During the great free agent diaspora of 2010, there was much schadenfreude out in the provinces when LeBron James did not decide to sign with the New York Knicks. Whether fueled by envy, disdain, regret or one of the myriad emotions that the words "New York City" elicit in those from the other 49, false prophets decided that the formation of the 2010-2011 Miami Heat was a referendum on the status that NYC held around the league.
If you believe that then I've got a bridge to sell you.
Ever since original Garden impresario Ned Irish began hosting college hoops doubleheaders at the old Garden uptown, basketball players have known that the game's biggest stage was in the Big Apple. LBJ may have taken his talents to South Beach but Madison Square Garden is still the Mecca. That's why the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft John Wall laced up a pair of special edition sneakers last night when he made his Garden debut.
The North Carolinian who arrived in the NBA by way of Kentucky is going to accrue a lot of firsts this season with the Washington Wizards. He's got the speed and power to put up some eye-popping numbers, coming within one steal of his first triple double in just his third game. A week from tonight he'll play against future rival Derrick Rose for the first time, and at the end of the month he'll travel down to Miami to play his first meaningful game against LBJ and Dwyane Wade. Certainly it'll be a season full of first-ever moments that Wall treasures and that his fans do as well. But no one is going to talk about his "American Airlines Arena debut" unless he goes ahead and gets that triple double or breaks some sort of record. And even then, it'd be known as the Great Wall of Triple Double Game or something. I'm also guessing that Reebok ain't going to be rolling out a 13-of-a-kind sneaker to mark the occasion of his maiden trip to Oklahoma City or Milwaukee.
During the long summer of 2010 (when, by the by, one of the game's top talents in Amar'e Stoudemire did emphatically choose the Big Apple) it was explained to me by those kind enough to diagram the irrelevance of my favorite team that MSG had more meaning to old timers than anyone young and spry. But there isn't anyone younger or sprier in the game right now than Wall, and it sure seems that he's gotten the message passed down from his forefathers (and endorsers) like religion. The Garden is still the Mecca. Wall wore the shoes to prove it.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
The outcome was not in doubt when the Washington Wizards brought the ball up the floor for their last possession of the scheduled 48 at the Garden last night. The Knicks were going to win. Done and dusted. But New York's second-string point guard Toney Douglas was still jumping passing lanes near half court, pestering No. 1 overall draft pick John Wall as he tried to initiate one last set. Wall managed to corral the ball and pass it up court, but Knicks co-captain Amar'e Stoudemire was waiting in the paint. STAT stepped up to contest and perhaps deflect Washington's last field goal attempt of the night. It missed.
That the Knicks showed such defensive intensity on a possession only relevant to those teasing the point spread or wagering on individual prop bets (since the Knicks were in decent shape to cover the -5.5 even if they surrendered a bucket) shows how much this team has transformed itself from previous seasons. The 2010-2011 iteration of the Knickerbockers gets an evident thrill from stops in a way that I haven't seen 'round here in a while. Players are pumping their fists after forcing 24-second violations and bouncing around after blocks. And, oh yeah, they're actually blocking shots. So far, this team appears to enjoy playing defense.
In the waning moments of the contest, MSG play-by-play man Mike Crispino remarked to his esteemed broadcast partner: "The Knicks are starting to develop an identity, Clyde."
Resplendent in a wide-lapeled powder blue suit with a shimmery white shirt and lava-lamp patterned orange and gray tie, Walt "Clyde" Frazier responded, "Yeah, because of their defense, man; suffocating D."
As a team, the Knicks recorded a defensive double double with 11 blocks and 11 steals. Douglas was responsible for five of those thefts and outplayed the highly touted Wall in his Garden debut. Douglas finished with 19 points, 10 boards, 3 assists and the aforementioned haul of steals. It was his second impressive effort on the trot. The 2009 ACC Defensive Player of the Year seems to have been challenged by the acquisition of Ray Felton to start at the point rather than chastened. Just as he seemed to be invigorated by the presence of the lightning quick Wall, who marked the occasion of his first game in at the Mecca by wearing a pair of gold high tops designed by Reebok.
