They say that time flies when you’re having fun, but for former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, Monday’s 14-year-anniversary of his unforgettable ride on the leg of Alonzo Mourning couldn’t be farther in his rear-view mirror. “People often ask me what I was thinking, and I always answer ‘Obviously, not very much.’ I go ahead and plead temporary insanity on that one.”
Now, as tip-off for Game 1 of the upcoming NBA Playoff series between the Knicks and the Miami Heat rapidly approaches, Van Gundy, who broadcasts games for ABC/ESPN, remains just as controversial, albeit for his unvarnished commentary more than his sideline histrionics. And though he hasn’t coached the Knicks since unceremoniously resigning just 29 games into the 2001-’01 season, one gets the distinct impression that the ties still run deep for Van Gundy.
“I have been extremely impressed by what the Knicks have accomplished this year. When the NBA decided to cram a 66-game schedule into such a condensed framework, every team and its players had to cope. New York, in particular, had to endure more than most, though, on account of their ever changing rotation of players, the injuries and the coaching change. They’ve done a really great job of managing it all, especially in terms of their play down the stretch.”
Van Gundy’s demise at Madison Square Garden over a decade ago is well-documented, but that certainly hasn’t impacted his ability to give fans an unbiased and unabashed take on the state of the Knicks. Though the recurring pattern – from Pat Riley to Van Gundy, from Don Nelson to Lenny Wilkins, from Isiah Thomas to Mike D’Antoni – of ugly divorce proceedings between MSG Executive Chairman James Dolan and his coaches is undeniable, Van Gundy, at least publicly, doesn’t seem to harbor any ill will.
With respect to the dearly-departed D’Antoni, Van Gundy says “Mike did a great job there, in tandem with Donnie Walsh. They endured great pains, gave up some really good players, to get the team where it is now. I have no doubt that he will get another great job because he’s a great coach.”
That isn’t to say that Van Gundy isn’t a believer in Knicks interim coach Mike Woodson. “Woodson has always been vastly underrated for what he did in Atlanta with the Hawks. He took what was a moribund franchise and made them relevant again. I cannot envision any scenario, regardless of what happens against the Heat, that Woodson wouldn’t continue on as coach of the Knicks.”
In terms of what the Knicks must do to beat the Heat, Van Gundy thinks the keys to the series are clear: “New York must have a ‘we can win this thing’ mentality from the start. They can’t look at it like stealing a game or two is enough. Also, how the Knicks’ Big-Three of Chandler, Stoudemire and Anthony answer the bell defensively will be critical. Various factors have kept those guys from playing together as much as the team envisioned, but they’ve got to figure it out, and fast.”
Ironically, Van Gundy thinks the words of his mentor (and former adversary), Heat President Pat Riley, will serve as New York’s bellwether. “‘No rebounds, no rings.’ That’s what the man in that building always said, and he was right.”
Interestingly, Van Gundy also believes that Knicks rookie Iman Shumpert will also play a considerable role in determining the series’ outcome. “I think he deserves serious consideration for the Rookie of the Year Award. He’s had more impact on a good team than any other first-year player. He has a terrific defensive disposition, one borne out of great technique and intensity. Facing a guy like Dwyane Wade, he must be disciplined and determined. Iman must take one thing away, preferably Wade’s ability to get into the lane and get to the free throw line.”
Van Gundy also believes that the officials are likely to have significant impact on which team advances, but he feels the Heat are far better equipped to deal with foul trouble, specifically because they have two elite players in Wade and LeBron James, whereas the Knicks have but one in Carmelo Anthony. “’Melo has to play huge minutes and be incredibly effective at both ends of the floor, says Van Gundy. “New York can’t play really well for extend periods of time if he’s on the bench.”
As for predictions, Van Gundy has Miami in five games, but he believes a Knick-upset is absolutely possible, especially if New York can win one of the first two games. “I expect [the Knicks] to play well, play hard and play competitively. If this thing gets to six games, it will go to seven. A Game 6 in Madison Square Garden won’t be easy for Miami. Playoff games at the Garden are like no other place; it’s a major postseason advantage.”
For Knicks fans’ sakes, here’s hoping he’s right.