Friday, January 28, 2011

The First Annual Corey Hart Invitation

Recently felled by LeBron's Instant Karma severe migraine headaches, Miami Heat shooting guard and band-aid spokesmodel Dwyane Wade donned a pair of tinted glasses for last night's Knicks-Heat donnybrook at the Garden.

The pair of shades that he was initially planning to wear - in hopes of limiting the impact of the brights lights on his eyes - were deemed too dark by the NBA. It was stated that they would give him an unfair advantage. Mostly, in awesomeness.

Thankfully, the Knickerbockers took the floor for the opening tip with a bespectacled player of their own. Recently minted All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire has been wearing protective lenses ever since he suffered a detached retina during the 2008–2009 season while he was still in Phoenix. With a captain from each side wearing shades for this indoor night game, WWOD? dubbed it the first-ever Corey Hart Invitational shortly before the opening tip.

The Knicks brightly opened the C.H.I. with an ally-oop slam by Wilson Chandler and soon got out to an early lead thanks, in small part, to Danilo Gallinari taking a charge at one end and then driving baseline for a slam at the other. Gallo's crowd-pleasing swashbuckling aside, the driving force behind the initial Knicks' rush was Amar'e. Pure from 17, driving layup, and then a three from the corner.

He was abusing 35-year-old Lithuanian center Zydrunas Ilgauskas with a severity that made me think about sending a distress signal to Vilnius on his behalf. Maybe Marko Ramius could commandeer a submarine to save his countryman. But before I had could begin the hunt for Ramius's cell phone number, Heat coach Mark Spolestra, gave Z the hook like a stuttering standup at the Apollo, sending in Jo-el Anthony, the last son of Krypton.

Although Amar'e quickly scored on Anthony, extending the Knicks' lead to 13-7, the Heat finished the first quarter with a flurry. First Wade and then Mike Miller threw long ally-oops to LeBron James on the break. He seemed to reach up to Row G in section 414 to grab the overthrown pass by Miller and stuff it home. These furious flushes were straight from Sega-era NBA Jam and illustrated the physical majesty of this Heat club once they get running downhill.

Amar'e, Landry Fields and Shawne Williams combined for 19 of the team's 23 points in the second quarter. Yet no number of swooping layups by STAT could undo the pyshic damage of those on-the-break-oop LBJ dunks in the first quarter. Those four points lent an air of menace to everything the Heat did and left the Knicks seemingly trailing from ahead.

It seemed a fait acommpli when the visitors took a slim two-point margin into the intermission. Heck, I even felt glad the Knicks were so close. The supposed Miami missing link, Miller, was the first player out to warm up before the third quarter. When the ball was rolled out again, though, Wade and Amar'e picked up where they left off, battling. For their part, the rest of the Knicks managed the trick of missing loads of just the sort of open shots that they would seemingly need to stay in a game with this team.

Slowly, at first, the game began to turn as Heat extra James Jones dropped in a few threes with his lightning quick release. And when Amar'e picked up his fourth foul in a futile attempt to stop another Wade foray into the paint things began to turn more quickly. Check that, the game didn't so much "turn" as it was grabbed by both shoulders by Wade and shaken briskly. Damn near to death. Turiaf replaced STAT and Wade, at some point, switched his scopes to infra-red.

As he drove and dished and drove and then looked to dish but then drove again, rumors spread through Section 323 of the Garden that Wade's sunglasses offered him a T-100 optical enhancement of the playing surface. His shots were laser-guided and driving lanes were mapped according to Skynet algorhythms. Great Sweetwater's Ghost, he might have derailed every Long Island Rail Road train several floors below at Penn Station had he been allowed to wear his first-choice of shades. The NBA office was correct. Wade is a menace.

Even with his second-choice eyewear, he came at the Knicks as relentless and natural as the tide. He scored 14 points in the quarter and the Heat's edge ballooned to nine entering the fourth. The Knicks hopes teetered on the edge of the abyss between quarters three and four. If the Heat's lead got any larger there would be no coming back, not with the way the team had been shooting.

Trailing but not tiring, the Knicks opened the fourth quarter pushing. Toney Douglas and Fields both broke off long rebounds. As they picked up the RPMs the crowd raised the decibel level. More importantly, Wade was no longer getting all the way to the rim. He was being challenged and/or fouled in the paint. The shots stopped dropping, and then so did the free throws. As he faltered, Gallo grabbed the reins of the game. His three-point shot with 5:20 remaining gave the Knicks the lead, 77-76, seemingly for the first time since Allan Houston's '99 game winner.

