The consensus after Monday night seems to be that the Knicks were lucky to beat Orlando, that poor officiating and better-than-usual shot-making nudged the Knicks past a team missing its starting point guard and, at the end, its franchise player. I can’t argue any of those points, but I hope fans don’t still have a bad taste in their mouths just because the Knicks snapped their losing streak under dubious circumstances. Let’s remember that, despite needing a few more wins to make the playoffs – the magic number over Charlotte is four, by the way – what we’ve been looking for these past few weeks isn’t victory but desire. The win was immaterial – we saw some heart on Monday, and we got to have fun rooting for this team. They still have time to work out the tactical kinks; right now, making sure the fire is lit is what’s most important.
That fire will get its first heat check tonight at the Garden against our cross-river “rivals” the Nets. The Netsies threw together a five-game winning streak against some bad teams and the Celtics, and besides that they’ve lost 14 of 15, with their only win outside the streak since February 7 coming against Cleveland. And on February 7, they beat Sacramento, so maybe we shouldn’t count that one either. The point is, this team is pretty bad. Let’s remind ourselves why.
Tonight’s game is on ESPN for some reason. From the Bergen Record: The Nets have not been on ESPN since November 23, 2007 at Seattle, and haven’t been nationally televised since TNT threw them out there January 24, 2008 against Golden State. Sounds like a couple of barnburners.
PG – Deron Williams: Slated to return to the lineup tonight after missing the last six games with a strained wrist. Even when healthy, however, he’s shot just 33% FG and 29% 3PT since coming to Jersey.
SG – Anthony Morrow: Still shooting it well, but has essentially ceased his contributions elsewhere, meager as they were.
SF – Travis Outlaw: Nothing official on the starting lineups yet, but I’m thinking New Jersey will deviate from its recent three-guard starting lineup (which featured Morrow and Sasha Vujacic, with Jordan Farmar running point while Williams was out) and have Outlaw check Carmelo Anthony.
PF – Kris Humphries: 18 PER, fifth in the league in rebounding, fourth in rebound rate, and still makes three or four bonehead plays per game. Entertaining all around.
C – Brook Lopez: America can exhale: after a couple of near misses, Lopez finally recorded zero rebounds Saturday in Atlanta, in 31 minutes. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it was possible.
The Biggest, Most Must-Winnest Game of the Year…Again: In this article Melo calls tonight “another must-win.” And here Sasha Vujacic labels it “probably the biggest game of the season.” High drama! When Melo gets all up in Sasha’s hairnet we’ll know why ESPN picked this game.
Knicks Lineup: As Mike reported this morning, Shawne Williams will miss tonight’s game with back spasms. Shelden Williams, fresh off a gutty effort against Dwight Howard, gets the start in his place. Shelden has earned the extra minutes, especially over Jared Jeffries, who, as bgalella reliably pointed out in the comments, gave Jason Richardson far too much room to launch his game-tying three Monday night. I forgot to properly excoriate Jared for that in my recap Monday night; suffice it to say, he shouldn’t see the court for a while after such an unforgivable miscue from our “defensive specialist.”
A Few Good Sentences on: Melo, who played his best game of his young Knicks career this past Monday, and yet there were still the lapses. He still allowed a Turkoglu three because he didn’t bother to step out on him, and he still allowed an offensive rebound because he assumed someone else would grab it and didn’t move for the ball. Throughout the past five weeks Melo has said the right things about coming here to win and playing with desire, and – unlike Cam Newton, already perhaps the quintessentially disingenuous athlete – he does seem genuine. Still, those little plays pop up each and every night.
My theory: I think Carmelo, in his mind, thinks he really brought it Monday night. And he did – it showed through 95% of the game and certainly in the final box score. But I don’t think hustle is a part of his basketball DNA – meaning, when he’s focused on guarding LeBron James in the final ten seconds of the game, he can do a great job, but there will be times when something just doesn’t occur to him. If you think that’s crazy and is just a euphemism or an excuse for his laziness, fine – but I know the feeling, as an athlete committed to all the team concepts and sacrifices, when a hustle opportunity comes about and you do nothing just because you didn’t think it would help at all. Maybe that makes Melo and me lazy; add that to the other 300 million reasons I’m blogging and not balling. I’m not condoning the lack of hustle, but as Chris Rock would say, I understand.
I think we can all agree that Melo is a tough nut to crack. I find him one of the most enigmatic stars in the NBA today, simply because I can’t quite figure out what truly motivates him. He seems like a nice enough guy, appears popular with teammates, but then he’ll just stop playing defense, take selfish shots and have a classy ex-coach trash him on his way out the door. I don’t really know what to think; above was just my latest stab at figuring him out. Maybe we’ll learn more tonight in our latest must-win extravaganza. Enjoy the game if possible, and Mike will serve up a delicious post-game recap.