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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Dentist's Office and the Come-From-Ahead Loss

There was a contingent of graduate students in NYU's dental program sitting In the first few rows of a midcourt section of the 400 level to watch the Knicks take on the Hawks last night. They'd been able to purchase tickets at the somewhat discounted rate of $25 apiece. And no doubt they were up there drinking diet soda and discussing floss as the game was set to begin. Once it started, however, they must have quickly learned the way that the rest of us feel when we have a trip to the dentist's office.

At first, on the morning of, you usually feel pretty darn grown and responsible for even making the appointment. "Well, look at me. I'm a functioning healthy adult with dental insurance and regular teeth cleanings" you might think as you give yourself a thorough pre-trip tooth brushing. Yes, sir. You took the morning off from work and feel terrific driving over to the office, it's 10:00 a.m. and normally you'd be immersed in TPS Reports or something trivial yet of the utmost importance. It's nice to be out of the office and outside during the daylight hours. Remember that? Barely. No it's in early and out late with, if you're a lucky, a few minutes outside during lunch. But as soon as you turn the knob of the dentist's office and step into the antiseptic waiting room that vague feeling of forgotten-homework dread seeps into your stomach. The suspiciously stiff, well worn pages of Outside magazine and TIME from three months ago sound like waves crashing on the shore each time you flip them. The waiting room is quiet. The noise of the air conditioner is audible as you and two strangers sit, waiting, in silence. The fake smile you squeeze out when the receptionist calls your name inadvertently perks you up a little bit as does the banter with the dentist. "Oh, I know, Dr. Whatley. Those Yankees really are something..."

But once you're in the chair, once the blue paper bib with it's white corporate logo printed across it is fastened around your neck, it's all downhill. The positive vibes are gone. You don't want to have to make small talk with this guy. And you don't like that he's just asking you about big BOLD item sports and television happenings like you're some sort of middle school-aged tween. "Ugh. What am I doing here?" you might think to yourself after he has you bite down on some trays of "bubble gum" flouride that taste like your laundry detergent smells. Now it's just a waiting game. Waiting for it to be over. Waiting to lie about how frequently you floss. Waiting for the taste of blood when he gets that scrapey thing scraping. Waiting for the spit suction device to latch onto the inside of your cheek. Waiting to find out what hidden charges you're accruing in addition to your co-pay. Waiting for it to be over. Waiting to get home, or even, gasp, back to the office. At some point you just wish you hadn't even gone and just not thrown off your regularly scheduled day. Besides, there will be robot teeth to chew my food by the time I'm 80. And gingivitis? Please. That's like the least scary "itis" since senioritis.

Now, those dental students must also initially have felt good about getting out to the game a the Garden. After weeks and weeks of studying and being holed in libraries, dormitories and other people's mouths it must have felt exciting to be heading out to the world's most famous arena for an NBA game. Knicks vs. Hawks! Alright! Especially for those students from out of town. They told their parents in New Hampshire and Indiana that they were going to Madison Square Garden. It was a big deal, or so it may have seemed, earlier that day. Coming up from the subway or walking through the crush of commuters on Seventh Avenue they must have felt downright cosmopolitan with their tickets in hand. "Look at me, I'm a full-fledged New Yorker going to catch the Knicks on a weeknight," they might have thought. "Yes, sir, I've arrived. I'm a grown up in the big city."

But then the waiting room-like silence that greeted them when they made their way to their upper-level seats may have thrown them off somewhat. Maybe they couldn't hear the air conditioning but the swaths of empty seats visible below in the 300 and 200 levels might have presented some cause for concern about the rest of the night. Still, there was draft beer on sale and the excitement of the pregame scoreboard montage, and these aspiring canal-ers of tooth roots were with friends from school. Like flossing, regular leisure time is key to avoiding burn out and maintaining a healthy academic experience.

Those who'd been previously paying attention to the Knicks' season would have been happy to see rookie Toney Douglas rewarded with a spot in the starting lineup after his run of strong play. That excitement would have been tempered, though, by the fact that he was starting at shooting guard alongside Chris Duhon. The Douglas-Larry Hughes backcourt that I'd pined for in my last post ("Tramps Like Us") was not to be. At least not at the opening tip. Before we get into the game proper (yeah, another needless digression), the fact that D'Antoni feels comfortable starting Douglas at the 2 is, to me, a further indictment of Duhon. Even though Douglas is a point guard (mostly) by trade, he can shoot enough to play the 2. So, he plays point in crunch time on Monday and he starts at shooting guard on Wednesday? As much as I want Douglas to play increased minutes, I disagree with unbalancing your lineup like this out of the gate. If you're going to stick with Duhon then stick with him and start an actual shooting guard. But if you want to play your back-up point guard so badly then put him in place of your putrid starter rather than your veteran two guard who has quietly been one of the more solid players for you.

Predictably, Duhon loses the ball to Josh Smith on the Knicks' first possesion. Here we go again. Each misstep he takes is like another scrape of the periodontal probe. Thankfully, Douglas soon makes D'Antoni look quite clever by scoring the Knicks' first five points. Thanks to two makes apiece by Douglas, Danilo Gallinari and David Lee the Knicks jump out to a 14-7 lead. At this point, Hughes enters the game for Douglas and Harrington checks in for Gallo. Sans Douglas, the Knicks find themselves tied, 16-16, just a few minutes later. After yanking Duhon and reinserting Douglas, all the moving pieces start moving in unison. Larry Hughes, in particular seems to play much better with Douglas than with Duhon. Perhaps having the neophyte out there brings out his veteran qualities. With Douglas and Hughes paired in the backcourt for the next 8 minutes of play the Knicks get 4 layups. With Duhon out there in the first 9 they got 1. The Knicks lead, 40-30, before Duhon touches the ball upon re-entering the game with 7 minutes to play before the half.

