Eureka! Could this be it? Has productivity (or lack thereof) triumphed over pride? Is Chris Duhon's reign of error finally over? With the Knicks playing uninspired ball and trailing the woeful Washington Wizards by a few buckets at the half last night, coach D'Antoni made a change. A long-awaited change. Like the sort of change that has been put off and avoided. Like me and changing the sheets on my bed. D'Antoni sent out Nate Robinson with four members of the starting lineup to open the second half. And after a slow start to the third quarter, the N8-led unit came alive and won this game going away. Duhon didn't play a single minute in the second half. Nate played every minute, Larry Hughes got some solid run, and the team hasn't looked better in weeks. There was urgency to the attack and intensity on defense. Risks were taken. And rewarded.
The Knicks managed just 41 points in the first two quarters, during which time Duhon went 1 for 6 from the field (which makes him 14 for 65 in his last 12 games) while assisting on only a pair of midrange jump shots by David Lee in the opening minutes of the game. And, for the record, these were not plays that Duhon made. In each case, he was just the guy that happened to give it to Lee.
The Wizards and Knicks were even after one, 22-22. This was not pretty basketball. But it was still a game that could be won and should be won by the home team. Especially if the team wanted to keep its floundering playoff hopes alive. Which is why the final few minutes of the second quarter forced D'Antoni to reconsider his rotation. Duhon re-entered the game, replacing Robinson, with 4:50 to play in the first half. The Knicks had just fallen back by a point, 35-36, after the Wizards ripped off a pair of three pointers for a brief 6-0 spurt. In the ensuing minutes, Duhon turned the ball over twice and missed a pair of shots. The Knicks trailed, 41-45, at intermission.
And, then he was gone. Just like that. Robinson was on the floor. Duhon kept his warmups on. The Knicks scored 30+ in each of the next two quarters. They held Flip Saunders' Wiz to just 20 in each quarter. And they energized the crowd along the way. Now, I know that this is just one midwinter game against a downtrodden Wizards squad missing its two best players - Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler - but this win could define the Knicks season and even their offseason if this change is permanent. By sitting Duhon down and turning the team over to Robinson and Larry Hughes, D'Antoni went away from "his guy" and played the more effective players.
This long overdue move makes both ruthless basketball sense (Duhon is not effective) as well as emotional-psychological sense (the drama with Robinson and Hughes has brought the team down as has Duhon's lack of confidence). Duhon's nosedive is affecting this team on both levels. This Knicks group needs to score easy baskets whenever it can if it is going to compete on a nightly basis. Man cannot survive on jumpshots alone. Yet this team rarely pushes the ball with Duhon on the floor. He is not applying pressure on the opposing defense or regularly going at the rim. For the most part, he hands the ball off to David Lee at the top of the three-point arc shortly after crossing midcourt. At this point Duhon fades over toward a sideline and waits for the ball to swing his way. Lee has seen his assist numbers rise (leads all centers in dimes at 3.5 per game) in part because he bears much of the playmaking responsibility when Duhon is on the floor. We've also noticed Lee's greatly-improved 15 to 20-foot jumper because he's getting the ball so far from the rim. As much as I'm impressed by Lee's addition of the deep jump shot to his repertoire, I'm not ready to say that is the shot he should take most often. But, Lee often has to because this rudderless offense leaves him stranded so far from rim. Again, kudos to Lee for his court vision and his improved shot but this team shouldn't be forcing him to start most possessions 25 feet from the hoop.
Much was made of the Knicks slower tempo in December, and it worked thanks largely to Lee's superlative play and Wilson Chandler's emergence. But another key was the brief uptick in Duhon's shooting. 5 of his 7 games this year with 17+ points came in December. And the presence of a fourth viable scoring threat in the starting unit spread the defense out. This allowed the Knicks to operate successfully at a more methodical pace. But once Duhon's shooting returned to form (he's only averaged more than 9 points per game during one season in his career) this team found itself playing 3 against 5 on offense for much of the game. Shockingly, Jared Jeffries has proven a more dependable fourth option than Duhon. And, don't tell JJI wrote that because I don't need him throwing up any more corner threes for my sake.
Ultimately, Duhon is just not a 30+ minutes per night point guard on a decent team. He's been embarrassingly overexposed by the heavy minutes that he's logged during the past two seasons. Therein lies the key to his recent disastrous run of play. He looks like he's finally embarrassed by all of this. Aside from the first look he gets out of warmups at the start of the game, he is shockingly tentative for a starting veteran guard in the NBA. He rarely goes at defenders and he waits a beat for them to get out on him when he catches the ball on the wing. This guy does not want to shoot. MSG broadcasters Mike Breen and Walt Frazier remark upon this in nearly every telecast. And, since defending was never his strong suit, he is a man without a job on the floor. Lee is the point-center. Jeffries defends opposing point guards and leads the zone. And Danilo Gallinari is the long-distance marksmen. After being benched last night, he told reporters that l, I'm not playing well. I'm not getting it done, so it's [D'Antoni's] job to make this team win. Nate is obviously capable of doing that."
Does that sound like a guy that is fighting to keep his spot? Not to me. After struggling for so long, Duhon is damaged goods. I think that a part of him would be relieved to be out of the starting lineup. Regardless, his malaise is contagious when he's on the floor. Just as Nate's energy and Hughes' confidence are. The fate of the Knicks' season hinges on games like this one. Can they beat the other middling teams? And those games often come down to attitude and execution. Who wants it more? Who tries harder in the second quarter? Which players are actively thinking the game as opposed to just reacting to what happens around them? Benching Duhon helps the Knicks in all of these intangible areas. Getting Robinson and Hughes into games in crucial spots alleviates the dissension on the sideline and in the locker room just as it raises the intensity level on the court. This backroom significance shouldn't be undersold. Teams need to want to win for their teammates and their coach as much as themselves. And having an angry Hughes and a Robinson afraid of demotion does not foster that sort of atmosphere.
Those who know me, know that I've been at the vanguard of the bench Duhon movement so I'll be waiting with baited breath as the team comes out for the opening tip on Friday night at the Garden.