Whoever said there are no such things as a moral victories obviously wasn’t a self-loathing Knick fan. Yes, New York (8-14) lost again. And yes, it was the kind of painful, last-second loss that has become all-too-familiar to the Garden-faithful, but if you’re an Eastern Conference basketball coach, consider yourself on notice: something wicked this way comes.
After all, isn’t this what the Knicks envisioned when they acquired Carmelo Anthony (26 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals) before last year’s trade deadline? Wasn’t the plan for Anthony – freshly named an All Star-starter – and Amar’e Stoudemire (32 points on 16-of-27 shooting and 11 rebounds) to work with and off of one another in wreaking havoc on an opposing defense?
Forget the final score for a moment, and consider that the Knicks more than held their own against the Eastern Conference leading Bulls last night. In fact, if not for a mind-numbing second quarter, in which 11 New York turnovers – one of which inexplicably occurred off a timeout – led to 15 Chicago points, the outcome almost certainly would have been different.
In fairness, the Bulls were playing in the second game of a back-to-back set (and their fourth game in five nights), but that hardly seemed to matter to reigning-MVP Derrick Rose (32 points, 13 assists) & Co., whose defensive intensity was most definitely as advertised. And that is what was so encouraging about the Knicks’ effort. For the second game in a row – this time against elite competition – New York shared the basketball (20 assists on 44 field goals made), and worked in unison to find the best available shots.
Factor in the Knicks’ continuing solid work on defense (11th in the league in defensive efficiency) and not-so-abysmal rebounding (4th in the league in defensive rebounding rate), and it isn’t outlandish to suggest that this team is on the verge of a major breakthrough. Sure, their success – and, not coincidentially, D’Antoni’s – hinges absolutely on the health and effectiveness of Baron Davis (more on him below), but to deny the emerging Knicks’ offensive synergy on display at MSG last night is to deny reality.
Call me an eternal optimist, or call me batsh*t crazy, but something tells me that the 2011-12 New York Knicks are going to point to this early-February loss against the Bulls as their season turning point. If I’m right about the chemistry, and Davis can eventually slather on some Floor General-goodness, this Knick squad suddenly becomes the proverbial “team-no-one-wants-to-see-come-playoff-time.”
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
- Perhaps the rumors of Stoudemire’s demise were greatly exaggerated, after all, eh? I’m already on record as suspecting that his off-season rehab must have precluded Amar’e from shooting very often, and last night, finally, STAT confirmed as much in the post-game. “I had been working on the back all summer and didn’t have much practice time. The jumper is coming around now, though.” Assuming he was healthy, it was only a matter of time before STAT rediscovered that mid-range jumper of his, and when he’s consistent from 18 feet, the Knicks become an entirely different team. Of course, the [wrong] story of the game for many will be Mike D’Antoni green-lighting Stoudemire to launch a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the top of the arc with just under 10 seconds to go, but if you’ve watched Stoudemire during pratice or shootarounds, then you know that he’s fully capable of knocking down the straight-on 3-pointer. Stoudemire had a wide-open look; he just missed the shot.
- The education of Iman Shumpert continues (10 points, a career-high 8 assists and 5 rebounds), and Knick fans have to like what they see. Before the game, an incredulous Shumpert scoffed at the notion that he might be intimidated by fellow Chicago-native Rose, and he vowed to challenge his Chicago counterpart at every opportunity. Defensively, Shumpert was overmatched – not many in the league aren’t – but the rookie was active, composed, and despite four turnovers, did a good job in setting teammates up. By my count, Shumpert actually made at least three brilliant pass attempts to open teammates who were either not expecting the ball or unable to make a play.
- Landry Fields has been working on his jump shot, and particularly from 3-point-range, it shows. Fields poured in 17points (3 treys) against the Bulls, and if he can continue to stretch the floor, opposing defenses will have a hard time accounting for Anthony and Stoudemire. More “Lob City East” chemistry between Fields and Tyson Chandler was on full display, which is always a crowd-pleaser.
- Speaking of Tyson, he’s now shooting 71.7% from the field this season. And, contrary to popular belief, Chandler also possesses a decent mid-range game and a sweet turnaround-hook shot. You know what they say, though, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
WHAT WENT WRONG:
- The Knick bench was outscored 25-6.
- I was planing on asking Toney Douglas if he still maintains a will to live, but instead of finding him at his locker after the game, there was only one of those roadrunner escape-clouds available for comment. The simple fact is that Douglas is killing the Knicks right now. There were two clear momentum shifts against the Bulls last night, and both occurred when Douglas entered the game each half. Why Jeremy Lin does not get meaningful minutes at either Douglas’ or Bill Walker‘s expense is shaping up as one of the great mysteries in Knick-lore. Considering that the team is playing three games on three consecutive nights, one would surmise that there are enough minutes to go around. Sigh.
- “Nine times! I’ve got it right here in front of me, Mrs. Bueller,” except it wasn’t Ferris’ school absences that were in question last night, but the number of times no whistle was blown on the nine blocks tallied by the Bulls against the Knicks. It really seems like the Knicks, especially Amar’e, do not get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the officials this season. Maybe it is because they are a bad basketball team [right now], but the Knicks also happen to rank 3rd in the NBA in personal fouls at 22.4-per-game.
- A source connected with the Knicks tells me that the team is becoming increasingly concerned about the ability of Baron Davis to meaningfully contribute any time soon. Last night was the first time I had heard D’Antoni concede publicly that Davis is still dealing with “a little bit of the back issue and a little bit of the conditioning,” but more telling than those comments is the fact that Davis is not currently engaging in full-contact practice sessions. Taking Davis’ abilities out of the equation, we should all probably table this “savior” talk until he proves he can play without pain or his lungs falling out.
- Maverick Carter, the oft-derided agent of both LeBron James and Chris Paul, was seated next to Knick owner James Dolan last night. Rumor has it The Decision: Part Deux was discussed. In case you didn’t know, LBJ can opt-out of his contract with the Miami Heat after the 2012-2013 season.
- Nicky Parsons, a.k.a. Julia Stiles, of Jason Bourne fame was in the house last night, too, looking lovely as ever.
- Oh, and some guy named Mariano Rivera was also courtside. I’m told that he’s good.
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Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images