This is the lead that they'd nurse all the way through to the half. A point would be shaved off here (by Joe Johnson) and there (by Al Horford) and early in the third quarter it is apparent that, at some point soon, the whole thing would be washed away. Johnson, the former D'Antoni pupil who is an undermentioned member of the Free Agent Class of 2010, is the best player in the gym. Not only is he heating up as the game goes along but he is drawing defenders and opening things up for the Hawks' frontcourt in the paint as well as Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford on the outside. Even up in the cheap student seating in the 400 level it is clear that the Knicks are eventually going to lose this game. Not, for once, because they aren't giving an honest effort. But because the other team is just better and deeper. It is just a matter of time after Josh Smith steals the ball and cruises for a layup, bringing the Hawks within 3 with just under 8 minutes left in the third. The positive vibes are gone. Everyone knows what was happening. Even the players on the floor. "Ugh, what am I doing here," some of those dental students may have begun wondering. "I could be working or sleeping or not sitting in a cramped seat in this building with a bunch loser sports fans" From that point on it is a waiting game. Waiting for the Knicks to squander chances to reinforce their weakening lead (which they did by missing a couple of bunnies and having a shot blocked shortly after Smith's layup). Waiting for them to turn desperate and start chucking up three-pointers instead of trying to run their offense (which Harrington and Douglas did just before Atlanta tied the game). Waiting for the Hawks to finally tie the score (which they did at 71-71 after Horford completed a dunk +1 play). Waiting for the Knicks to lose the plot altogether as soon as they were trailing (which they did, missing four of five shots after another Horford layup put the Hawks in front, 73-71). Waiting for the final minutes of the fourth quarter to pass. Waiting to get home, where you could, gasp, get back to studying. At some point those dental students up in the nosebleed seats may have just wished that they hadn't bought these discounted tickets in the first. I mean, $25 plus Ticketmaster fees isn't that cheap at all. Especially when you add in the two beers and the hot dog. Yeah, it might have been cheaper than it was for the saps who paid full price but the lesser fool is still a fool of sorts. Besides, the game was on television. "You could have watched if you wanted," one NYU student might have thought to herself. "Or not watched it just like you had not watched most of the others so far this season."

After leaving the Garden, those dental students might have felt like they had gotten their fill of Knicks basketball for the next 18 months. It was dull at best, awkward and uncomfortable at worst. These future dentists are likely in no hurry to go back. But since they mostly bought these tickets with a credit card, many of them will get a cheery postcard from the Knicks in a few months, perhaps even a phone call, reminding them to come back soon. And, now they know how the rest of us will feel about coming to seen them once they graduate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tramps Like Us

This Knicks Squad is Born to Run (and Play Zone?)

During the summer, I laced up my black, blue and orange Starbury II hi-top sneaks and hit the blacktop in Greenpoint a few nights a week and sometimes on Sunday. I had signed up for a hoops league organized by the kind folks at WORD Bookstore. A basketball league run by a bookstore? Yup. And each player had to answer a few literary questions to gain entrance to the league which was held together by the inestimable Stephanie Anderson (who almost certainly would have gotten a call had the NBA and its officials not come to a labor agreement). The coed league was comprised of folks who worked in the publishing industry, local customers of the bookstore looking to try something different and meet some people, those who existed in the middle area in the Venn diagram depicting bookishness and sports dorkiness, and ballers who were pulled into the league by friends who fit into one of the other categories.

Each of the 10 teams boasted at least one player who was flat-out good. There were a handful of dudes that could dunk, like slam dunk with the rim grabbing and whatnot, and a few dead-eye marksmen who were going to make it if you left them open. There were two young ladies in the league with polished, fundamentally sound post moves that should have been forced to wear varsity jackets during all games. Each of the 10 teams featured one of the five-star players and a sidekick or two who was solid. Each team except for the Orange Team. We didn't have anyone that could dunk. We did have one "big" but his wasn't really a power game. We didn't have anyone that could knock down open shots all day long. We did have two guys that could rattle in a 3 on a good day (and did hit some big ones later in the season). We didn't have an obvious point guard, either. We had me with two lace-up ankle braces, a lesbian couple from GP with limited youth hoops experience. We had our "bandana guy" (most teams had a bandana guy and a high socks guys - which was me with the socks-braces combo), who was slasher that could get hot from midrange but also missed a ton of night games due to his work hours as a chef. We also had Linda, who brought an inquisitive, analytic mind and zero basketball experience on Day 1.

At first, we had a utopian "let's-have-everyone-take-turns-dribbling-the-ball-up-the-court" philosophy. Not surprisingly, the Oranges of Wrath (which was our literary name incorporating our assigned color) were massacred in the preseason. We went entire halves without scoring. We didn't defend so much as we just waited our turn to take the ball. At which point we aimlessly stood around the perimeter before someone chucked up a shot (provided the other team didn't steal the ball from us first) and others tried desperately to corral the usually wild miss. We were terrible, easily the most under-talented team in the league. Like, suspisicously so. There was a guy on the roster who never showed for any function or responded to any email. We all sort of assumed that he must have been our "good" player.

