Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Knicks Also Rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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