did on Sunday against the Magic, the Knicks attacked the rim early, getting to the line and avoiding (with a clear-cut intent that strongly suggests it comes from D'Antoni) the early deficit that so often dooms them against an upper echelon club like Phoenix. The Knicks got two two-shot trips to the charity stripe, two layups and a dunk in the first five minutes of the game. Once the contest settled down and the Knicks were still alive (and remember this was no easy feat in the first half of November - or even on the West Coast last week) they looked to find their stroke from the outside. Which they did. Danilo Gallinari continued his first quarter sharp shooting and looked fluid and aggressive early on. And the Knicks were moving the ball - thanks to a standout performance by Larry Hughes. The home side had 11 assists on 13 made field goals in the opening quarter. For their part, the Suns played OK, certainly not badly. Amare looked dangerous. Channing Frye hit a few shots and showed the inside-out potential that caused the Knicks to tap the White Plains, N.Y. native with the No. 8 selection in the 2005 draft. Steve Nash had four dimes in the first quarter and started looking for his own shot as his team began to fall behind. But it didn't matter. No matter what the Suns did it just seemed like the Knicks did a little bit more. They were up by 11 after one quarter, by 13 at the half, by 24 after 3 and 27 when befuddled coeds were filing for the doors.

Gallo was the star of the night, exploding in the third quarter and swishing a deep, deep straightaway heat-check three-point shot (you know, that I’m-so-hot-right-now-that-I-might-as-well-just-try-this-ridiculous-heave shot that everyone but Kobe and Lebron misses) over Earl Clark that pushed the game out of reach. The kid was just incredible, doing all the things that we’ve been told he could do. Doing all the things that are supposed to make next year’s crop of free agents (Amare, I’m looking your way) want to come play with him next year. Again, it was night when sometimes suspect promises were fulfilled.

It’s no secret that Gallo can knock down threes (he’s got more than any other player so far this season) but he also played like he’s 6-foot-10-inches tall against the Suns. He didn’t get lost waiting in the corner for the ball like a second-string guard. He went to the rim. At both ends. He blocked shots, emphatically stuffing Jason Richardson at the end of the first half to set up a Harrington layup on the other end. Gallo finished with 27 points and 10 boards.

Aside from the waking of the Rooster, Larry Hughes was the other priced-to-move item of the night. I know that some Knicks fans (specifically my uncle and my buddy Ryan’s boss) really don’t like Hughes, but I think this has more to do with the idea of Larry Hughes (another veteran like Tim Thomas, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, etc. acquired in a multi-player deal whose best years are behind him and is also not considered a model teammate) than with the actual play of Hughes. Because Hughes makes this team go. When he grabs a defensive rebound or takes an outlet pass he assertively turns upcourt rather than slowing down and just trying to look like a point guard like certain players on the roster. If possible, Hughes passes to a teammate in the offensive end before he crosses halfcourt. His tempo spurs his teammates into action with and without the ball (which leads to fewer trips when Gallo is just standing static in a corner). And, the former standout defender has the same effect on the other end. He covers his man well and he has an instinct for getting into passing lanes. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Hughes isn't a guy you build around, no how, no way, but he is a guy who you can run with. He's a ballplayer. He had ten assists in the first half and was the engine behind the club's 71-point effort through two quarters.

Duhon, meanwhile, would have been... uh, what's a vestigial part of an automobile? ... Duhon was the gas cap on the electric car. His play is so poor that it's really starting to turn me against D'Antoni who insists on sticking with him. There is no doubt that the regulars at the Garden have turned against Duhon. They are no saying Boo-urrnnns. Nor are they saying Doooo-haaan. They are booing him. Because he is the weak link right now. And has been. And was for the final third of last season. Not only is Hughes better at getting this team moving on the offensive end than the starting point guard but that starting point guard is almost never trusted to play defense on the opposing lead guard. Tonight, Duhon was spread out wide on Jason Richardson. That guy won two slam dunk contests and is 6-6. I'm not sure how that helps the team defense.

And, speaking of defense, the Knicks were the first team all year to hold the Suns under 100 points. By no means was this a defensive battle but it wasn't a total jailbreak either. Needless to say, Duhon's D on J-Rich was not the lynchpin effort. Rather it was having players actually challenging shots and denying the ball. It was Hughes jumping passes and others following suit.

Fire at will, Commander!

At various points deep in the second half of last night's Monday Night Football ambush between the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots, the expressions on faces of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and countless other Pats partisans was reminiscent of the look of impotent dismay on the face of the young Skywalker late in Return of the Jedi when the Emperor informed him that the second Death Star was, in fact, fully operational.