After going 0-3 in the preseason, there wasn't a lot of confidence heading into the opener. We were down quickly. Inevitably. But, as the game wore on, the strengths of this group began to emerge. We were enthusiastic even if not the most athletic group. We were energetic even if not the most tireless group. And we were having fun even though we were losing. The last thing in particular seemed to disarm our opponents to a degree. So much so that we were able to tie them for points in the third quarter. We didn't lose a quarter! This was a first. And before the opening of the fourth, we hatched our comeback plan.

On defense: Stop the ball. Rather than matching up strictly based on height; yours truly (whose limited skillset does include man-to-man defense) would meet the opposing point guard as soon as he was over the midline. Too often the opposing ball handler was allowed to get directly into the paint before someone really got in front of him.

On offense: Let's get as many easy baskets as we can by trying to fast break at every opportunity. None of us could shoot very well but not for lack of effort and enthusiasm. So we figured let's run like hell and try to get ourselves some shots that we can make. In other words, let's get some layups and putbacks off of the layups that we miss because we're slightly-to-wildly out of control coming down the floor.

It worked. By stopping the ball early, we kept the other team from getting any rhythm on offense. We even turned them over a few times right at the top of the key because everyone had an easier time defending their man/woman once the point guard had been forced to pick up his dribble or at least stop his forward progress. And, when we turned them over, we ran. We got easy baskets. Which was the only kind we were capable of sinking just yet. But as those baskets came, some confidence followed. When a break would be thwarted by a defender at the goal, I would kick the ball out to a trail player for a wide open transition look. And, now we could hit those. We won that game, taking the lead for the first time on our final possession.

The least talented team in the league parlayed a Stop-the-Ball-and-Then-Run strategy into a third place finish during the summer-long regular season. With games in the 30s in 40s, our 10-12 transition baskets were often enough to swing a contest in our favor. The team's leading scorer on most nights didn't hit a jumpshot (or even attempt more than a few) until the fourth game. Once we admitted that we were not particularly good basketball players then we were able to start winning some basketball games.

Predictably, we were "upset" in the opening round of the playoffs by a team with a guy that could dunk and that had a deep bench. But nobody in orange was really too upset when we went for drinks afterward because of what we had accomplished. Through effort and mostly good attendance we were able to beat most teams on most nights. They were all better than us. But we committed ourselves to getting easy baskets and not letting others get them on us. That's it. We never got better at shooting. We never even attempted to put together a zone defense as some others did. We just tried to simplify the game. Layups for us and none for them.

Now, this is what the Knicks need to do. Of course, doing this required everyone to admit, "hey, we're probably not as good as these other teams so let's just try harder and figure that they won't." The Knicks also need to realize, and accept, that they are less talented than most teams in the league. They need to admit that they don't have any Bigs that can control the game inside. They need to admit that, other than Gallo, most of them are not particularly efficient jump shooters (even if several of them can get hot and reel off several shots on any given night). And, then they need to commit to getting as many shots close to the rim as possible and to just trying to slow down the other team's frontcourt and keep them from getting easy shots.

Tramps like the Oranges of Wrath and the 2009-10 New York Knicks, baby we were born to run. Let the All-Stars on other teams shoot their jump shots. We need to hustle and work. We need to run. We need to show up with maximum effort on Mondays and Wednesdays and for matinees on Sundays. We need to hassle opposing guards and then we need to push the ball. After telling Chris Duhon to loosen up his towel-waving arm, coach D'Antoni sent first-year point guard Toney Douglas out to pair with cagey, and possibly misread veteran Larry Hughes at the top of the two-three zone. With a Hughes-Douglas backcourt the Knicks should be able to stop the ball. Hughes was named to the All-NBA Defensive Team in 2004-05, the year that he led the Association in steals. He's shown the ability to play sweater-vest tight on opponents with the ball as well as the savvy to jump the passing lanes and deny when he's defending off the ball. Similarly, Douglas is a player with a fine defensive pedigree. Last season he was the Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC.

Their attention to defense (I'm not even going to say intensity or skill, but merely attention) got the Jazz out of their rhythm. And both players pushed the ball when they could. Douglas, who in particular played aggressively, ignited a break that got the Knicks to within one point, 84-83 by breaking out after a turnover. Hughes pushed the ball ahead to Douglas, who flipped it to a trailing Harrington, who filled the wing when he saw his teammates pushing. And that's the beauty of running. It's contagious. Teammates want to come down and get to finish off the break. Famous for his "seven seconds or less" philosophy, coach D'Antoni seems well suited to deploy this strategy but he needs to make one concession to his roster. He needs to drop the "gun" from the "run and gun" system he employed in Phoenix because he just doesn't have the same caliber of shooters on this roster. These guys need to play like the Pitino teams of the late 1980s. They need to run and play D. Hopefully open looks will come in transition and guys will gain confidence by hitting open jump shots but in the meantime D'Antoni has got to put an emphasis on getting easy shots rather than open looks from deep. Open looks aren't easy if you can't hit them. Just ask the Oranges of Wrath. Or, Duhon. Most of these Knicks aren't hitting them. They need aggressive penetration in the halfcourt set to draw defenders to hopefully create openings for cutters and they need to run, run, run in hopes of avoiding the halfcourt sets.

Because bad teams like ours baby we need to run.

