Last night I sat down and recalled the Knicks’ first game of the season. It was against the Raptors, and something of an exhibition game before the Knicks went on to Boston for the first of what would become eight consecutive losses to the Celtics.
That night in Toronto Wilson Chandler was the only Knick to play well; Amar’e had nine turnovers in a foreshadowing of his early-season offensive strategy of lowering his should and dribbling directly at his man with his head down, and Raymond Felton debuted the “I don’t know the offense yet, so I think I’ll just shoot” method, to be co-opted months later by Chauncey Billups. Despite the poor individual performances the Knicks held a five-point lead to start the fourth quarter, and if you remember the game, I think you’ll remember thinking it was the kind of game previous Knicks teams would lose. This team…didn’t – they held Toronto to a tidy 21 fourth-quarter points, kept their cool, and won it 98-93.
Fast forward to the Knicks’ other first game of the season. February 23rd, 2011 marked the beginning of the Carmelo roller coaster, and once again it was a reserve that kept the Knicks afloat – Toney Douglas did the honors with 23 points on 10-12 shooting. And again, none of the Knicks’ new toys played particularly well: Billups shot 4-12 and began to leak the dirty little secret that Douglas knew the offense better than he did; as for Melo, shooting seemed to be the only part of the D’Antoni offense that translated from Denver. Add in an Amar’e performance that seemed deferential to the debuts of his new star teammates – he averaged 19 FGA for the season but attempted just 13 in this game – and it was another game that, say, the 2007 Knicks would’ve blown. But this team…didn’t, and walked out with a 114-108 victory over the Bucks.
Then, of course, in the Knicks’ final first game of the season, they lost a heartbreaker to Boston in game one of what would turn out to be a sweep. This could be a thousand-word post of its own, but given the injuries to Amar’e and Chauncey – to say nothing of some sketchy refereeing and indefensible Celtic shooting – I don’t think we learned anything about the Knicks’ present or future these past couple of weeks.
So before we spend the next couple of months looking to the future, let’s look back quickly to see what this team actually accomplished. When I think of this regular season, I think of a team that established at least a baseline of composure at the end of games. The wins over Toronto and Milwaukee are just two convenient examples of games we’re used to watching in horror as Stephon Marbury goes 1-11 in the fourth quarter and the Knicks lose. And yet the Knicks won them. Sure, after both games there would come the mindless, inexplicable losses that recede my hairline. But this year, and going forward, we could say, “They won without playing their best game.” After wins in previous years we’d say, “If only they played like this every night…”
When push came to shove, of course, simple composure and end-of-game savvy weren’t enough, but then the Knicks team that fell to Boston wasn’t the same team that had played together all year, or even played together since the trade. Hell, it wasn’t really a team at all. Obviously that didn’t stop the national media from talking about the Knicks’ D-League supporting cast and how you can’t win that way, as if Donnie Walsh and Knicks fans were watching the games going, “But Roger Mason has given us such great minutes all season! And we’ve never had a problem running the offense through Jared Jeffries before!” So the Barkley’s and the Bucher’s don’t realize it – what else is new? – but I hope the fans all understand that this series was not a value judgment on Carmelo, Amar’e, D’Antoni or Donnie Walsh. Heads shouldn’t be rolling here, not yet.
Amar’e and Carmelo seem to sense this, talking about winning 50 games next year and openly campaigning for D’Antoni to return for another shot, another real shot, at getting something done with this nucleus. (Aside: the way they’re talking, you’d think this team hadn’t just been swept by a rival. Is this a good attitude for your star players to have? You decide.) It appears that Walsh wants to be part of the solution as well, and might put up with James Dolan’s antics to add a few more pieces so that Renaldo Balkman can continue wearing a tie to playoff games. Whether there is another Fields or Mozgov on the horizon is an open question, but whatever pieces Walsh adds, the Knicks will begin next season a team that feels it was gypped out of a playoff series, believes itself better than its reputation around the league, and has flashed the ability to win ugly. Those are dangerous things in this league; as we look to the future let’s take this moment to remember that, despite the sweep, this team took some crucial steps forward this year. And better yet, after the sweep, I don’t think the rest of the league knows it.