The smug self righteousness that Luke had begun the scene with drained from his face as the Death Star's green laser exploded rebel ship after rebel ship. Such was the dissipation of the Patriots' characteristic overconfidence as Saints quarterback Drew Brees fired laser beams at his receivers. Hitting them in stride as they tore up seams. Hitting them on the back shoulder as they ran preise routes. Hitting them anywhere they could get to and leading defenders anywhere he wanted with a look or a pump fake en route to 371 yards and 5 touchdowns in a dominating 38-17 rout.

Wow. Just, wow. Being a Jets fan, I've been mostly miserable in my life watched these Patriots play a lot and I don't remember them being so thoroughly undressed. All that was missing was Belichick turning wildly to his assistants after Bree's 75-yard strike to Devery Henderson early in the second quarter and yelling "It's a trap!"

Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday Mudita

Just One Joker Up Our Sleeve

When I was in grade school, I got a magic set for Christmas or Hanukkah or my birthday or some such gift-receiving day of the year. I thought it was pretty badass, even though it may have even come from one of those educational "toy" stores. I poured over the guide book to learn how to learn how to trick people older than me. For all my practicing, I was only able to pull off one of the card tricks convincingly enough that I was convinced that assembled grandparents and uncles and aunts weren't just humoring me with their oohs and aahs.

My one trick, though, did not make me a magician. To be a magician would necessitate many tricks. A deep reservoir of precise movements and clever repartee from which could be drawn an entire routine. My lone skill of usually guessing your card was not going to me a magician any more than Nate Robinson's one-man fourth quarter performance on Sunday night was going to push the Knicks past the Orlando Magic at the Garden. One trick ain't cutting it either way. And, like me the Knicks tend to have just one trick on most nights. The Orlando Magic, who boast the best record in the Eastern Conference, however, have many tricks up their sleeves and on their bench. Not just a joker who makes headlines for shooting at the wrong basket.

So, yeah, the Knicks lost again last night. To a team that is undoubtedly better. Again. Maybe it was the exhaustion-induced calm brought on by spending all day at the Jets game or maybe this losing is starting to sap my enthusiasm but this defeat didn't get me too riled up. I mean, this Knicks roster will have a hard time matching up against the leagues better teams.

Against Orlando, the Knicks did a lot of the things that so many fans pine for. For starters, they started the game well. They attacked the paint aggressively early on using our frontcourt speed to compensate for our lack of height. The Knicks held leads in the first and second quarters. They didn't totally forget about Gallo in the second half third quarter. They never lost the plot entirely on the defensive end. And they did get one player to get hot and they rode that guy. Hard. Nate Robinson dropped 22 points in the fourth quarter.

Yet, the Knicks actually lost ground during that quarter, as the Magic' lead grew from 9 to 12. This happened for two reasons. First, they out-rebounded the Knicks by 10 and 8 of those extra caroms came on the offensive end, leading to a huge difference in second-chance points. Second, they didn't have just one player get hot but they had multiple players to lean on throughout the game, with Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis putting up 10+ point quarters along the way. With Dwight Howard in the paint, Rashard, Pietrus and VC on the wings, and Matt Barnes, Ryan Andeson and JJ Redick contributing off the bench the Magic have too much for a team like the Knicks.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Enter Vinny

Today in great moments of NFL Ticket History: I arrived home from the Meadowlands, by way of the NJ Transit train line, just in time to see the once and future future of NFL quaterbacking march his titans down the field for a game-winning score as time expired.

By the time I'd gotten home, poured myself a glass of water, and peeled off my kelly green sand knit Ronnie Lott jersey, by then, the games being shown on CBS and FOX were decided. It was hours until the Simpsons started. And the Knicks hadn't yet begun to lose their uphill battle with Orlando. So I went to the Red Zone channel.

It is while tuned into this wondrous portal into the eye of the NFL hurricane that I learned that Vince Young is a manimal. There should be Discovery Channel documentaries about his true manimal nature. Thus far, I've deduced that his habitat is the gridiron and that he hunts during the waning moments of regulation play. But I am still unsure about his diet, predators, and how he has adapted to man-made changes in temperature and topography. I also have very little information on his line of smoked and cured meats.

With 2:37 showing on the clock, Young was poised when he took the field, the ball sitting on the one-yard line, with Tennessee trailing Arizona by four points. Backed up against his own endzone, he found receivers, most notably Rutgers product Kenny Britt, on first down, on second down, on third down and on fourth down. And then he did it again. And again. And then once more to arrive at the opposite end of the field.