With the Knicks out in front, LeBron finally showed what he can do at his cynical marauding best. He gathered himself at the equater and flew to the rim on the next possession. He was playing for the foul all the way. Williams obliged and LJB sank both free throws. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. James scored four of the Heat's next six points in the same fashion. After featuring fierce defense throughout, this game was going to be decided by shotmaking. And, with one of the game's best closers making amends for a mediocre night, bettors in the stands were offering Heat -3 to anyone who would take it.

Trailing the NBA's most hyped squad, 84-83, with less than a minute and a half to play, the Knicks came up with two of their biggest makes of the season. Gallinari again put the Knicks back in front with another treble; and then, after a mercifully missed James Jones jumper (LBJ drove and then kicked it to JJ), Fields hit the message bucket of the game. His easy stroke for another three pushed the lead to five points and told everyone on the floor and in attendance that the Knicks weren't giving this one up.

Coming out of the ensuing timeout, the GardenVision screen above the court played its "Get Loud" montage, with footage of a grinning Gallo imploring the crowd to raise the volume. For the most, part no one paid much notice. We were already loud, and we were preparing to unleash the full strenght of our voices in a D-FENCE chant. This wasn't no Nets game when the loudest noises were dictated by the JumboTron. We were doing just fine on our own. And after sputtering on offense all night, so were the Knicks.

LeBron scored four more points in the final minute but the Heat would never regain the lead thanks to four Felton free throws. As Felton stepped to the line for the last charity toss of the game, the delirious crowd chanted, "BEAT THE HEAT BEAT THE HEAT."

In Defense of LeBron James
For a guy who has the highest active career average in the Garden and whose teams haven't lost to the Knicks seemingly since hightops were made simply of rubber soles, canvas and metal eyeholes for laces, LeBron looked completely out of sorts last night. While Wade rampaged downhill like an avalanche, LBJ pounded it on the perimeter like he was Zach Randolph.

In recent meetings between the 'bockers and LBJ, New York has thrown out strong oversized two-guards like Wilson Chandler and Quentin Richardson at him. They've bodied him and hounded him around the perimeter. They've pressured him on the ball and tried to deny him when he didn't have it. And he's driven to the lane when they crowded only to confidently catch and shoot from distance when they inevitably backed off.

Last night, he didn't know if he was coming or going, driving or shooting. One minute, he was trying to face up on the much smaller Ray Felton and then later trying to back down the taller Shawne Williams.

With Heat power forward Chris Bosh sidelined by an ankle injury, James started at the No. 4 spot and this allowed the Knicks to throw all their rangy forwards at him. When Turiaf first checked into the game, Amar'e even shifted down to power forward spot and d'ed up James for a few trips.

While I won't pretend to know what LeBron was thinking, I will say that it looked like he was spooked. Or, at least, rattled by the size in front him. He wasn't assertive until the waning moments of the game. Until then, he always paused when he got the ball, and this wasn't the Chesire grinning toe-tap pause he sometimes takes before swishing in a three from deep. These pauses were not strategic. It looked like he didn't know what to do. It looked like he heard the crowd and then forced a bad shot in an attempt to show us what was up. But instead of taking control of the game away from the Knicks (and from Wade) he was bricking shots at the end of the shot clock. He was facing up and swinging eblows int the faces of smaller players, and being whistled for it, instead of backing them down. It looked real bad, and I've never seen that from James against this team.

Notes, Observations and Things Best Left Unsaid
-Of the many shots missed during the game by home players, Wilson Chandler missed more than his share. After opening the game by flushing home an ally-oop he tallied just a few more hoops. I couldn't help but feel like his offense was thrown off by the spanking he was taking at the other end from Wade.

Quote(s) of the Night:

"We're just as real scrappy team. That's how we play. That defines us on the defensive end, trying to outscrap every team that we play."
-Knicks forward Shawne Williams, who played poised, physical defense on LeBron James throughout the second half of the game.

"If you know Shawne's background, I don't think he's going to be intimidated. That's not going to be a problem," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said with a laugh. "He's coming at you. And I like that about him.