As a Knicks’ fan, I am very disappointed and frustrated that they have lost the first two games of their first round playoff series against the Celtics. These two losses have been excruciating and arguably should have been victories. There wasn’t much hope for the Knicks to realistically win the series anyway, but now being down 2-0 it is virtually impossible to think they have any chance at all. But, there is a better way to look at things…positively.
Before the season started, there was already a sense of disappointment and despair after the Knicks failed to sign LeBron James. The signing of Amar’e Stoudamire was a good start, but fans knew that he could not do this alone. The opening day roster was not one that elicited feelings of the playoffs. Then starting the year 3-8 certainly didn’t erase the horrible memories of the last decade marred by the likes of Scott Layden, Stephon Marbury, Isaiah Thomas, Larry Brown, and Eddy Curry. All of a sudden, the Knicks went on a huge winning streak and were over .500 later in a season than they had been in many years. The Knicks were relevant once again. Players like Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, and Toney Douglass were complementing Stoudamire well and the team was playing with passion and energy. Of course, being a Mike D’Antoni team, the Knicks didn’t play much defense, but their explosive offense earned them the highest scoring average in the league for most of the first half. So compared the entire decade of the 2000′s, the Knicks were being talked about on sports radio and featured on network games during the week. The week before Christmas, the Knicks played a classic game against the Celtics that they would end up losing on a game-winning shot by Paul Pierce. But the gutty effort by the Knicks proved to the world that they could compete with the best and were a force to be reckoned with.
Despite how well the Knicks had played and the drastic improvements they had made, no one in their right mind believed they were a championship team yet. Based on the talent in the East, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Knicks would qualify for the playoffs by the time December rolled around. Rumors of a trade for Carmelo Anthony really heated up around this time as well. Those who supported the trade also acknowledged that adding a second superstar to the team is yet another building block towards the ultimate goal of a championship. Those realists could not have been more correct because there were obvious and severe growing pains once the Knicks made the trade for Carmelo. By dealing away Felton, Chandler and Gallinari, they needed to replace 3/5 of their starting lineup which is no easy task to do for anyone at any time of year, let alone the Knicks as they competed for their first playoff appearance since 2004. Sure enough, the growing pains lasted quite awhile as the Knicks put themselves in a dangerous position down the stretch, almost losing enough to remove them from playoff contention. But the chemistry with Carmelo started to click in March and the Knicks went on a rampage into the playoffs where the Celtics would await them.
So in looking back at the 2010-2011 season, the Knicks have succeeded in selling out Madison Square Garden again, finished the regular season with a record better than .500 for the first time in ten years, made the playoffs for the first time in seven years, rid themselves of all their bad contracts and still have salary cap room for the offseason, and they have two superstars in place who will be on the team for many years to come. These are all great achievements and are indicative of the direction the franchise is heading into the future.
So now we come to the playoffs against Boston. Yes, these two losses are truly brutal and games that could have been won by the Knicks. Forget about phantom offensive fouls or any other excuses, the better team has won the first two games of this series. True, the Knicks have outplayed Boston for most of the two games. However, Boston had outplayed the Knicks when it counts the most – the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. That comes from their superior size, invaluable experience, intelligent coaching, and lack of discipline on behalf of the Knicks. The way I see this is that the Knicks, a #6 seed (and barely better than the #8 seed), are matched up with a championship-caliber team in the Celtic,s a #3 seed, and are standing their ground giving Boston a real run for its money. Upsets in the NBA playoffs are rare, so it should not come as a shock to anyone that Boston does have a 2-0 lead. Again, I know the Knicks could easily be up 2-0 if certain things either happened or didn’t happen, but that is not the case.
What is the case here is that the Knicks have been playing like a legitmate playoff team these first two games. Their overall defense has been drastically improved compared to just a couple weeks ago. Their intensity and intelligence have shown through (with some admittedly lapses of judgment and execution at times). The Knicks are pushing the Celtics to their extreme limits. This performance should give the Knicks players, management and fans the confidence that they can be competitive against any team and that they are headed in the right direction. Chauncey Billups is a nice player and has a lot to offer the team, but he is not the long-term answer at point guard. The Knicks also have a glaring hole at the center position. They need a big body to clog up lanes, box out, and secure rebounds. Assuming they address this need in the offseason, couple with the additional time and experience gained by Carmelo and company, the Knicks should be a 50-win team in 2011-2012. They are young and talented, and hopefully no matter who is the coaching them they will continue to make progress.