He took most snaps out of the shotgun formation.He did most of this with Chris Johnson, the all-world dreadlocked speedster responsible for most of the Titan's offense on most occasions, on the bench or on the field as a decoy because Jeff Fisher was conserving his club's timeouts, thus wiping out running plays and passing routes that weren't leading receivers to the sideline. With one hand and Johnson's maybe-fastest-ever feet tied behind his back, Young just moved the ball. Each yard was picked up by his arm or with his feet. He really only threw one ball into needless risk. And that was a shot at the endzone. He was in total control. A sight that Cardinals quarterback of necessity, Matt Leinart, had to remember from his final collegiate contest.

With the timeouts used and the fields' bounty of first downs already harvested, Young and his team had one play to score a touchdown. Or to lose. Of course, the clock would have ended the game had the circumstances not demanded a conclusion. Young shifted, moved, as the Cardinal defenders picked the QB pocket established by the Titans' offensive lineman. Young stepped up and lofted, well not lofted but aimed a dart towards a point in space high above the back end of the endzone not too far to one side of the goal post. Bullseye. Catch. Touchdown. Clock.

This was the sort of performance that we all thought/hoped Young would be capable of producing at the pro level. Until he was shirtless and tequila sodden. Until he was depressed. Until he went Kerry Collins on us. Until he had his job expertly filled by Collins himself. But he's back. And it's awesome. So awesome, in fact, that Young is no longer a "Vince" to me. Like many (OK, maybe just one) greats (or, at least very goods with arguably the greatest-ever uh-oh face in the history of interceptions) before him. Young will now be a "Vinny." With Vinny Young at the wheel, the Titans have won five on the trot. Young has also won his last 9 starts. Now, I'm not saying that he's ready to invest in a chain of Australian-themed steakhouses with John Madden or that he'll someday find himself with 46,233 passing yards on his resume or that he'll throw a touchdown pass in 21 consecutive seasons, but I am saying that he is starting to look like the real deal, like a guy who could appear in two AFC Championship Games (and probably more if not for that damned Achilles injury in 1999).

Congratulations, Vinny, welcome to the club.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Wolf Lends Perspective on the Knicks' 2nd Win

Caught Bleu Handed

The Hand of God, Part Deux

Each spot in the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa was claimed by early afternoon (in the US) save one. That 32nd berth was on the line as the French and the Irish played in Paris. The sides were knotted after 174 minutes of play between two countries. The aggregate scoreline (meaning if you add the goals from both games) was level, 1-1. Both teams had scored on the road. Les Bleus were the talent-rich footballing power that had lost their je ne sais quoi under oddball skipper Raymond Domanech while the Irish were the perennial also-ran that had gained fortitude under the rough tutelage of Italian manager Giovanni Trappatoni.

With every other playoff set finished all eyes were on this contest and after 90 minutes (actually 180 if you count the first leg) the dispute was not settled. Ireland had missed a few gilt-edged chances to win the tie but they had failed in those moments and France seemed ascendent as the game entered the 30-minute overtime session. In the 103rd minute, France won a free kick about forty yards from the Irish goal. The ball was lofted in, but with too much pace and too high towards the byline to the left of the net. Thiery Henry tracked it. The rest, as they say, is actually history.

Henry's ill-gotten assist pushed France into the World Cup finals and left Ireland out in the cold. The French side definitely has the talent and star power to make marketers and television rights holders happy with the way things turned out. With elder statesmen Henry, Ribery, Gallas and Anelka they have players on some of the biggest sides in Europe. With Benzema and Nasri they've got two of the more exciting younger players on the international stage as well. There is no doubt that France has a higher ceiling in 2010 and little doubt that Ireland delivered the better effort in 2009. Trappatoni wrung every last bit from his charges and they will rightfully feel extremely hard done for the rest of their days by this game. Like any loss, though, you can always point to your own squandered opportunities and missed tackles along the way.

As an Arsenal fan I was happy to see defender William Gallas nod the ball over the line for the decisive score. His run through the box and his cool dispatch of the shot have zero to do with whether or not Henry handled the ball. Or whether or not Nicolas Anelka was offside on the free kick. Historically, I've always been against such chicanery. I was a defender on the pitch and am still one at heart. But that's also how I know that goalscorers get away with a lot more than goal stoppers. They always have. They always will. That's why you can't let that ball drop if you're the Ireland player marking Henry. And if you do you have to let it bounce then you also have to make sure that you're ushering it out with your body firmly between the ball and one of the most dangerous strikers of this era.

