Thursday, January 14, 2010

Hot Hands, Heavy Hearts

There were two heartstring-tugging human interest stories but just one game-winning shot.

Philadelphia center Samuel Dalembert was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in May 1981. Since Tuesday, his hometown has lay in ruins - bloodstained, smoldering - after a devastating 7.0 earthquake struck 16 miles from the city center. Tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands were injured or killed within minutes of the quake near the Haitian capitol. And each hour that passes sees the death toll rise. The Presidential Palace collapsed. The UN Headquarters collapsed, giving the organization its largest-ever loss of life. The nation is torn asunder making it even harder for relief workers to arrive. Haiti is an impoverished nation whose growth has been hamstrung by France, the United States and the rest of the First World since it became the first independent nation in Latin America in 1804 and the first free black republic in the entire world. By the time the Knicks and Sixers took the floor at the Wachovia Center on Wednesday night, Dalembert had been in touch with his father and one of his sisters in terror-stricken Haiti.

Dalembert, in his seventh year in the NBA out of Seton Hall, has been charitable with the riches that his size and skill have earned him. He's tried to help those less fortunate then he, especially in his home country. But he had been unable to secure a flight to Haiti in the 24 hours since the quake and was at the center circle to take the tip against Jared Jeffries. Dalembert directed the tip to a teammate and then quickly scored the first points of the game. He scored 10 first-quarter points and grabbed seven boards. With season averages of 7.2 points and 9 caroms per game coming in, Dalembert was easily playing the best he has all year. Yet, the 7ers were trailing, 30-26, after one quarter.

And, that's because the other guy on the floor with a heavy heart (or at least the other guy with a well-publicized reason for being upset) was playing pretty damn well, too. David Lee, whose grandfather passed away on Tuesday night, opened up 4 for 5 from the floor and paced the Knicks' hot start with 8 points and four boards of his own. The rest of the Knicks came out on fire, too. Which was heartening after the poor shooting in the previous loss at Oklahoma City. When it rains it pours. Even Jeffries scored six early points. Jeffries' points represented the opportunistic way the team was playing, reminiscent of what the OKC did to them a few nights earlier. They were moving the ball fluidly. Like water, ever forward through the cracks in the defense, always path of least resistance even if that wasn't the "play."

For all the Knicks hot shooting, though, they were ahead by just two scores after one quarter. In the second period, the game turned Philly's way. Two things changed on the floor. Former All-Star Elton Brand checked in for Philly with the second unit and looked to assert himself. Gosh. Jee. Golly. Remember when this guy was one of the dominant power forwards in the game out West? And, now, just one major free-agent deal later, he is the odd fit on a run-and-gun second unit for a second division club in the East. And as incongruous as the veteran Brand seemed with the young, up-tempo second string, the marriage yielded a lead for the home side.

Thanks to some assertive play of their own, Harrington and Gallo were able to pull the Knicks even, 40-40, with five minutes to go in the first half. The Knicks have been undone on this trip by not being able to finish quarters (or start them...) and I thought they needed to finish this half strong against a team that can be had. With a chance to go 2-for-1 under a minute to secure the lead, Gallo grabs a board, sees a lane, goes coast to coast and just misses an acrobatic layup attempt. Actually it was out of control. It would have been "acrobatic" had he scored. But he didn't. Philly kept inching ahead. The Knicks needed stops and luck to be tied at the half.

Iverson looked rejuvenated after the break, scoring Philly's first few points in the third before passing the torch to rookie Jrue Holiday, who continues to look the more NBA-ready player than Knicks rookie Jordan Hill, despite being selected after Hill was off the board.The teams remained neck and neck into the fourth. But the Knicks seemed to be the one standing on their toes to stay level. Going behind. Pulling even. Going behind. Pulling even.

The hingepoint of the game was the fourth foul on Dalembert, late in the third, with Philly leading, 66-60. He was affecting the game more than any player on the court. More than Lee, who had tapered off after a hot start. More than Rodney Carney who had started to heat up from outside for Philly. More than AI who was playing fairly passively and didn't seem to have an answer for the Knicks zone defense. More than Andre Iguodalo, who barely seemed to be playing at all no matter how much he was on the court. Without Dalembert controlling the middle, the Knicks seemed to play with a sense of urgency they've been lacking on this three-game road swing since the opening period in Houston. Now, they were the team that was up and then even. Going ahead and then even into the middle of the fourth. That is, right up until Dalembert came back into the game and Marreese Speights got hot and looked to take over the endgame (with a little help from his friend Carney). Any confidence that the Knicks picked up in Dalembert's absence seemed to about to be undone by timely shooting from the home team.

The Knicks trailed, 86-90, with 1:17 to play. Wilson Chandler dropped in a six footer. Plus the harm. One point game. The game ticks past the one-minute mark as Jeffries controls the rebound off an Iverson miss from point blank range. The game tocks beneath 50 seconds as Duhon methodically brings the ball up the floor. The clock reads 45 seconds as Lee catches the ball 15 feet deep in the corner. It passes 44 seconds as Lee sets himself to shoot. It shows 43 when the scorekeeper adds two points to the Knicks total. After Lee's corner two, the Knicks have inched in front, 91-90. Without missing a beat, the Sixers take the ball out from under their own rim and get it to Speights for a short jumper. Good. Philly leads, 92-91. New York timeout.

Trailing, 92-91, with 26 seconds to play, the Knicks come out of the timeout with a play called. In the past, the play would have involved Stephon Marbury penetrating, tucking the ball in the crook of his well-muscled arm and getting to the rim to shoot, be fouled or hand off a pass to Eddy Curry at the rim. More recently, the play would have been to get the ball to Jamal Crawford to let him whittle away the seconds with high dribbles beyond the arc only to loft a rainbow jumper towards the rim at the last second. On Tuesday, the ball was quickly gotten to Lee from Duhon. Then no. 42 backed in towards the rim. He spun. Defenders collapsing on him, reaching for the ball, like lonely spinsters grasping for bride's bouquet during the wedding reception. Lee got the ball up onto the rim. It seemed too strong. It bounced. Moving across the mouth of the goal. Looking like it was going to roll right off the far side. But it went up, not out, and then fell through with 14 seconds left. Thanks to back-to-back clutch hoops by Lee, the Knicks led, 93-92. Philadelphia Timeout.

With the game in the balance, the Sixers looked to get the lengthy Speights (and not either player with the initials AI) a look close to the rim but Lee (with some good help defense) smothered him. The ball was kicked out of the post to an on-the-move Iverson who swung it to Carney, who'd been killing the Knicks from deep earlier. Carney lofted a three. One Second. It misses! Buzzer. Whether it had to do with his grandfather (who he credited for keeping his game-winning shot on the rim long enough to roll in) or just the heat of the moment, Lee's fire after the buzzer sounded got me amped up. Even though he's on a one-year deal and might not be back he is taking these games personally. And I like it.