* * *
And, to keep the Springsteen meme going while foreshadowing something to come....

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Knicks Be Flat Early, Jazz Win Late, 95-93

It would be accurate to say this was a last-second loss. Because the contest was decided when Toney Douglas's potentially game-tying shot missed just before time expired. When that errant off-balance chuck failed to find nylon, the Jazz "escaped" the Garden with a 95-93 win, their first triumph in NYC in five years. All of those things are true but it would still be incorrect to assert that this was a close game. It wasn't. For the sixth time in eight games, the Knicks trailed by 20 during the affair. By virtue of a key personnel move and a strategy change by coach Mike D'Antoni, the Knicks were able to make it close down the stretch, even managing to even the score. But this was not a close game. Please don't forget that.

The team came out of the chute playing aggressively and going at the rim. It looked like lessons had been learned. Larry Hughes went to the rim. Then Danilo Gallanari scored from in close. Up next was Wilson Chandler, who then hit a short shot. I mean, the Knicks weren't stopping the Jazz at the other end but at least they were actually making an effort to get good shots on offense. Actually, "effort" is probably the wrong word. It may just have been that in the frenetic first few minutes of the game both teams were both getting up and down at a good clip, yet to lock in to each other on defense and settle into their offensive gameplans. And, once the tip-off adrenaline spike came back down a few minutes later, and a proper hoops game broke out, it was clear that the Knicks were again outmatched.

With Jerry Sloan looking board and angry on the sideline, the Jazz looked a cohesive unit with a cogent strategy: move the ball and wait for the Knicks to either open a direct north-south passing lane into Boozer or miss a rotation on the perimeter and leave one of their several capable shooters open. Of the 11 field goals that Utah netted in the first quarter there were assists on 8 of them. Of the 8 field goals that the Knicks made in the first there were only assists on 2 of them. Both were credited to Larry Hughes.

Perhaps it was the presence of Jazz point guard Deron Williams in the Garden or perhaps it was just the way in which my eyes and brain were pairing to observe and consider what was happening on my television, but Chris Duhon looked particularly awful. In the first quarter he went 2-4 from the line (with bosses miss coming during one trip); committed an offensive foul; turned the ball over twice; missed a three; and presided over a shot-clock violation.

WWOD's Reasons Why Chris Duhon Needed to Be Benched:
1. We don't trust him to defend quality opposing point guards (like Deron Williams, por ejemplo) in our man-to-man sets. Hughes defends top point guards (unless he's on LBJ or some other top-tier 2 or 3, in which case their usually isn't also a top PG) and even Jared Jeffries gets some run alongside the other point in man. We try to hide Duhon on a shooting guard, preferably one who plays off the ball a lot and stays on the perimeter. Long story short: he can't defend his position.

2. We don't always trust him to get the team into its offense. Hughes has been bringing the ball up the floor a fair amount. And when Duhon does have the ball out of the backcourt, he seems to be stuck in slow-motion. He is not running. Nor is he making enough forays into the paint to keep defenses honest and/or to kick out to our shooters on the perimeter. Long story short, he can't affect the tempo of the game and get his teammates easier shots, either by getting them layups in transition or open looks on drive-and-kick plays.

3. He can't shoot. At least not right now. He's shooting 26% from the field this season. Short story short, he can't score on his own, either.

4. All he's got going for him is the pick-and-roll play with David Lee but everyone knows that which is actually making it harder and harder for this team to run it's lone effective set. Long story short: he's actually taking away things from his teammates.

5. Al Harrington is annoyed at him. Long story short: he is not a leader.

6. He's not going to be back next season and Toney Douglas will. If Duhon were, say, Andre Miller in the last year of a contract and playing well, leading this team into postseason contention, then I say let's win as many as we can and let Douglas wait his turn. But Duhon isn't coming back or playing well and his team is going nowhere. And he's not even getting us there quickly.

7. Nate Robinson will be back soon and we need to establish Douglas in the rotation before them. Already struggling to find an identity, the Knicks can't afford to muddy the picture even further with an even-ish three-way split at the point.

8. He exhibited fine towel-waving technique in the later stages of this game. Perhaps we've unearthed his one plus skill.

Mercifully, D'Antoni pulled Duhon and went with Hughes-Douglas backcourt to end the first (and to end the game). In the last few minutes of that quarter and the first few minutes of the next, Douglas scored 6 points and the Knicks got as close as 5. They were trailing by just 7 when Duhon checked back in with 8:49 to play in the half. Not surprisingly, they trailed by 17 points by the time the whistle blew for intermission. Duhon missed two shots and committed two fouls during this seemingly game-killing stretch.

To his credit, the former Dukie (and current dookie) came out with some urgency in the third quarter and even got a shot to fall. The team as a whole was also playing with greater intensity as the zone defense D'Antoni dialed up sparked them. Another comeback (from another HUGE deficit) looked to be in the offing except for the fact that Duhon-Lee side of the two-three zone was being exploited by Andre Kirilenko, who was knocking down threes like Trent Tucker with 0.2 to play. AK-47 knocked down four 3s in the quarter to maintain a comfy double-digit cushion for the Jazz even as the Knicks seemed revitalized.

