Back were it all began, the Knicks opened up the 2010-2011 campaign in the same city where they’d played the first game in franchise history in 1946. Toronto the Good, here we come again.
Of that first-ever game way back when, the Knicks’ first-ever captain Sonny Hertzberg (yeah, a 5-foot-9 Jewish guy from Brooklyn who attended City College was once the captain of the Knicks) noted: "It was interesting playing before Canadians. The fans really didn't understand the game at first. To them, a jump ball was like a face-off in hockey. But they started to catch on and seemed to like the action."
Flash forward more than 60 seasons and Canada has not only generated enough hoops passion to fuel a disdain for Vince Carter but it has also given us The Basketball Jones. Although in the first game of the post-Bosh era, it must be noted that empty seats were visible at all levels throughout the night. And the Canadian fans didn't seem to be particularly taken with the action until the fourth quarter.
Missing from said action, were three key participants for the Knicks: imported players 6-foot-11 wunderkind Anthony Randolph and athletic shooting guard Kelena Azubuike, both acquired for David Lee from Golden State, were sidelined due to injury and MSG Network announcing stalwart Mike Breen was calling more important games elsewhere. Or, perhaps, like my friend Ryan, he’s not allowed into Canada for reasons undisclosed.
Along with co-captains Amar’e Stoudemire and Ray Felton, coach Mike D’Antoni, looking sharp with a crimson power tie, sent out third-year forward and lifelong Italian Danilo Gallinari and rookies Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov. Before tip-off, the MSG network plays a brief interview that Tina Cervasio conducted with Amar’e. His two talking points are “Have fun” and “Play Knicks basketball.”
I’m in. Amar’e’s got the confidence to sell the idea of “having fun” being a viable strategy for success. If someone asked Zach Randolph or Eddy Curry or Jamal Crawford what the team needed to do before the first game of the 2007 season and the first response was “have fun” then I would most certainly have not been pleased. Likewise, the idea that there was a brand of “Knicks basketball” worth emulating would have seemed laughable. But if Jets coach Rex Ryan can conjure Jets Football by the power of his personality and strength of his belief, then perhaps Amar’e and D’Antoni can do the same with the local hoopsters.
Despite the explosive presence of Amar’e in the lineup and the aforementioned discussion of something dubbed “Knicks basketball” this game came down to getting stops. Not fast breaking. Or slam dunking. But stops. Same as it always does. And the Knicks got the stop they needed when Leandro Barbosa's three-point attempt from the corner missed with three seconds remaining. Wilson Chandler contested that shot (like so many others during the second half) after the rest of the team forced the ball into the corner with some solid defense of their own. It missed. Gallo controlled the rebound, and Felton iced the contest with two made free throws. As Gary Cohen didn't say often enough this summer in Queens, "Put it in the books!"
By virture of the Knicks beating the Raptors, 98-83, to start the season, Amar'e is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Ray Felton is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Ronny Turiaf is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Roger Mason Jr. is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Timofey Mozgov is undefeated in a Knicks uniform. Landry Fields is undefeated in a Knicks uniform.
Of course, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas and Gallo have more than enough Knicks losses to go around, and I don't mean to obscure those facts. The Knicks have been bad for years. And they've known it. They may not have liked it and some of them may have doggedly fought to change it. But each player on the roster for the last few seasons woke up each day knowing that he was a member of a bad team. Well, the identity of this current group is being formed right now, and beating Toronto was crucial step in establishing a positive self-image.
All of that being said, I don't think that Mozgov probably sees himself as a winner. Or, победитель, in his native tongue. At least, he shouldn't. That was a brutal display of professional sports playing to open the game by the 7-foot Russian. It's clear that in the space where I see the No. 25 sewn onto his jersey, opponents see a bullseye. For all the coordination and muscularity that seems to separates him from so many foreign bigs, the Moz just doesn't seem to have the instincts for the way the game is played. Now, he may have instincts for basketball. But not for NBA basketball, with fouls being drawn and assessed and such. Raptors players were just lining up to get bowled over by him at either end of the floor. He was pulled less than two minutes into the game with two fouls.
Rather than replacing his starting center with Turiaf, presumably his second-string center, D'Antoni sent 6-foot-8 Wilson Chandler into the game. The shy tweener is listed as a "guard-forward" on his player page at NBA.com, and his presence increased the revolutions per minute of the Knicks offense and shifted some of the Raptors defenders one county over from their comfort zones. I loved the move and can only assume that the Knicks coaching staff had assumed the Russian wasn't long for the floor when they planned the rotation. The MSG announcing tandem of Clyde and Kenny Albert went out there way to inform viewers that Chandler was not fazed by his sixth-man status. He was not insulted at all, they insisted. Well, he came out and played like a dude with something to prove. Chandler's urgency at both ends of the floor spurred the team to take control of the game by the end of the first quarter. In a league were wing players seem to get longer and leaner through the years, Chandler's bulk makes him a unique physical presence. He dominated the the middle acts of this game.
Which brings us to the endgame, when Stoudemire asserted himself. After Andrea Bargnani hit a three-point shot to pull the Raps within a pair, 89-87, with just better than five minutes remaining, STAT reeled off a 7-2 run to stake the Knicks to a 96-88 lead at the two-minute mark. Jarrett Jack kept the home team close until Barbosa's last-gasp shot failed to fall, but Amare clearly took over in the clutch. He grabbed the reins at the precise point where so many Knicks teams have lost control in recent years. Maybe David Lee does that if he's still around. But maybe not. After all, he was on the floor in a lot of games that were pulled out late by the other team.
While Amare is undefeated in a Knicks uniform.
Other Observations and Musings
-Although I’m a proud owner of a pair of blue, black and orange Starbury hightops, I think that Gallo’s blue and orange shoes by Reebok are my favorite Knicks kicks since Patrick Ewing’s foray into the footwear market.
-The orange shooting shirts are nice. The second Knicks-related text message (the first stating simply "Go Knicks!") implored me to buy one of these.
-Raptors point guard Jarrett Jack just kills the 'bockers. I'm not sure if Anthony Mason knocked up his sister in the summer of '95 or what but the Georgia Tech alum seems to have some sort of vendetta in effect.
-Someone, dressed in street clothes, at the end of the Raptors bench was sporting a Blue Jays hat. We approve this message.
-Aside from Mozgov, Bill Walker was the only Knicks player who seemed completely out of sorts. After impressing with his effort in the aimless, harum-scarum action late last season, he seemed lost in the more purposeful, structure of last night's offense. Perhaps he just had a rough night or ate something that didn't agree with him, but I'd have to guesstimate the BW is the first player dropped from the rotation when Azubuike or Randolph returns, especially with Douglas and Chandler seeing time at two guard.
-Toney Douglas showed real solid. He's going to play his way into a trade if he keeps this up.