Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tramps Like Us

This Knicks Squad is Born to Run (and Play Zone?)

During the summer, I laced up my black, blue and orange Starbury II hi-top sneaks and hit the blacktop in Greenpoint a few nights a week and sometimes on Sunday. I had signed up for a hoops league organized by the kind folks at WORD Bookstore. A basketball league run by a bookstore? Yup. And each player had to answer a few literary questions to gain entrance to the league which was held together by the inestimable Stephanie Anderson (who almost certainly would have gotten a call had the NBA and its officials not come to a labor agreement). The coed league was comprised of folks who worked in the publishing industry, local customers of the bookstore looking to try something different and meet some people, those who existed in the middle area in the Venn diagram depicting bookishness and sports dorkiness, and ballers who were pulled into the league by friends who fit into one of the other categories.

Each of the 10 teams boasted at least one player who was flat-out good. There were a handful of dudes that could dunk, like slam dunk with the rim grabbing and whatnot, and a few dead-eye marksmen who were going to make it if you left them open. There were two young ladies in the league with polished, fundamentally sound post moves that should have been forced to wear varsity jackets during all games. Each of the 10 teams featured one of the five-star players and a sidekick or two who was solid. Each team except for the Orange Team. We didn't have anyone that could dunk. We did have one "big" but his wasn't really a power game. We didn't have anyone that could knock down open shots all day long. We did have two guys that could rattle in a 3 on a good day (and did hit some big ones later in the season). We didn't have an obvious point guard, either. We had me with two lace-up ankle braces, a lesbian couple from GP with limited youth hoops experience. We had our "bandana guy" (most teams had a bandana guy and a high socks guys - which was me with the socks-braces combo), who was slasher that could get hot from midrange but also missed a ton of night games due to his work hours as a chef. We also had Linda, who brought an inquisitive, analytic mind and zero basketball experience on Day 1.

At first, we had a utopian "let's-have-everyone-take-turns-dribbling-the-ball-up-the-court" philosophy. Not surprisingly, the Oranges of Wrath (which was our literary name incorporating our assigned color) were massacred in the preseason. We went entire halves without scoring. We didn't defend so much as we just waited our turn to take the ball. At which point we aimlessly stood around the perimeter before someone chucked up a shot (provided the other team didn't steal the ball from us first) and others tried desperately to corral the usually wild miss. We were terrible, easily the most under-talented team in the league. Like, suspisicously so. There was a guy on the roster who never showed for any function or responded to any email. We all sort of assumed that he must have been our "good" player.

After going 0-3 in the preseason, there wasn't a lot of confidence heading into the opener. We were down quickly. Inevitably. But, as the game wore on, the strengths of this group began to emerge. We were enthusiastic even if not the most athletic group. We were energetic even if not the most tireless group. And we were having fun even though we were losing. The last thing in particular seemed to disarm our opponents to a degree. So much so that we were able to tie them for points in the third quarter. We didn't lose a quarter! This was a first. And before the opening of the fourth, we hatched our comeback plan.

On defense: Stop the ball. Rather than matching up strictly based on height; yours truly (whose limited skillset does include man-to-man defense) would meet the opposing point guard as soon as he was over the midline. Too often the opposing ball handler was allowed to get directly into the paint before someone really got in front of him.

On offense: Let's get as many easy baskets as we can by trying to fast break at every opportunity. None of us could shoot very well but not for lack of effort and enthusiasm. So we figured let's run like hell and try to get ourselves some shots that we can make. In other words, let's get some layups and putbacks off of the layups that we miss because we're slightly-to-wildly out of control coming down the floor.

It worked. By stopping the ball early, we kept the other team from getting any rhythm on offense. We even turned them over a few times right at the top of the key because everyone had an easier time defending their man/woman once the point guard had been forced to pick up his dribble or at least stop his forward progress. And, when we turned them over, we ran. We got easy baskets. Which was the only kind we were capable of sinking just yet. But as those baskets came, some confidence followed. When a break would be thwarted by a defender at the goal, I would kick the ball out to a trail player for a wide open transition look. And, now we could hit those. We won that game, taking the lead for the first time on our final possession.

