Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Case of the Runs

Knicks Edge Suns, 114-109, in See-Saw Battle

As David Lee noted in his post-game remarks on MSG, this win ranks right up there with the W over the Celtics as the Knicks' best home results of the season. On paper this victory isn't as impressive as the result over Boston, but in the doing it was every inch its equal. The Knicks would have lost this game last week. And last season. And the season before that. This win showed how far this team has come both phyiscally and intellectually.

With rookie forward Danilo Gallinari healthy (for now) and Nate Robinson contributing again (for now), the Knicks actually had the horses to play 48 minutes against a playoff-caliber team. That is the first thing that a fan can takeaway from this win. With a nine-man rotation in place at long last, we've nearly got a full team. Which is something. I mean, there isn't a proper center, but the difference from a few weeks ago is still marked. The team has layers to it now: Nate Robinson and Al Harrington are the obvious children off the bench but Tim Thomas and Gallinari are capable of giving us 15 minutes a night. It's not just seven guys running around for 48 minutes trying their best. Just this past weekend the Knicks played just seven guys @ Washington and lost late.

Literally having enough players to compete night after night is the first hurdle that these Knicks have had to clear as the roster has been in flux (and mismanaged to a certain degree). With the non-stop travel, myriad promotional appearances and the games themselves, the NBA life is tiring even if coach D'Antoni doesn't believe in fatigue. That being said, I think that lack of depth was only half the story about the aforementioned loss @ Washington. The other half of that old tale from the sea is that this team hasn't had the mental toughness to win close games down the stretch or the resourcefulness to bounce right back if an opponent makes a prolonged run. The Knicks have dropped several games this year that they could have won (San Antonio, both Dallas games, @ Washington) because they couldn't execute when things got down to the wire.

Now, the nine-man Knicks have won two consecutive close games. They led the Suns by a mere four points with 2:30 to play and trailed the Bulls heading into the final minute on Monday. The Knicks are learning how to win. And how to get back up off the mat when a team knocks them down. This quality was on display early and often last night as the contest was back-and-forth. It was a game of runs. One team would make a charge for a few minutes and then the other would storm right back to retake momentum. In months and seasons past there would come a point when the Knicks lost confidence and elasticity. When they wouldn't/couldn't bounce back anymore. This never happened against Phoenix.

The Suns are not championship timber but they're a good team. And, their best players got theirs last night. Steve Nash had 19 assists, Jason Richardson scored 27 points, Amare Stoudemire got 20 and Shaq was indomitable down low in the first half and finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks. Grant Hill was 7 of 11 from the field and showed flashes of his former brilliance in the 3rd quarter. The Suns had it going. They went on an 18-4 run in the first quarter and a 13-3 run in the second quarter, but the Knicks still beat them.

Other Notes Observations and Things Better Left Unsaid:
-David Lee was tremendous on the offensive end (and on the boards) last night. He scored 25 and grabbed 16 for his 30th double-double in 41 games. He clearly grasps how proficient he has become at the high screen and roll with Duhon and actively looks to initiate it on most trips down the floor. Against a slower defender (which Shaq qualifies as) he can sprint right to the rim if he gets the ball high enough. Lee also dropped in two jump shots from 18-20 feet in the first few minutes to give the Suns notice that he would have to be defended away from the rim. I can't say that Shaq seemed put out too much by the jump shots but Lee's ability to reliably hit midrange shots is key to his development as a player. Defensively, Lee was demolished by Shaq in the first half. The Shaqtus made six dunks or layups in the first half. It's hard to fault Lee for this but it's also hard to imagine he would have been capable of stopping Amare Stoudemire had he been guarding his natural position. Although it doesn't quite make sense, Lee is a hustling dirty-work sort of player who is better at scoring than defending. It's counterintuitive. Like, enjoying gatherings but hating people.

-Shaq can still be dominant. But not for 48 minutes. He was unstoppable in the first half. You either fouled him or let him dunk if got the ball down low. Watching the game, I wondered out loud if he would be able to keep it up. He couldn't. He tired. We won.

-Nate Robinson looks to have returned from the hinterlands of ineptitude. He has reportedly been working on his game extra lately and it seems to have paid off. Although he's not a starter, I think Nate benefits more than most from the nine-man rotation that D'Antoni seems likely to use going forward. His success isn't predicated on minutes. It's about his relationship to chaos. He is either bringing it to the other team or to his. When Nate feels desperate, like he needs to go above and beyond the call of duty to wake up his tired team then he is more likely to go one on one and press too much. When he can come in to a functional atmosphere and just be little illicit rail to pick every one up for a few minutes then he is at his best. He was active and on the right side of entropy last night. He also provided the comic relief. When a defensive rotation left him guarding Shaq in the paint, Nate leapt to intercept the lob pass that he thought was coming. The pass never came but Shaq did intercept Nate and then toss him back to earth. In a gentle giant sort of way.

-Danilo Gallinari looks like the No. 6 pick in the draft right now. I've been really impressed by him these last three games. He can hit the three and is very active in and around the hoop when called for. At times he still looks like a teenager out there but he's got a head for the game even if he doesn't quite have the body for it yet.

Read All About It:
ESPN.com
The Times
Newsday
The Post (Berman's recap)
The Post (Greenberg on Lee vs. Shaq)
The News

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