So, even if the Knicks do get swept or win a game or two before being inevitably eliminated, it would behoove you to look at the positives of this season as opposed to the missed opportunities here in the playoffs. Just the fact they are in the playoffs and playing competitive games should be enough to satiate your desire for change and improvement.
After ten long years, I have finally been able to openly admit that I am a fan of the New York Knicks. This past decade has been akin to the Dark Ages for this storied franchise. Once the Patrick Ewing era ended, it has been a continuous freefall for the Knickerbockers who became the biggest joke in the NBA. Felled by horrific ownership, poor management decisions, questionable personnel choices, salary cap mismanagement, and lack of quality basketball, the Knicks were constantly setting standards for what NOT to do when running a sports franchise. From Scott Layden to Larry Brown to Isaiah Thomas to Eddy Curry to Stephon Marbury, it has been an endless cycle of futility and incompetence. But after all of that, the Knicks are finally relevant again and heading to the playoffs where anything can happen.
I am not going to get ahead of myself and make any arguments as to why they can win a NBA championship this year. That is because they have absolutely no shot at winning it all in 2011. The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony, while necessary and great for long-term building, stripped the Knicks of their depth and forced them to learn on the fly how to play basketball with one another. Now they have their coveted “second” superstar along with Amar’e Stoudamire. The pieces are in place to become a legitimate championship contender in the next several years. However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Under Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks, much like every other team he has coached, do not play any defense, let alone good defense. D’Antoni is an offensive-minded coach, and a good one at that. However, in order to win in the NBA, you have to be able to play good, consistent defense. One area where the Knicks have a glaring hole is at the center position. The Knicks lack size and strength in the middle to clog up the lanes and secure rebounds. Playing Stoudamire at the five spot is unfair to him as he cannot match up well with the big men in the league. The Knicks don’t necessarily have to have a player who can post up, but they need a body in the middle who can both defend the rim and also command some attention on offense to allow outlet passes to an open player behind the three-point line. Another necessity is to lock up the point guard position for the future. Chauncey Billups came over in the Carmelo Anthony trade, and he will provide the leadership and experience they so badly need at that position. But he is 34 years old and not a long-term solution. Billups, a former NBA Finals MVP, will be the key to any success the Knicks have this year in the playoffs. But when planning for years down the road, the Knicks will need someone like Chris Paul to round out the trifecta of superstars that seem to be necessary to reach the upper echalon of the league.
The mere fact that I am writing about the Knicks speaks volumes to the strides they have taken this year. It is true that they are still merely a .500 team with lots of gaping holes on their roster. But they have turned the corner and are relevant once again because the pieces are in place to build a winning team. Excitement has returned the Madison Square Garden, the mecca of sports. We know there will be at least one playoff game hosted at the World’s Most Famous Arena, and that is good for the Knicks, good for New York, and good for the NBA.
Going along with the theme of building a championship team down the road, I do not think that will be possible with D’Antoni as the coach. He is a genius when it comes to designing offensive plays and schemes. But like I said, you need to play defense to win a championship. The Knicks do have explosive offensive weapons on their team, but they need to focus on defense just as much, if not more. If they play Miami in the first round of the playoffs, they will have a chance to win but they likely will fall to the much more defensive-oriented Heat. LeBron, Wade and Bosh are all prolific offensive threats, but they also play good, hard defense. The Knicks are anything but assured of being able to stop the Big Three down the stretch in the 4th quarter. This is why I would argue that the Knicks need to also start thinking about who the next coach will be and whether he can instill some defensive priorities into the mix. While he has no prior coaching experience, I would give former Knick guard Mark Jackson the opportunity to coach. This arguably should have been done years ago, but Jackson clearly is in intelligent basketball man and can command the respect of his players. Jackson undoubtedly would instill fundamental principles of defense into the Knicks’ repertoire, as well as better ball movement and distribution. The run and gun schemes that D’Antoni loves are great for energizing the crowd and putting up crooked numbers. But those crooked numbers won’t mean much if the opposition’s numbers are even more crooked.
At the end of the day, I am just going to enjoy the Knicks’ return to relevance and an exciting playoff matchup with either Boston, Orlando or Miami most likely. Even if they get swept out of the first round, there is at least hope for the future. That is more than can be said any other year since 2001.