Obviously it was a handball. Actually, it was obviously two handballs. The first held the ball from caroming out of bounds. The feather-touch second dropped it from his hip to his shoe tops. But it all happened in an instant, on the run, with the byline looming. And then Henry calmly, deftly flicked the ball on the bounce across the goalmouth with the outstep of his right foot as his momentum carried him out of bounds. Again, there is no doubt that he handled it and it is likely that he did it on purpose but there is also something breathtaking about the whole thing. It was an amazing (for it's improbability not its legality) play by an world class player that displayed the athleticism, body control, creativity, mercenary goalscoring instinct and soft touch with the ball that have made him a legend. For those stated reasons, I've got three Henry shirts in drawers or closets at home. And perhaps I give the benefit of the doubt more than I likely should. But perhaps I'm also been worn down by the eggregious officiating errors that we see in MLB and the NBA to take much offense at the play. Yes, Henry broke the rules. But, in a class manner, admitted as much after the game. I like that. Most players would have given reporters some rubish about everything happening so quickly and that he didn't think he'd done anything wrong. Or just smiled a big bound-for-South-Africa smile and said that he had "no comment."

And I've got to say that I agree with Henry's postgame comments: The referee or the linesman should have made the call. That's not up to the players on the field. For generations, players have pulled shirts, spit on baseballs, gouged eyes in the pile while trying to secure a fumble, and occasionally, they have handled the ball before pushing the perfectly weighted pass across the box to an onrushing teammate who will head it home to secure a spot in the World Cup finals. Alright, well maybe that last one has never happened before but that's just because so few players are capable of doing what Henry did last night. And for that singular work of devious genius, Ireland will hate him forever.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Mudita

Although all eyes in the Garden State were on Alumni Field at the Rutgers-Newark campus for the ECAC tournament, there were key contests on the road to South Africa taking place around the globe. The other Iberian powerhouse (sorry, not you, Andora) was playing without the sexy Ronaldo and in desperate need of a win. The geographic group stages of qualification for the 2010 World Cup are past and the teams yet to punch their tickets are involved in last gasp home-and-away playoff sets that began this weekend and conclude this coming week. The aggregate scoring system (meaning you add the goals from both games) gives added weight to away goals if the teams finish 180 minutes of action level. The above goal by Bruno Alves in Lisbon gives Portugal a narrow advantage heading into the second leg at Bosnia-Herzegovinia. Elsewhere, France edged Ireland, 1-0, on the Emerald Isle and carries that lead (made more decisive thanks to the away goal) back to France at midweek.

I couldn't find either of these games (nor the friendly match between England and Brazil) on the television so I sated my football jonze at the aforementioned ECAC tourney. On Saturday a mindless red-card drawing tackle from behind by a player from Richard Stockton awoke the previously lackadaiscal players from Drew University. The Rangers playing a man up and with a newfound sense of purpose pulled even and eventually won the game to earn a berth in the final. Under the bright lights of downtown Newark, the pride of Madison came out in fine form on Sunday night, overcoming the suspect officiating of Brian Fenlon (some in the crowd openly questioned if he had a son on the team) as well the players from Farmingdale State. All goals came in the second half as the insertion of No. 10 into the lineup for Drew brought a previously missing creativity to the pitch.

Bonus Joyfulness
I talked to someone over the weekend who hadn't seen a replay of this dunk from last week. That just shouldn't be the case. Everyone should see this. Enjoy.

Monday Morning Schadenfreude

The dour, searching look on Belichick's face at 00:27 into this video and expression on Brady's immediately thereafter is worth the price of admission. Now, that my friends is some good Monday Morning Schadenfreude. Peyton Manning would connect with Reggie Wayne for the go-ahead score in the waning moments to give the Colts a come-from-behind win last night on NBC. But lost in the lambasting of Belichick and the lauding of Peyton is the tackle that Colts safety Melvin Bullitt laid on Kevin Faulk on this fourth down play. Great tackle. Great name.

Not only did this game embarrass the hooded one on national television - I mean, going for it on fourth down deep in your own half with the lead and just two minutes to play? really? - but it also further highlighted the opportunity the Jets squandered in the AFC East earlier in the day when they lost to Jacksonville at the gun. This game was a disaster, from the interception on the Jets' first offensive snap right through to the inept defense on the Jags last drive to take the lead and the win as time expired.

In other NFL news, the Bengals are for real, smothering Pittsburgh in the Steel City to sweep the season series between the two teams and take control of the AFC North.