The zone really found itself a few minutes into the fourth quarter when Hughes and Douglas were at the top and Harrington, Jeffries and Gallo were across the baseline. Douglas was the Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC last season and Hughes has been named an All-NBA Defensive player as well. Together they were tenacious and controlled each possession. Yes, the Jazz would find the right entry pass every few trips but there was less daylight around the edges. In less than 3 minutes on the floor together this quintet had a 12 point lead cut to 5. Everyone but Jeffries had scored and the IU product was the glue at the interior of the zone, which forced a shot-clock violation during this stretch. After two Gallinari free throws made it a three point game, 84-81, came the play that, for me, summed up all the good things that were happening for the team. Williams brought the balll across the equator for Utah. He dribbled into the teeth of the zone. The crowd at the Garden was as loud as they've been all season. DEEE-FENSE! Douglas jumps into the passing lane, deflecting the ball to Hughes. As soon as he sees that Hughes has secured possession the rookie out of Florida State goes charging down the right wing. He's breaking. Fast. Hughes pushes the ball ahead to him and continues down the center of the court. Seeing his teammates moving down the court with a quickness, Harrington comes charging down, looping around to fill the left wing. Douglas drives towards the rim at angle from the right, sees the trailing Harrington bending his run into the paint, flips him the ball just as the lone defender commits to him, and Big Al slams it home. 84-83. Timeout Utah.

That play was it for me. Aside from the fact that it gave them a legit chance to win this ballgame, that was when I saw the way this team should be playing: Defense and quick counterattack. From that point on, Boozer and Okhur battled Douglas to the wire and prevailed by two points. And not for lack of trying by the freshman. He scored back-to-back driving layups to keep pressure on the Jazz the whole way. But his last-second shot attempt was off and the Knicks lost. That was no surprise. Really, like not at all. But those few fleeting moments of tenacious zone defense and Douglas' emergence as a catalyst was quite the surprise. I'm encouraged that D'Antoni benched Duhon when it counted and thrilled that the move paid dividends.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Weekend at Jimmy's

Or, How Jimmy Dolan's Knicks Fared This WeekendIt was just one week ago this evening that I felt like everything in the world was alright. Or at least everything at the Garden. I sat in the stands and watched a determined, dogged Knicks squad outplay and defeat a more talented New Orleans Hornets side that got 30+ points and 10+ assists from Chris Paul. I watched the Knicks come out focused, maintain their intensity, fend off a late charge from their playoff-bound foe and then re-take control of the game in the fourth quarter. I gotta say, I felt good. I felt like this was going to be OK. Like the team would dispatch the Pacers later in the week, hold their own in a defeat to the Lebronaliers, and then spend this week looking to get to .500. Oh, how wrong I was. Again. Like the time in middle school when I bought all those Laser Discs thinking I'd have them forever. The Knicks dropped that game to the Pacers. In poor, poor fashion on the same night that the Yankees were winning the World Series. Oh, what a night. Sweet surrender. Oh, what a night. And that brings us to the weekend.

Friday Night: Lebron > Our Guys
This went exactly like you thought it would. Lebron led all scorers, people cheered, scenes were made, and the Knicks lost. With LBJ in town all eyes were on him and all ears were on anything he had to say about his impending free agency. The tea leaves were read in as many varieties as there are flavors put out by Celestial Seasonings. Jeff Van Gundy thinks he already knows what he's going to do. The beat writers all of a sudden think he's going to Miami. CC Sabathia says there's nothing like winning in New York. (Although I think that Stephon Marbury will tell you that there is also nothing quite like losing in New York.) Who knows what will happen? Not me. All I know for sure is that he is a special talent. He dropped 33 on the Knicks on Friday and we defended him well (see the full breakdown on a previous post). He hit contested shots. He passed the ball. Well. He grabbed boards and he put the game on ice after the Knicks clawed back into contention late. He is a fine specimen and I wish that he were a fine specamine. But those decisions are many months further on up the road so let's not waste breath just yet.

To me, this game was lost at the offensive end. As I mentioned, the Knicks defended Lebron as well as our roster could be expected to. The 24-year-old manchild did not have a dunk or a layup. He did not record a triple double. He did not kiss all of our girlfriends and turn in our latest project to our bosses well ahead of us. And none of his teammates exploded in any game-changing way, which Daniel Gibson has done to us before and Shaq has the potential to do against our undersized lineup. Nope, none of those things happened and the Cavs were "limited" to 100 points. Yet we were never even as close as the final score, 100-91, indicated.

This game was lost with terrible marksmanship and rudderless offensive possessions during a stretch that straddled the first and second quarters. After a Gallo three-point shot brought the Knickerbockers within 18-15 with about six minutes to play in the first, the team embarked on a 5 for 18 stretch that was mercifully ended by another Gallo 3. Before that trey, though, the score was 53-22. And there were about four minutes to play in the half. A shocking amount of those possessions lasted no more than one pass.

Chris Duhon and his teammates seemed in no hurry to get the ball down the court after a rebound or a Cavs score, refusing to make the size difference in the frontcourt work for them. Ironically, though, they were apparently in a great hurry to get a shot up once they finally made their way to the other side of the court. The ball rarely made it very far past the three-point line before a jump shot was lofted up. And missed. I was disappointed that D'Antoni didn't call a timeout or try to stop what was happening. Duhon was anonymous at the point and perhaps his teammates were somewhat spooked by the effortless manner in which Lebron was stroking it from the outside. We were not having the same success. During this stretch former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said, "I never bought into the that the Knicks didn't have a will. I just don't think they're good enough. If you look at them, who is the frontline talent? They have a lot of guys that can come off the bench and be in a rotation but not necessarily a lot of guys who can be in a starting lineup."

