Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Old-Fashioned Clip Joint

It was such a crowded Hard Day's Night-esque mob scene pushing into Madison Square Garden from 7th Avenue last night that you'd have thought Justin Bieber was inside. Well, except for the pronounced lack of booing. The entryway coming into the box office area, flanked by the ramps leading to the A/B and C/D gate escalators, was packed tight enough that a family of sardines in from Massapequa, decked out in their tiny replica jerseys and foam tail fins, was all like, "Damn, son, you gotta be kidding me."

In hopes of circumventing the main bulk of the hoops-happy throng lodged just inside the phalanx of glass double doors, I moved straight in toward the ticket windows at the back of the foyer, before turning hard right toward the turnstiles for Gates C and D. There was a row of waist-high metal barricades separating the heaving crowd from the ticket windows and ahead of me were two foreign men wearing puffy, winter gear having a hard time with a powerfully built but decaying sexagenarian wearing the burgundy coat with dark green accents that marked him as MSG staff. It seemed that the tourists wanted access to a ticket window in order to purchase tickets for the game. They seemed to be speaking for a group of people with similar aspirations. All of these ticketless saps were mucking up my plan for skirting the crowd en route to the ticket scanners.

"There's only ONE ticket left," the old usher crowed to the utter befuddlement of the gentlemen wanting to buy tickets. "We're all sold out, 'cept for one seat."

Inching past as this conversation was taking place, I couldn't help but ask where the last open seat in the Garden was located.

"We got one seat left in section 78," croaked the rock salt voiced MSG staffer, who was assuredly a bare-knuckle bruiser in his prime. I think that he would have liked nothing more than for the slight, swarthy looking fellow who wanted to buy tickets (and really wasn't grasping that this just wasn't going to happen) to become belligerent. Back in the waning days of the old Garden up on Eighth Avenue, I'd bet this fella gleefully spilled the blood of unruly patrons on 49th Street and was a wild-eyed, last-call terror at the bars in Hells Kitchen after his shift ended. I also assume that he gleefully cast his vote for Richard Nixon the fall after the Garden moved to its current home when it felt to him like the whole damn world seemed to be shifting under his feet.

Section 78 is located near the free-throw line behind the benches. It's just a few rows of folding chairs from the court and, I'd imagine, the tickets will easily run you a few hundred bucks. While waiting to have my $10 ticket for section 416 scanned, I was talking to the same friend who came with me on the night of LeBron James' first visit to the Mecca. We talked about that game. We talked about that play in the second half when LeBron drove straight down Broadway, rose and slammed it home just like he has so many times since. We talked about how we always talk about that dunk and how it let everyone in the place know that this man child from Akron was indeed as special as Sports Illustrated claimed. And we talked about how we were already having a much better night thus far on this night because on that night we'd had to ditch the car up near Columbus Circle and hoof it the rest of the way due to nightmarish gridlock that had started on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.

Hoping to breeze up to the upper tank once through the turnstiles, we were greeted by stalled escalators in the C tower. Thankfully, as much-missed comedian Mitch Hedberg sagely said, "an escalator can never break: it can only become stairs." And as he predicted there was no "Out of Order" sign just a lot of folks double-timing it up the recently formed stairs.

The amperes of electricity coursing through the large crowd as they surged upward was thanks largely to the appearance of the Los Angeles Clippers' sort-of rookie Blake Griffin. He is nearly every bit the well-muscled physical specimen that James was in his first season. Except bigger and stronger and more powerful (but without that nearly-inimitable Magic Johnson court vision and that untrustworthy Isiah Thomas smile). His dunks are legion and already legendary.

