2009 Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi netted a hatrick for Barcelona against Tenerife over the weekend. The Catalan giants still have zero defeats in La Liga play this season and hold a slim lead over rival Real Madrid in the standings. Former all-world footballer and onetime Barca star Ronaldinho grabbed a brace of his own this weekend for AC Milan versus rival Juventus. One of those goals came off a cross from David Beckham, recently of the Los Angeles Galaxy. The win keeps second-ranked AC Milan ahead of Juve in the Series A standings, still within sort-of striking distance of Inter. Beckham's once-and-future teammate and star of Mexican lottery ads Landon Donovan also made his debut in the Premeirship for Everton at Arsenal over the weekend. Donovan played well, contributing an assist in his finest moment and workmanlike anonymity at his worst. It was a solid start for a player who thus far has been unable to make his mark in Europe.
The arc of the Knicks' performance in Houston on Saturday night was not so dissimilar from the rising-falling-falling trajectory of my own meanderings that very same evening. I was doing great early on. Yet, slowly, surely the wheels came off and I skidded to a halt.
After four late-afternoon quarters of nervous overindulgence in gin and light beer while watching the Jets triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals in the opening round of the NFL Playoffs at Paul Brown Stadium in the Queen City, my face was flush like a snow-dusted child allowed too long in cold and my spirits were high. I was bopping and humming along at 8:30 p.m., just as the Knicks' starters met their opposite number on the floor at the Toyota Center in Houston. I was feeling good when Jared Jeffries went out for the opening tip against Luis Scola. Great, even. I was talking ten decibels too loudly to people two feet away from me about Mark Sanchez's calm and, yes, his poise. About his rollouts. About his habit of saying "please" and "thank you" and helping the elderly sort their recycling. And about his sense of humor. And, I am serious about the sense of humor. His postgame dig at recently minted Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was classic. I was defending the spelling of Shonn Greene's first name and tapping it as a lead contender to be the handle for my firstborn. I was crediting the motivational skills of Rex Ryan and lauding the good luck of the mesh kelly green No. 42 Ronnie Lott jersey that I'd worn through two straight elimination-game victories.
The Knicks greeted the opening whistle in Houston with equal bravado. David Lee, playing more like an All-Star each day, carried the team to an early 14-3 lead. Lee hit three jump shots, assisted on a three by Chris Duhon and netted a layup to end the flurry. His passing has quietly improved nearly as much as his outside shot. The reeling Rockets called a timeout. Lee was rolling. Gallo had hit on his first three-point attempt of the night. Wilson Chandler had an assist and a steal. And Jeffries... well... he even went 2 for 2 from the line shortly after that early Houston timeout. The Knicks came out like gangbusters and looked to extend their unbeaten start to 2010.
Former Knicks draft pick (who was given up in that dreadful trade for Steve Francis) Trevor Ariza and Argentinian center-part enthusiast Luis Scola kept the game from getting away from the Rockets, but the Knicks still led by 11 at the end of the first quarter. Deep into the second quarter, Gallo grabbed an offensive rebound and scored two quick points to give the Knicks a 13-point bulge. Timeout, Rockets. With 2:08 on the clock in the second and 55-42 showing on the scoreboard one might assume that the Knicks were feeling awfully confident. Perhaps, like me, they felt a little too good about themselves after such a great start to their Saturday night. I mean, did you see that interception by Revis?!?!?!?!?!?! At this point, several time zones to the East, I was sitting at the kitchen table in the West Village at a friend's apartment where words were rambling out between my lips steadily without pause like air leaking from a punctured tire. Still all smiles, but not quite as sharp as I'd been earlier when lampooning Bengals coach Marvin Lewis for his ridiculous use of the challenge flag early against the Jets.
A strong final two minutes of the first half by Aaron Brooks got the Rockets to within 7 at intermission. The Knicks finished the half with a flurry of missed threes and a foul on Duhon that sent the better Landry brother (Carl of the Rockets rather than Marcus of the Knicks) to the line for two. Although the Knicks seemed the sharper squad out the gate, the Rockets were very much alive. In fact, they might even have had the momentum. I certainly didn't. After flying high with the Jets, I was losing the plot faster than the Knicks as a I descended the salt-stained subway stairs to reach the Brooklyn-bound No. 2 train. But, like the Knicks in the break-even third quarter in Houston, I kept my head above water for a while longer in spite even while on the road. It was the fourth frame of the night where the wheels came off for me, and the Knicks. As turned onto the street of my destination in Park Slope, I pulled off my Jets jersey (exposing a green jets t-shirt slightly more suitable for hip social situations), stuffing the old Sandknit jersey into the pocket of my coat. Even though I may have looked the part (which I didn't), my tank was empty by the time I had a glass of whiskey in my shaky paw at this party at my girlfriend's friend's apartment. I was spent. The Knicks were spent. And in the fourth quarter out in Houston, the Rockets seized control of the game just as I was vainly to keep afloat in conversation populated by people I didn't know. Landry shined and the Knicks withered. Coach Adelman's side went ahead early in the fourth and held. The Knicks didn't throw in towel, even closing within three after another deep jumper by Lee pulled them within a bucket, 94-97, but they were never coming back once Duhon turned the ball over with just over two minutes to play. The Knicks only managed one more shot after that fateful turnover. Ballgame, Rockets.
Still, it had been a good night. The Jets won. I had bet on the Jets. And the Knicks gave a solid effort in a come-from-ahead road loss. And, that's ok. While it hurts to see them drop games they could have won, I'm heartened by the fact that they consistenly are showing up to play. A road loss when the team makes a good showing is far different from what we've been accustomed to when the team would go through the motions a few times a week and get slaughtered. This wasn't that kind of loss. This was just a mostly close game that they didn't win.