Ouch. And accurate. Van Gundy continually pointed out the team's seeming refusal to push the tempo and felt that it was a mistake. When talking about the team's reliance on (missed) jumpers, he said "You know, the Knicks are getting decent looks. They're just not a good shooting team. And when you're undersized and don't shoot particularly, that's not a good combination." And, no it wasn't. Thankfully the sudden emergence of Jordan Hill gave the Knicks a bit of a spark towards the end of the first half. He showed a nice midrange touch and fearlessness with the ball in his hands. Even though the Knicks came back to make the game close, 100-91, this was a dispiriting performance on national television.

Saturday Night: Incident on North Fourth Street
For the second night of a home-road back-to-back pair, the Knickerbockers were in Milwaukee on Saturday night. After a bright start, in which it looked like the shots were finally going to fall, things went predictably sour at the Bradley Center. Aussie center Andrew Bogut and rookie point guard Brandon Jennings, who the Knicks passed on to take Jordan Hill, turned the Knicks' early 10-4 lead into a 22-40 deficit by the end of the first quarter. It was a shellacking on North Fourth Street.

"They kept giving us a lot of open shots," Jennings marveled after the game. "They were giving us so many easy shots."

On the bright side, Chris Duhon was finally benched and our rookie PG showed some flashes. Toney Douglas came off the bench to chip in 16 points. But no number of garbage time points by the second-best rookie point in the building could wash the stink off this game. At least, that's what I've read. Because, you see, I was at the Garden on Saturday night while the Knicks were in Milwaukee. Rather than sitting on the couch for a second straight evening, I was perched in the third row of the 400 level just over stage left for a historic performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. For the first, and likely only, time, they played The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle in its entirety from start to finish as the centerpiece of the show. And they turned the Garden up to 11, bringing in horns and strings to recreate the masterpiece in full.

That seven-song album is my favorite of the Boss's and probably one of my favorite records overall. The seamless combination of funk, soul, jazz and rock and roll undergirds some of Springsteen's most evocative lyrics. After the precocious, fevered and near-ecclesiastical ecstasy of Greetings From Asbury Park but before the focused, anthemic explosion that was Born to Run there was the loose, reckless visionary passion of WIESS. With idiosyncratic, romantic and gritty characters populating a landscape fleshed out by a one-of-a-kind rhythm-and-blues bar band seemingly discovering it's power (read: "Rosalita" is perhaps the greatest rock and roll ever written/performed) as the record went along.

After taking in the performance on Saturday, a scribe from Glide wrote that "Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band symbolize everything that’s right about rock - they are honest, talented performers who put their all into every note. They mix it up from night to night, don’t rely on their greatest hits and are more substance than spectacle. Let’s not forget they decided to play WIESS after the show sold out just because they knew the fans would love it, not as a gimmick to sell tickets."

Closer to 57th Street than North Fourth Street, the performance was exuberant and precises, a combination that sets Springsteen and the E Streeters apart from their peers. The show opened with the outtake "Thundercrack," which is always a fave of mine and closed with an uproarious take on Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher," with an assist from Elvis Cotsello. It also provided the best Knicks-related moment of the night. During the song "Wrecking Ball," which was penned for the closing down of Giants Stadium but has since taken on a life of it's own as a sort of defiant rallying cry for the band as they close this chapter, Springsteen tweaked the lyrics to fit the current venue and give props to some of its tenants.

Now, my home is in the Meadowlands
But tonight New York City is going up in flames
here where the blood is spilled and the garden is filled
And Walt Frazier played his games.

When I think of Clyde, I think about the fantastical idea of New York City that comes across in Springsteen's early songs. It was a fitting tribute to No. 10. If only he could have been at MSG rather than stuck in Milwaukee calling that terrible game.

Monday Mudita

Onetime USA next-big-thing Brian Ching netted this 96th minute to cap a tense 1-0 win for Houston over Seattle. Thanks to Ching's golden goal, the Dynamo advance to the Western Conference Final in the MLS postseason. They will face the LA Galaxy thanks to a penalty cooly dispatch by Landon Donovan.

-In more important footie news, Arsenal continued their goal-scoring ways in a 4-1 win over outclassed Wolverhampton while Chelsea held the top spot in the Premiership by nipping Manchester United, 1-0.

-Real Madrid kept the pressure on the Catalan title holders in Spain as both teams triumphed at the weekend.

-Burnley once again gave one of the middle children (since they're not yet one of the Big Four kids) a trouble as they drew against Manchester City.

- In Italy, Roma drew against league-leaders Inter Milan as former Arsenal skipper Patrick Vieira was called out by the Roma gaffer for an "errant" elbow that fractured a player's cheekbone.

Monday Morning Schadenfreude

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Meadowlark Lemon to the Knicks in 2010?


Not only do I enjoy that Knicks fan Chris Rock flexed his hoops knowledge last night during the game and that he cracked a few jokes at our team's expense (self-deprecation is a quality that I admire in sports fans) but I feel forever glad that there was one C. Rock-JVG improv moment. After this clip, Rock kept talking to Burke about the Knicks and Lebron. Burke then relayed to Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy that Rock suggested sending Lebron to the Nets in exchange for Devin Harris, Brook Lopez and some draft picks. To which, JVG responded that Nets GM Rod Thorn would piggy back both those two to Cleveland if he could. There's a buddy comedy here somwhere.