Although Griffin had treaded the Garden boards during the 2008 Preseason NIT while at the University of Oklahoma (and I saw him dominate in the semifinal against UAB to the tune of 32 and 15), tonight was his first big boy game in the biggest room. Expectations were as high as those lobs that Baron Davis has been lofting to Griffin all season long in various littler rooms around the country.
Well you're in your little room
and you're working on something good
but if it's really good
you're gonna need a bigger room
and when you're in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think of
how you got started in your little room
-The White Stripes
Despite the excitement generated by Griffin, this was a pro-Knicks crowd through and through. The second-year rookie was even booed the first time that he touched the ball, showing how far we've come from the dark days when visiting players were being serenaded with MVP chants (from out-of-town fans who had been able to buy tickets just before tip-off). That being said, everyone was hoping for a repeat of the first meeting between the two clubs when the Knicks won, 124-115 and Griffin went off for 44 points, 15 rebounds 7 assists and a handful of the most ferocious dunks of the decade. Yeah, a repeat of that would have suited all of us just fine. Well, everyone except for the Knicks' sometime starting center Timofey Mozgov, who was absolutely gulagged by Griffin last time. One particular full front assault was so severe and so instantly iconic that there is already artwork dedicated to it. The rise and slam was such a personal affront that the Moz wasn't just "posterized." The poor dude was illustrated.

Looking very much like a guy with something to prove, the Moz came out dunking mighty Russian Revenge Dunks in this game. He was snatching passes in the paint as if long-lost Soviet scientists or Vincent Price's character from Edward Scissorhands had replaced his wooden hands with supple hoopster hands with opposable thumbs. Perhaps more surprisingly, on the other side of the ball, it wasn't Griffin doing the damage rather it was little-heard-from third-year big man DeAndre Jordan. Strange days, indeed. Thanks to a put-back layup by Mozgov, the 'bockers closed out the a sizzling but steak-free first quarter with a 29-28 edge.

In the second quarter, two things happened. First, a flurry of made jump shots had me thinking about Ryan Gomes for the first time since his senior year at Providence. Second, the Clippers repeatedly knifed to the paint through the Knicks' hot-butter defense. Actually, using the "like a knife through hot butter" idiom overstates the intensity of the first half defending. Those hot knives usually come out the other end of that stick of butter with some sort of residue on them, some glistening delicious buttery goodness, whereas the Clippers were getting to the rack totally clean. They were cutting through the defense like knives through ... a void.

Thanks largely to Gomes and the home team's empty space defensive strategy, the Clippers blitzed the Knicks, 30-18, in the second. There were boos throughout 400 level as the teams headed off the floor for intermission. One frazzled fellow in Row H of section 415 was doing his best to instigate a "We Want MEL-LO" chant to no avail.

Able to pull only a solitary point closer in the third, the Knicks had a long way to climb in the final quarter. But climb they did, like fans up a broken escaltor. With Amar'e Stoudemire tethered to the bench due to foul trouble, his teammates went to a full-court press. They drove to the rim and they hit jumpers. Instrumental in this spurt was back-up point guard Toney Douglas. He piloted the press and added 10 quick points in the first half of the fourth quarter. After a Douglas three pointer pulled the Knicks within 99-94, Amar'e retook the floor. He scored on the next possession, pulling the home side within three points. For a few fleeting minutes he was just as unstoppable as he had been a few days earlier against Philly, scoring the Knicks' next eight points.

In December or January, an Amar'e run like this would have turned the tide. But not tonight. Not when Randy Foye matched STAT's eight points with eight of his own during that same stretch. Another candidate for a where-are-they-now? Big East edition, the former Villanova star, who nearly got his eye poked out on this court several years ago, caught fire down the stretch and extinguished the Knickerbocker comeback to the chagrin of everyone but the guy who really, really wanted to kickstart that "We Want Melo" chant. He got a lot more help in the final minute of the 116-108 loss. I even heard someone else offer to pay Wilson Chandler's airfare to Denver.

This game wasn't as advertised on any front. A very-near capacity crowd (unless some deep-pocked loner bought that single in 78) was lured into the Garden hoping to see a transcendent performance by Griffin and an appearance by a Knicks team that was serious about making the playoffs and holding off the ever-encroaching shadow of mediocrity. But we didn't see either of those things. And by the time that we were all getting wise to it, the ushers were starting to usher us toward the exits. As I descended the stairs, I had no doubt that bruising AARP member in his Nixon-era staff jacket at floor level was gleefully pushing disappointed folks out into the cold night with a bigger smile on his face than anyone outside the visitors' locker room.

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