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.