Friday, January 8, 2010

"They Couldn't...." But They Did

Knicks Edge Bobcats, 97-93

These are the wins that the 2009-2010 Knicks must have. Wins on weeknights. Against also rans. When the "big" game is on another channel. And, Knicks vs. Bobcats might very well be the biggest matchup of the year. Don't tell the club's marketing department, though. After all, there are plenty of priced-to-move seats available in value packs with sodas, hot dogs and foam fingers for games featuring marquee teams. But it's not the results against the Los Angeles Lakers or Orlando Magic that will tell the story of this season. And it really doesn't matter how the team fares against Lebron or Timmy Duncan. Nope. It matters how the Knicks play against the aforementioned Bobcats, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Chicago Bulls, the Washington Wizards, the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. The games that most of my friends don't want to attend with me are the ones that matter most.

With all of this in mind, last night's come-from-behind win over Larry Brown's club from Charlotte was tremendously important. The Knicks are percentage points out of the eighth spot in the East and now have split the season series with a team also fighting for that spot. After dropping the first two games against the Bobcats, the Knicks have taken the last pair to ensure that their don't drop a tiebreaker should the squads finish the 82-game schedule with identical records. The Knicks ended a winning streak by their opponent and prolonged one of their own. And they did it through sheer power of will, a smart switch to zone defense and clutch shooting.

When studying this year's Bobcats it's hard not to applaud the realpolitik manner in which they approach their games. They are practical with no style or grand aspirations and these qualities make them likely our biggest rival for the final playoff spot. The Bobcats make no attempt to play the most aesthetically pleasing basketball. They just try to keep the other team from scoring more points than they do each night. That's it. Through defensive effort and workmanlike approach to offense they just try to outlast you 48 minutes at a time. With the hope that they can win close to as many games as they lose over the course of the season. There is no aspiration beyond that. They seem to have no concern with championships or building towards them. They just want to try to win this game. Right now. Today. And that's all.

They play every game like Bolton playing Arsenal in the Premeirship. They admit before game time that they are the lesser squad and they just try to eek out a 1-0 win, by defending and counterattacking. Such honesty and humility is rare in American sports. Most team's won't admit they are inferior to other teams. It seems, though, that the Bobcats don't worry about being "better," they just worry about winning the game at hand. Even as an Arsenal fan, I dig this strategy.

This approach is savvy, cynical and very effective. Larry Brown has this team playing hard and holding team's to 93.1 points per game, which is the best in the Association (the Knicks allow 102.4). It's also noteworthy that Charlotte's point differential is -0.3, which is the closest to even of any of the 16 teams with a negative differential. The Knicks are not far behind in this category with a -0.7 point differential. The simplistic read of those numbers is that either team gives themselves a chance to win on most night but comes up short just more often than not.

When Bobcats forward Stephen Jackson canned a three to push his team ahead, 71-61, late in the third it looked like last night was going to be a night when the Knicks would be the ones to come up short when the final whistle blew. The Bobcats had controlled the third quarter, outscoring the Knicks by a 27-12 margin after Jackson's shot fell. They'd gotten several dunks and layups in the quarter and just seemed to be working harder, wanting it more. According to Jackson, "They couldn’t guard us man-to-man, so they went to a zone,” he said. “It’s a game we should have won, but they made the big plays down the stretch.”

And, the "they" in question is your Knicks. They did switch to a zone defense. They did make the plays down the stretch. They did win. The switch to zone, the re-insertion of Nate Robinson make into the lineup, and the team's increased defensive effort (this was the 13th time in 15 games they've held an opponent under 100) all point towards the increasing pragmatism of the Knicks under D'Antoni. He finally seems to have realized that this team is unable to play the pleasing style he installed in Phoenix. And the players seem empowered by the notion that they can control the outcome of the games just with their effort and athleticism. We no longer seem to sacrificing the good in the vain search for the perfect. They're just trying to win. Even if it's ugly.

Wilson Chandler led all scorers with 27 points, he got to the rack last night for six layups and went 4-4 from the line. Most importantly, he took just one three-point shot. He's stopped trying to play for the 2005 Suns and is rediscovering his own game. He's an uber-athletic slasher. Similarly, Nate seems comfortable in his own skin, and that dunk to open the fourth was thunderous.David Lee continues his strong play and the team continues to take on his personality - confident hustle - as he pushes for an All-Star berth. And, the finishing touches to the win were made by the Danilo Gallinari, the aspirant Larry Bird fan, dropped in two clutch threes to put the game away in the waning moments.

This was no game for the time capsule. There was no star power at MSG last night. And that's exactly why it was a key win for this team as it looks to reach the postseason for the first time in a looooong time.