Tuesday, November 3, 2009

And, We're Off

Bing. Lobby. Right to Park. Left to Lex. Goodnight office. Hello Moon? Evening had already descended on the Big Apple. And it wasn't a particularly late night tethered to the desk for yours truly. Nope. It's just dark now. And it will last for months and months. Dark is the new morale-sapping normal. Cue the seasonal affective disorder.

Or, actually cue that vague feeling of uselessness and melancholy on Tuesday night at 6:15 p.m. because Monday night I had a pair of tickets to the Knicks' game in my front-left pants pocket. And it should be dark for this. For me, walking to the Garden under the night sky and the city lights, through the steam rising from manhole covers and grated gutters and in between the taxi cabs convinced of the sinfulness of jaywalking, is the way it's supposed to be.

The season may have begun last week for the team and the first home game may have been on Halloween. But Monday was opening night for me. And with trick or treating behind us and the ice skating rink and holiday shopping village promptly being erected in Bryant Park behind the main branch of the New York Public Library it finally felt like hoops season as I briskly traversed Midtown en route to the Garden. The air is supposed to be crisp to cold for such walks. The city is supposed to be deep into the Fall (and so it seemed is the team at 0-3). I know the year is waning fast as I've already had a few tense conversations about whether I'm going to spend Christmas with my girlfriend's family (And I am. Sort of). Yes sir, it's basketball season. No doubt about it. No matter what is happening on FOX. Tonight is a night for the Knicks. The Yankees don't belong in November (just like the Mets clearly don't belong in October).

Walking south on 7th Avenue, crossing 34th Street, I pass under a towering advertisement featuring Lebron James. Hopefully his marketing presence will be even more significant next season. But tonight the biggest star at the Garden will be New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul.

"Are you going to the Knicks game tonight?"
"Yes. Yes we are."
"Then head downstairs and they'll have a table for you in a moment."

And they did. Rather than usual stop at Nathan's for the No. 2 meal with a lemonade before the game, me my better half ducked into Stout, just east of Peepworld on 33rd Street. Because I'm classy like that when on a date she wanted to. Good burger. Domestic bottled beer for less than $6. And back on the street in perfect time to catch the pregame video montage. Not too shabby. I mean, it was no Nathan's but that'll do, Stout. That'll do.

"Straight to the top, please," said the ticket scanner in his thick wool purple coat as I passed through the turnstile on the A/B Tower side of the entrance.

First night. Last row. With my free magnetic schedule in hand I escalated to the 400 level and looped around to section 412, behind the basket on the Knicks end of the court. Row G. Last row. Wait, come back you just walked past row G. Seats 3 and 4. Always first class for me and mine. These were cheapest tickets in the house at $10 (before fees that nearly double that). Still, I do declare that it's a good deal to get in the building knowing that most nights it's no problem to migrate to the 300 or 200 levels by the second quarter.

Finally. Folded into a chair at the Garden for a home game. The lights soon dimmed (perhaps better not to notice how many empty seats there still were) and the scoreboard came alive with the voice and visage of.... Hulk Hogan. Hot off his name-check at the start of last week's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the Hulkster is exhorting Knicks fans to get excited for tonight's game. OK. From that unexpected treat, I guess, it was on to a video-game inspired player montage before the home team's introductions.

Game Time:
It's possible that CP3 was greeted by more applause than any of the other nine men starting in this game. And it's a lock that Emeka Okafor out of UConn was in the top five. David Lee may have pushed the noise-o-meter needle farthest, nipping Paul of the honor. Maybe. After those two was Danilo Gallinari, for certain. The surprise of the starting lineup introductions, though, was not the lackluster reaction of the crowd to the home team. Rather, it was the inclusion of shooting guard Larry Hughes. After getting DNP-CD in the first two games, and one solid performance off the bench he was back out there for the tip off. Good.

Okafor easily won the opening tip. Bad. David West corraled the ball and easily bulled his straight-line way to the rim for an easy two. Bad. Okafor stuffed Wilson Chandler at the other end. Bad. The Knicks small starting lineup present matchup problems at both ends. The Knicks are vulnerable inside and Okafor has had good games against us going back to his time in Charlotte. The pair of bigs put up NOLA's first six points. Getting the home squad on the board early is (surprise, surprise) none other than Hughes. His first bucket comes after grabbing the rebound off his own miss. He looks hungry.

And after three losses on the bounce, so did his teammates. The Knicks jumped out to an early lead. They held it through the half. The weathered the inevitable Hornets comeback, even trailing heading into the final quarter, and closed out the game like a confident team.

The Takeaways:
-Larry Hughes is back. I was disheartened by the DNPs to start the season. I know that he shot the ball terribly in the preseason but I didn't need to see D'Antoni alienate another veteran during the opening week. I still think he misplayed the Marbury situation last year and am glad we didn't end up there once again. Credit also goes to Hughes for being ready when called upon. He defended Chris Paul most of the time they were on the floor together and did a stellar job. CP3 was held to 13 points entering the fourth quarter before exploding down the stretch to prolong this game. Aside from being the only natural shooting guard on the roster, Hughes just displayed that veteran savvy that this team sorely lacks sometimes.
-The Knicks are weak on the interior defensively, but they showed they are capable of swarming and switching pretty cleanly. Obviously we also know they are capable of being demolished by big men.
-Gallinari is extremely talented. Yes, he's shot the lights out thus far but even on an off-night, he showed great awareness with his passing and his steal of Peja late in the fourth really closed the door on the Hornets comeback bid. That was a play that was all instinct. Especially for a forward so far from the paint.
-Darko is part of the rotation. For reals. I was sort of upset when this dawned on me in the third quarter. And he pretty much single-handedly created a four-point swing for the Hornets upon checking in for Lee. But the margin between the teams was about the same when he checked out. OK. For now.
-Toney Douglas is not ready for prime time. He seemed to have very poor body control, losing his balance a few times when he first came in while backpedaling on defense and even barreling into Paul near midcourt. Seeing how lackluster he looked, made me wonder how out of sorts Jordan Hill must be if he can't even steal a minute off of Darko.
-Al Harrington is doing exactly what he needs to do. With the Hornets' top three (CP3, West, Okafor) on the bench early in the fourth it was time for the Knicks to regain the lead and take back control of the game. I looked over to my date and said "if the Knicks are going to win than Al" needs to get going right now." And, he did. Big Al scored 7 of the team's first 11 in the fourth and we got the lead back. Seeing him come off the bench, I have no doubt that he could be a solid fourth (and even shaky third) option on a high-level playoff team. He's like a poor man's Lamar Odom mixed with a dash of homeless man's Paul Pierce. And, most importantly, the NJ native gets it. He gets fired up. He runs down the floor with his hands raised after a key stop and tugs at that New York on his chest.
-The Duhon-Lee pick-and-roll is alive and well. It took them a while to find it but when they did it looked as good as it did during any point last year. And like last year, the fell so deeply in love with it so quickly that they started to force it to the detriment of the other players on the court.

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