Monday's Starting Five

1. Chris Johnson. Don't get me wrong. Please. Don't. Each Sunday I genuflect before the Purple Jesus. The existence of Him is one of the reasons I have Direct TV and the Sunday Ticket. But, CJ is the most dominant back in the NFL this season. It's indisputable. Before he was drafted, Johnson ran the fastest electronically recorded time in the history of the NFL Scouting Combine and the fastest ever for a running back. And he seems to have maintained that blazing speed as he's added Predator-like muscle mass to his frame. Against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, he rushed for 132 yards and two scores while catching 9 balls for 100 yards receiving. In the past four games, he's rushed for 128, 228, 135 and 132 yards, respectively.

2. Peyton Manning. All the talk on Sunday night and Monday morning has been about how the Patriots' coach lost the game with one call. But how about the way in which the Colts came back from a big deficit and won it on the final drive. His team was trailing, 31-14, before he got his hands on the ball in the fourth quarter yet he rallied Indy to a 35-34 win. Although first-year coach Jim Caldwell and his defense deserve a lot of credit for making some late adjustments; and safety Melvin Bullitt (playing in place of the again-injured Bob Sanders) made the game-saving tackle on that already infamous 4th and 2; there is no denying that Peyton is again doing miraculous things in Indy. He orchestrated three fourth quarter touchdown drives, including the game winner with less than two minutes to play. He threw four TDs and racked up more than 300 yards, his eighth 300-yard outing of the year. The all-time record is 10. I can't imagine he doesn't take that down. His team is undefeated. And he is the MVP as of Week 10.

3. The Cincinnati Bengals. Who dey team with season sweeps over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens under their belt? It's the 7-2 Bengals (who lost that season-opening game to Denver on that wacky Stokely tipped ball TD). A healthy Carson Palmer, a stout defense and an as-drafted No. 4 overall Cedric Benson have made this club a force. They control their destiny in the AFC North and are arguably through the hardest part of their schedule (@Oakland, Cleveland and Detroit are up next).

4. Maurice Jones-Drew. This man's bulging calves are as wide around as his swollen biceps. His quads are nearly as broad as his shoulders. He is a solid cube of awesomeness. And when he gets up to 88 mph his tracks burst into flame. Yet he can stop on a dime. Or the 1-yard line when he wants to, thus killing my Jets and my fantasy team (since I own MJD) in one deft blow. Well played, sir. In the Jags' win over Gang Green at the Meadowlands, the 5-foot-7 MJD was unstoppable. He rolled his way to every single yard on Jacksonville's first scoring drive of the day before punching the ball into the end zone. Without Kris Jenkins stuffing the middle of the field the Jags sent the diminutive runner out of UCLA between the tackles over and over. He averaged just over 5 yards per attempt and traveled 123 yards on the ground. He could have added another yard and another score at the end of the game but he took a knee at the Jets' 1 -yard line to drain the clock.

5. Manny Pacquiao. I'd avoided the 24/7 miniseries on HBO because I didn't want to get suckered into buying another fight that would suck. But then between repeated viewings of The Road Warrior and Mad Max late Friday night and early Saturday morning I found myself immersed in a marathon on HBO32 about the forthcoming Pacquiao-Cotto bout in Las Vegas. The Phililpine national hero moved like a hummingbird on meth. His energy seemed boundless as he bopped around the ring and ran off to sing on Philipino television shows and film movies, but he looked much smaller than Cotto. He didn't look like he could withstand too many flush blows. But he did. He took everything that Cotto had in the early rounds and he never stopped. He kept coming and moving and pushing and punching until his opponent was bloodied and aimless, holding on through sheer determination and without any prospect of victory. The referee ended the fight in the middle of the final round and Pac Man was awarded a championship belt in his seventh weight class. He is now one of the all-time greats and seems on track to fight Floyd Mayweather in a bout that will be 1/5 as exciting as this one.

Sixth Man. Miguel Cotto. Yeah, his face looked like a dimpled and rotting three-week old jack o' lantern wrapped in prosciutto by the start of the twelfth round but the Puerto Rican boxer more than held his own in a fight for the ages. Right up until the second time he went to the canvas late in the fourth, Cotto gave as good as he got. He landed heavy blows on Pacquiao and kept charging forward. He was hurt, though, in the fourth by the Pac Man left that put him down and he began backpedaling from that point. Still, he kept answering the bell, even after his family left because they couldn't take it any longer and after a lot of people thought that his corner should have thrown in the towel.

Benched. The Patriots' Defense. Literally. This unit was left on the bench when mastermind Bill Belichick opted to go for it on fourth and two at his own 28 yard line rather than trust his defense to keep Peyton Manning and the Colts' offense from going the length of the field to score.