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.

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