The least talented team in the league parlayed a Stop-the-Ball-and-Then-Run strategy into a third place finish during the summer-long regular season. With games in the 30s in 40s, our 10-12 transition baskets were often enough to swing a contest in our favor. The team's leading scorer on most nights didn't hit a jumpshot (or even attempt more than a few) until the fourth game. Once we admitted that we were not particularly good basketball players then we were able to start winning some basketball games.

Predictably, we were "upset" in the opening round of the playoffs by a team with a guy that could dunk and that had a deep bench. But nobody in orange was really too upset when we went for drinks afterward because of what we had accomplished. Through effort and mostly good attendance we were able to beat most teams on most nights. They were all better than us. But we committed ourselves to getting easy baskets and not letting others get them on us. That's it. We never got better at shooting. We never even attempted to put together a zone defense as some others did. We just tried to simplify the game. Layups for us and none for them.

Now, this is what the Knicks need to do. Of course, doing this required everyone to admit, "hey, we're probably not as good as these other teams so let's just try harder and figure that they won't." The Knicks also need to realize, and accept, that they are less talented than most teams in the league. They need to admit that they don't have any Bigs that can control the game inside. They need to admit that, other than Gallo, most of them are not particularly efficient jump shooters (even if several of them can get hot and reel off several shots on any given night). And, then they need to commit to getting as many shots close to the rim as possible and to just trying to slow down the other team's frontcourt and keep them from getting easy shots.

Tramps like the Oranges of Wrath and the 2009-10 New York Knicks, baby we were born to run. Let the All-Stars on other teams shoot their jump shots. We need to hustle and work. We need to run. We need to show up with maximum effort on Mondays and Wednesdays and for matinees on Sundays. We need to hassle opposing guards and then we need to push the ball. After telling Chris Duhon to loosen up his towel-waving arm, coach D'Antoni sent first-year point guard Toney Douglas out to pair with cagey, and possibly misread veteran Larry Hughes at the top of the two-three zone. With a Hughes-Douglas backcourt the Knicks should be able to stop the ball. Hughes was named to the All-NBA Defensive Team in 2004-05, the year that he led the Association in steals. He's shown the ability to play sweater-vest tight on opponents with the ball as well as the savvy to jump the passing lanes and deny when he's defending off the ball. Similarly, Douglas is a player with a fine defensive pedigree. Last season he was the Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC.

Their attention to defense (I'm not even going to say intensity or skill, but merely attention) got the Jazz out of their rhythm. And both players pushed the ball when they could. Douglas, who in particular played aggressively, ignited a break that got the Knicks to within one point, 84-83 by breaking out after a turnover. Hughes pushed the ball ahead to Douglas, who flipped it to a trailing Harrington, who filled the wing when he saw his teammates pushing. And that's the beauty of running. It's contagious. Teammates want to come down and get to finish off the break. Famous for his "seven seconds or less" philosophy, coach D'Antoni seems well suited to deploy this strategy but he needs to make one concession to his roster. He needs to drop the "gun" from the "run and gun" system he employed in Phoenix because he just doesn't have the same caliber of shooters on this roster. These guys need to play like the Pitino teams of the late 1980s. They need to run and play D. Hopefully open looks will come in transition and guys will gain confidence by hitting open jump shots but in the meantime D'Antoni has got to put an emphasis on getting easy shots rather than open looks from deep. Open looks aren't easy if you can't hit them. Just ask the Oranges of Wrath. Or, Duhon. Most of these Knicks aren't hitting them. They need aggressive penetration in the halfcourt set to draw defenders to hopefully create openings for cutters and they need to run, run, run in hopes of avoiding the halfcourt sets.

Because bad teams like ours baby we need to run.

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And, to keep the Springsteen meme going while foreshadowing something to come....