Described by Clyde as "stylin' and profilin'" during his pregame remarks, Wall flashed his burst and potential a few times in the second half but the Knicks did a tremendous job of keeping players in front of him on the break and not leaving him openings to knife through in the halfcourt. Amar'e stepped in and took a charge on his first breakaway attempt, really setting the tone for the team's handling of him.
All that being said, wow. Where this kid is going, he doesn't need roads. He's got footspeed and airspeed and probably could move fairly well on the high seas. His length and his musculature are already special, and at his age it would seem that his body is going to get even more impressive. Less boxy than Celtics uber athlete PG Rajon Rondo, Wall seems more serpentine without sacrificing too much strength.
But tonight's game was not about Wall as much as it was about the Knicks guards. Both Ray Felton and Douglas ate Wall up at both ends. Both picked his pocket and both scored against him. Felton skinned him with nifty change-of-pace dribble drive that had to elicit approving nods from every wizened hoops head in the Big Apple.
Aside from the defensive pressure applied, the other aspect of the Knicks' effort that impressed was the physicality with which they attacked the rim. Notably, Bill Walker attacked the rack in the second half and scored on a few dunks. Turiaf, Amar'e and the Moz all contributed slam dunks as well. But nothing could have topped the reverse slam by Chandler after a baseline drive. He posterized McGee in what could turn out to be this team's dunk of the year.
Asserting themselves at both ends of the floor, this Knicks group is further establishing its identity and reputation. They are prideful and motivated. Perhaps the two most important attributes after "talented" and "healthy" for a team to possess during the long haul of an NBA calendar.
Thoughts, Observations and Perhaps Things Better Left Unsaid
-Agent Zero is no more. Gilbert Arenas is wearing No. 9 this season. I wonder if this choice is soccer-related since top goal scorers are usually numbered 9. At this stage in his career (and with Wall lining up at the point), Arenas is no longer the No. 10-type playmaker creating and dominating play. Rather he's a mercenary finisher up top. Either way, he singlehandedly brought the Wiz back into the game in the fourth and showed that he might not be done just yet. I hope he can get back some of what he's lost due to injury and firearm-related suspensions. Not necessarily because I think he deserves it, but because he used to be one of the players in the league that I loved most to watch. Before the emergence of Chris Paul, Gil was probably the No. 1 drawing card for me.
-Andray Blatche must be a confounding player for Wiz fans to support. His first-quarter barrage was impressive, he was a one-man wrecking crew. He fluttered about 12 to 15 from the rim as Amar'e was sloughing off to guard against Wall's penetration, knocking down an impressive array of shots. He managed 16 points in the first quarter, but just 6 more the rest of the way. Clyde noted on several occasions that he was out of shape and I could only assume that his lack of conditioning contributed to his eventual anonymity. He also seemed to lose focus mentally, getting T'd up for an obvious shove of Turiaf after they got tangled under the boards.
-The Moz had a nice night. Still bedeviled by traveling violations and personal fouls, the 7-foot Russian nevertheless mixed it up with McGee and got his hands into passing lanes. He was credited with three steals and a pair of assists. After one steal he ran the break with Landry Fields, finishing on the move. He remains just past the edge of control when he's running at pace but his athleticism is apparent. He's not just a big body. He's an athlete. Perhaps eventually he'll be a ballplayer.
-Anthony Randolph is already a ballplayer, but his mind races when he gets the rock. He was all elbows, rebounds and offensive fouls against the Wiz. A tantalizing work in progress, but seemingly not ready to be a functioning part of a halfcourt offensive set.
-Wizards center Javale McGee wanted to dunk every rebound. He's a tremendous athlete who has progressed light years in terms of body control since the last time I saw him.