The Unstoppable Force Meets the Movable Objects

So, yeah, Lebron Really, Really Can't Be Stopped

The Knicks lost to the Lebroanliers last night at the Garden. LBJ went off for 33 points His team amassed a 26-point lead before a late charge by the Knickerbockers made the final score look respectable. CC Sabathia and assorted Yankees were in the crowd. Jay Z was there. Chris Rock was ripping on Toney Douglas. Charles Oakley was in attendance and looked dashing and terrifying in his all-black ensemble. I was on the couch solo with six High Lifes and a bottle of wine. And a lot of leftover Halloween candy.

There are a lot of issues to talk about with this game but attention must be paid to the shooting display that James put on last night. The reason is twofold. First of all, he's just undeniably unstoppable. His midrange game is leaps and bounds better than it used to be back when his best moves were his leaps and his bounds to the basket. Tonight he was hitting all those contested shots that Kobe has proven so adept at. His third field goal was a three-pointer with Larry Hughes wallpapered all over him. With a hand in his face as he faded slightly away on the jump, James drained the shot. On the way back down the court he smiled, slapped Hughes on the butt and shrugged one of those MJ in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 Finals against the Blazers shrugs. It was just one of those days. Which meant a long night for the Knicks.
As you'll see below, the Knicks did a fine job of covering James (or at least as fine a job as you can) and denying him the paint. Larry Hughes did the bulk of the work and seemed most adept. He played him tight and worked harder than his teammates to deny the ball or at least ensure that James got it far from the rim. Wilson Chandler, Jared Jeffries also guarded him at times and rookies Jordan Hill and Toney Douglas accidentally ended up D-ing him up, too. No matter who was on LBJ, though, most every shot he took was contested. And, shockingly, he didn't register one dunk or layup (although he did hit a falling, floating +1 shot in close that was boxscored as a layup even though I disagree) in the game. And by keeping him out of the painted area, the Knicks were able to hold him to just 7 free throws. Overall, it was the sort of effort against Lebron that should give you a chance to win. You'll take 33 points almost exclusively on 15+ foot jumpshots and no dunks.

The Knicks didn't lose tonight because of their defense on James. Or on any of the Lebronaliers for that matter. Lebron's 33 were hard-earned and from the perimeter while just two of his teammates broke double digits (Boobie Gibson hit for 11 and Mo Williams for 12). Disconcertingly, especially for a D'Antoni-coached team, the Knicks lost this game on offense (but more about that in another post). Let's take a look at each of Lebron's shots to both appreciate how deadlier he is and how well he was actually defended.

James dropped this early-in-the-clock jumper from 22 feet. Hughes had a hand in his face and was defending with an eye toward keeping the King from the paint. This is the sort of shot that you, in theory, "want" LBJ to take. 2-0 in favor of the city that CC Sabathia used to play for before coming to New York.
After assisting on two of the next three Cavs buckets, LBJ went back to the well once more. With Hughes playing off him a bit to defend the penetration, James rose from about the same spot and canned another jump shot.
Having realized that James was content to shoot from the outside if Hughes allowed, the onetime Cavalier got into Lebron hard on this possession, nearly pushing backing him off the court altogether. James faded towards the sideline and away from the rim from beyond the three-point line. Hughes rose with him, faded with him. His arm extended, his hand in James' face, obscuring his view of the rim. But the shot dropped pure from 26 feet.
It's officially a futile enterprise defending this guy. He's got 9 of the Cavs' 18 points and the Knicks have 10. The Knicks can barely keep pace with him, let alone him and four other guys playing together.
He missed! Hughes didn't defend this one any better than previous shots. If anything was different, it may have been that he didn't match LBJ's leap as well as he has shown he can.
Chandler fouls James as he powers his way into the paint and Gallo smothers him and his shot to keep the ball from getting up near the rim. Gallo's authoritative play is heartening. I feel like too many young players don't realize that this play goes even past the whistle.
With Harrington substituted for Hughes, it's Jeffries turn. The former Mr. Basketball in Indiana is on James so tight for this shot that he is nearly invisible in this picture taken from behind the play. Did it matter? Nope. Two more for the tally.
See above.
See above.
This is getting ridiculous. Wth Jeffries all over him and with time ticking down in the first quarter James launches up an off-balance three. Good! The score is 40-21 after one quarter. The Cavs' lead is 19 ponts. Lebron James has scored 19 points. Coincidence?
After Gallo and the suddenly relevant Jordan Hill winnowed the Cavs lead from 25 to 18, LBJ feels compelled to take another shot. But this time he's got the nearly-seven-foot Hill guarding him deep in the corner. Hill is playing really tight but uses the baseline well to keep LBJ from using his speed advantage to blow by him. James rises and tries to shoot over the lengthy hoopcat. Finally. A miss. So maybe seven-footers are long enough to bother James on the outside?
After starting the second quarter on the bench, then hanging along the perimeter and playing the role of distributor upon entering, Lebron finally looked to drive the ball into paint. He got equal-to and then past Chandler at the elbow before the third-year player out of DePal fouled him to send him to the line. LBJ had still yet to touch the rim or get a layup.




And these free throws produced points 18 and 19 in the first half for the King. Not too shabby.

As the announcers discussed, the Knicks had held James without a dunk, layup or even a shot attempt in the paint through two quarters. Yes, he did make almost all of his jumpshots but you still take that every time you can get it.


