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.

Other:
-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.

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.