Besides having some personal medical issues this week (no worries – everything is fine now), it was not a good 7 days to be a fan of the sports teams that I root for. I have become immune and accustomed to disappointment when it comes to my sports allegiances (outside of a couple Giants’ Super Bowl victories over the last couple decades). But generally speaking, I normally don’t have much to root for in terms of my teams’ successes.
Starting last Monday, the news broke that Cliff Lee signed with his “mystery team”, the Philadelphia Phillies. Of course, this was bittersweet since at first I was elated when I heard the Yankees were out of the running for him. Like many others, I assumed this meant that Lee decided to re-sign with the Texas Rangers. But not only did he turn down the two known offers that were made, he actually approached the Phillies and ended up signing with them giving Philadelphia arguably the deepest and most talented starting rotation in baseball. All this means is that any chance the Mets had of winning 5 games against the Phillies in 2011 pretty much went out the window. The Mets were not going to compete for anything this season anyway, especially when the biggest news they have made is signing Ronny Paulino and D.J. Carrasco. But knowing that the already dominant Phillies just added another Cy Young Award winner to their staff for the next 5 years is pretty demoralizing. Every other team in the NL East has made moves and gotten better. The Mets have stood still with their hands in their empty pockets and now may be looking up at the Nationals from the cellar of the division.
So also last Monday, the Giants did win a Monday Night game against the Vikings in Detroit. That was very positive as it put them into a 1st place tie with the Eagles setting up the showdown this past weekend. I think we all know where this is going as the Giants pulled off a monumental, epic, titanic and catastrophic collapse against the Eagles by allowing 28 points in the last 8 minutes of the game. This is easily the worst loss in the Giants’ regular season history. From the breakdowns on offense, defense, special teams, and coaching, it was a team effort to allow the Eagles back into the game and let alone able to win it in regulation. Rookie punter Matt Dodge should be sent out of Dodge after the way he has performed this season and specifically at the end of this game. How and why he kicked the ball in bounds to DeSean Jackson is beyond anyone’s comprehension. But regardless of all that, the Giants still do control their own destiny for the playoffs as they can lock up the wild card by winning their own games. However, how will a collapse like this effect their performance and focus for the next couple weeks? This is where Tom Coughlin’s true grit, guts and value as a coach will shine through. He has to focus his team on next week and forget about what happened against the Eagles. Irrespective of whether the players can do that, the fans probably cannot do so that easily. I was laying in a hospital bed watching that debacle and nearly suffered from cardiac arrest from it. It was painful to watch as the Giants simply shut themselves down in all facets of the game. The sad thing is that in the back of my cynical mind, I still had a bad feeling about the game, even at 31-10 with 8 minutes left. I could just taste it in my mouth that something was going to go wrong, and it sure did.
Besides the Mets and Giants woes, I had to endure a mixed bag of emotions with the Knicks this past week as well. After defeating Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets last Sunday, the Knicks had themselves an 8-game winning streak heading into the biggest home games in a decade against Boston and Miami. The hype was all there as ESPN was prominently featuring the Knicks all week during their renaissance. So last Wednesday night, the Knicks were in control of the Celtics the entire game until the very last few seconds when Paul Pierce pierced the hearts of Knicks’ fans with his beautiful jump shot with .4 seconds left on the clock. As if that wasn’t enough, Amar’e Stoudamire then hit a 3-pointer just after the buzzer went off teasing us all. No matter what the result was, the overall consensus was that the Knicks had arrived and could hang with any team. They played their hearts out and provided one of the best NBA games in recent history. This all led towards the further hype of the game against Miami where LeBron James would make his MSG debut as a member of the Heat. After a wild and passionate first half, the Knicks found themselves tied with Miami at 57-57 and looking like they were going to be competitive all night. Then the 2nd half started and the Knicks proved to be no match for the Heat. Miami pulled away in the 3rd quarter and went on to a blowout victory. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night the Knicks went to Cleveland to the play LeBron’s former team and still couldn’t beat the Cavaliers. So after an 8-game winning streak and riding high, the Knicks now lost three in a row in heart-breaking and crushing fashion.
Sports is all about momentum – riding the high’s and surviving the low’s. It is the same for the players who play the games and the fans who cheer for them. This week was definitely a severe low for me personally with my sports allegiances. But after being used to such disappointment, this too will pass. It was just kind of amazing that there was a perfect storm of suck-titude between the Mets, Giants and Knicks. Oh yeah, I was also eliminated from the playoffs in both my fantasy football leagues. When it rains, it pours. Let’s just hope it doesn’t collapse the foam roof on top of my house.