A 9-0 Knickerbocker run early in the third quarter made the game competitive insofar as it woke up James and Company. After a dunk from Shaq to open the half and three Cleveland turovers, James took matters into his own hands. He got the ball on the left wing, guarded by Hughes, and dribbled towards teammates at the top of the key, looking to shed his defender long enough to get some daylight. Not that daylight had mattered much in the first half.


After Hughes was held up by the scrum at the top of the key, LBJ exploded into the paint. He was a freight train rolling down the tracks and Chris Duhon seemed a damsel in distress tied to the tracks like the heroine in some old-timey Western. Except in this case, his shoulders were squared and his feet were set outside of the restricted area well before the train came through.



This was the prototypical charge scenario. 6-foot-8-inch player comes full steam ahead down the lane, his 250+ pounds knocking a point guard with established position several feet back off his spot. Except that this behemoth was no plodding power forward of olden times. It's the point forward next generation prototype: Lebron James. A charge becomes a blocking foul and LBJ gets two shots from the line. Yes. And yes.

After another bucket by Lee brings the Knicks back within 16 points, 67-51, Lebron again answers. Guarded by Hughes as they come down the floor he runs his old teammate off a screen on the left wing. Chandler switches on to James. Wilson doesn't have the same confidence as Hughes while covering LBJ and is giving him more space.



I'm not sure if Hughes' familiarity with James is what he's got over Chandler or if it's just his confidence. Either way, Chandler is giving James some breathing room. And LBJ is more than happy to "take what the defense gives you." I hear that all the time but this play, really illustrates Lebron doing that.




With Chandler playing him with a few feet of cushion, LBJ takes a few hard dribbles toward the paint. Chandler cedes more ground to keep James in front of him. But the reigning MVP plants his foot, stops, rises and fires. The combination of the initial buffer zone he had and the extra step/second he gained with his drive-pull up gives him one of his most open looks of the night.



But to Chandler's credit he recovers almost immediately and is able to turn his own momentum around and still get a paw in the King's face. Although his look was clear, the shot and follow through were most certainly contested as Chandler's athleticism got him back on James, almost totally making up for his timidity in coverage when James was handling the balll earlier in the possession. Chanlder is a terrific athlete and this saves him against most players in a situation like this. Not here. Not against this opponent.


But Chandler's late recovery doesn't stop this one from being pure. Two points and the Lebronaliers lead is back up to 18.

With Chandler and Hughes barring entry to the interior of the offensive end, Lebron "settles" for another jumpshot. This one isn't true. The King intercepts a poor pass by Lee. The crowd is amped, expecting his first dunk of the night. But Gallo hustles back and intercepts LBJ just inside the three-point line. He barrels into him. Whistle. Play stopped. No dunk. Or at least no dunk that counts. James continues towards rim, rises and slams one home for the amusement of the crowd, but the Garden public address announcer quickly notes "No basket."

On this play, Lebron set up deep in the corner away from the ball. Eventually both Big Z and Andy Varejoa set up on the low block and elbow respectively. LBJ ran Hughes off screens by both bigs as he made his way towards the top of the key and the ball handler. Once he cleared Varejoa he made a hard left back into the paint and towards the rim.



I've watched too many games where Reggie Miller would run off two such screens before turning suddenly to receive the ball and fire up a quick shot. For Reggie, though, both screens would usually be on the blocks as his run would be along the baseline to get his shot from the opposite corner or wing from where he had started the sequence.



But Reggie wasn't built like Willis Reed. James is. So he recieves the pass and takes off for the rim. En route he is met by David Lee, who brings both arms down on James to stop him from getting to hoop. The 250-pounder absorbs the blow, hangs in the air, floating off course (more upcourt towards the benches) but still towards the baseline. He hangs and he pushes the ball up at the goal before coming down. And, it's good. He then dispatches the free throw.
With Chandler draped all over him like one of my ill-fitting $100 suits from Target, Lebron didn't get this 22-footer down.LBJ got himself back into the paint after beating Toney Douglas who was ended up covering him as the team came down the floor. Our No. 23 played their No. 23 way too tight way too far from the rim and LBJ blew by him. He was soon swarmed by three Knicks. Chandler fouled him low and Harrington went up high to block the shot and make sure that this wasn't a +1 situation. Again, though, there was nothing easy. Even with the Knicks trailing 77-58 in the waning seconds of the third quarter they are not surrendering to James, who hits one of two free throws.18 feet from the rim. Inches from Hughes. This time the ball doesn't fall true. A miss. Not that this picture looks any different from the ones where he scores. To further minimize the impact of the defense, it could be argued that he missed this shot because it's the first one he took after a few minutes on the bench to start the fourth quarter.
Another 19-footer from the wing, with a Hughes in his front pocket drops for 30 and 31.
Lebron came across the court and took this fading running jumper as his momentum carried him towards the Knicks bench on plane and away from the hoop on the other. It was a tough shot, Chandler was contesting as well as one could but the ball got up about the rim with a softness and bounced through the net for points 32 and 33. Game over.

Even though he didn't hit 50 points or notch another triple double I'm thoroughly impressed by Lebron James. He is at the point where he still gets 30 when you stick to your defensive gameplan on him, which I think the Knicks actually did tonight. They deserve some credit for that and LBJ deserves even more for being impervious to their efforts. He is one of a kind. Not since Bernard King have the Knicks had such a gifted scorer. And that's not even talking about all of the other superlative facets of Lebron's game.