Monday, December 7, 2009

Two-Timing Touch (and Broken Zones)

A lot has gone down since we all last left our cubicles, officles and assorted places of business at quitting time on Friday afternoon/evening. For starers, the temperature dropped dozens of degrees in and around the Big Apple, leading me to learn the difference between a "coat" and a "jacket" from both my girlfriend and her mother. With Phish giving Garden fans the best performance they've seen in a while on Friday night, a college-football Saturday chock full of BCS implications and awesome games, a frigid wintry Sunday with 10 early games on the NFL slate, and fantasy football playoff berths on the line; there wasn't a lot of attention paid to the Knicks two-game sweep of the weekend. Well, attention must be paid. As Linda Loman might have said, the Knicks may be a small team but a small team can be just as exhausted as a great one.

And, the Knicks should have slept well last night after racking up a road win @ Atlanta on Friday and icing a home rodeo with the Nets at 1 p.m. on Sunday. The New York Knickerbockers have won three out of their last four games. They unimpressively beat the New Jersey Nets - who are threatening to become the worst team, by record, in the history of the NBA - on "Kids Day" at MSG. Most assuredly, this is nothing to write home about. But then again, I'm not writing home. I'm writing on a website checked by some sports enthusiasts and actually read by the few Knicks fans in that group. And this sort of win is exactly the thing to blog here about. Because the Knicks are a bad team. Being a bad team, it is important to beat the worse teams. Bad should always be better than worse. And, in the Eastern Conference where at least one sub-.500 team has reached the postseason during each of the previous five years there is something to be said for beating those worse than you whenever you play them. For a mediocre (and, yeah, I guess it's a stretch to even call this Knicks club mediocre, but I'm an optimist) club, the games against the few lesser teams are really the only must-win contests on the schedule. The highly publicized (remember Dream Week 2008?) games against the league's best are really not nearly as important. Unless you win. In which case they are anecdotally significant. But in the quest to accumulate the 30-something wins that might get you the No. 8 seed it is of paramount importance that you beat the Nets.

Time Two: Cutting Down the Nets
So, predictably the Knicks dragged and spazzed through the first two quarters like some Ambien-addled sleepwalker, putting throw pillows in the oven and letting the Net's bench players build an 11-point edge in the second quarter. We're going to let Trenton Hassell and Keyon Dooling drop 13 points in 3 minutes? Really? Yup. Obviously.

With Nate Robinson still tethered to the bench, even as the hundreds of children in attendance wailed for him at various points, the Knicks looked toothless and coach D'Antoni looked witless. But Larry Hughes, the guy who was in the D'Antoni doghouse in the preseason before inexplicably (and thankfully) emerging, came out of the tunnel to start the third with a chip on his shoulder. He didn't want to lose to the Nets. Not at home. Not after what went down on Friday (keep reading...). No way, sir. And, he played like it. Getting to the line for three shots to open the second half and asserting himself on the offensive end. He got layups. He got free throws (one of which pulled the Knicks level at 71). He handed out assists (one of which led to a basket that pushed the Knicks ahead, 74-71). And he got his team back in the game. Once the Knicks got out in front they held tight. The same way they did down the stretch in Jersey a few weeks ago. Al Harrington, David Lee and Danilo Gallinari finished what Hughes had begun. And for the second straight game a Knickerbocker that my uncle doesn't particularly care for lifted the squad to a win.

Time One: You Can Call Him Al
Sitting at Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents' apartment there were three group conversations that I participated in. The first was about health care reform. The third was about a family sky-diving outing spearheaded by my grandfather. The middle discussion was, not surprisingly, about the New York Knicks. My dad's younger brother buys all the tabloids each morning to read about the game that he stayed up late the night before to watch on cable television in Connecticut. And, after starting in the team's loss at Sacramento the previous night, he abruptly stops himself to ask me, "Well, which guy on the team do you think I like the least?"

"Well, I know that you don't think too highly of Duhon. But I'd say it's got to be Harrington... "

And, before I could spit out "or Hughes" he was nodding his head. To my uncle, Al is a ball stopper and a one-on-one player. Those flaws bother him more than anything (more than Duhon's dignified "team-first" ineptitude). And, I don't entirely disagree with his criticism of Al. Perhaps, I've just watched players like Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph for so long that I've come to wrongly accept certain traits as unavoidable in a scorer. Maybe.

Either way, I found myself becoming a Harrington apologist. Because, you see, he is the most talented guy on the roster. That's not my choice. But it's not up for debate until Gallinari matures physically and strategically, a bit more. Al can shoot. Al can handle (for a guy his size). Al can drive. And, more than a lot of guys, he digs being a Knickerbocker. I think, after all the drama of the past few years and all the scrutiny, there are some guys on this team that wouldn't mind being shipped somewhere else by way of trade. I don't think Harrington is one of those guys. I think he gets what it means to play in this town and that he wants to succeed here. For me, the combination of potential and intention make up for his stategic lapses and tendency to try to go it alone on offense. I told my uncle that I see Harrington as a guy with a good attitude who just needs to be coached. I argued that we've got an allegedly great coach and that I blame D'Antoni just as much as Harrington for the NJ product's lack of consistent production. I then closed my case by saying that the fact that he's gone to the bench selflessly says more about him as a person than his bad habits of playing selfishly. And, I mean those things.

I hope my uncle remembered some of that conversation on Friday night when Harrington drove the Knicks past the Hawks during the first half in Atlanta. The former Hawk was pushed into the starting lineup due to a forearm injury suffered by Gallo and played like he's belonged there all year. At 6 foot 9 inches tall he's too quick for most power forwards and too long and strong for most threes. In the first quarter he had four dunks/layups and nailed three three-pointers. He was an All-Star for one night. It was an eye-opening performance for those who don't like this guy.

The Hawks, being right in the thick of the chase for the Eastern Conference title, predictably came back in the game, even without do-everything Josh Smith, who'd been ejected. The exuberant athleticism that Harrington showed to get the Knicks their lead was matched by the poise of Larry Hughes in holding it down the stretch. In the fourth quarter, Hughes had four assists, hit two jumpers, dropped in a layup and hit four free throws. Like Harrington, Hughes is a guy with a less than sterling rep amongst many fans. Like Harrington, Hughes is also a guy that can be effective on the court. They're not perfect but this isn't about building the perfect player (he plays in Cleveland, remember?) this is about winning nearly as many games as you lose.

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