“The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him.”
“Some speak of the future. My love she speaks softly. She knows there’s no success like failure. And that failure’s no success at all.”
– Bob Dylan, “Love Minus Zero”
“The only victories which leave no regret are those which are gained over ignorance.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
Fifteen times this season the Knicks have been outscored by their opponent. Tonight’s contest — composed as it was of a comprehensively fulfilling start that gave way to a horrifying struggle against the creeping, persistent onslaught of time — very nearly became the sixteenth. In the end, it didn’t. And I’m sitting here grasping at empty air for something productive to contribute and the only thought I can catch a fleeting hold of is this one: maybe it would be better if it had.
Let’s talk about what the value of a win is. First off, a win is the point of all of this. The money and the effort and the time and the passion are, theoretically, all about producing victories. Wins are an economic engine and a moral judgment and a historical record and an emotional touchstone. Cliches about sportsmanship aside, at the highest levels, wins are the reason for the season.
But, specifically, what is the value of THIS win? This 83-78 survival that goes into the books only because the fourth quarter was 12 minutes long and not 15? It sends the Knicks to 6-15 instead of 5-16 which is, you know, better. It brings us a win closer to playoff basketball and since it came against a conference opponent who could theoretically be competition for the same postseason spot, that benefit counts a little bit extra. It potentially does a lot of good for Amar’e Stoudemire, who was unquestionably the evening’s hero behind 7 of 11 shooting, some spirited interior defense, and an impressive (and somewhat unexpected) degree of synergy with swashbuckling combo guard Beno Udrih. It may marginally extend Mike Woodson’s tenure as Knicks’ head coach although that’s far from a sure thing and even a minimally invasive deconstruction of tonight’s game should readily suggest why it’s an odd choice to be a strike in the coach’s favor. And there’s a chance, decide for yourself how significant, that hanging on to a close game like this will motivate the team and bring them together and propel them forward to bigger and better things. I suppose people arguing that point should be ready to explain why the Knicks are 1-4 with a -28 point differential in games following victories this year but, whatever, it’s not impossible.
So, OK, the value of this game lies in 1) the probability that it is the difference between the Knicks making or missing the playoffs, 2) the probability that it is the difference between a better or worse seed in the playoffs, 3) its affirmation of the things the Knicks did well in the game, 4) the probability that it positively impacts Woodson’s longevity and 5) the probability that it ends up being something of a catalyst for victories over the days or weeks or months to come.
Now, for the opposite question: what is the value of a loss?
Tonight, the Knicks played against a Bulls team that is, bluntly, quite bad. They had lost 8 of 10 coming in and aside from an outlier victory against Miami looked completely flat on offense. At halftime tonight, they’d scored only 181 points in their last 5 halves of basketball (basically a 72 ppg pace). They were missing Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Jimmy Butler. And, more proximately, they looked utterly hopeless on both ends against the Knicks in the first half: inept and turnover prone on offense; uncharacterstically floundering on defense in the face of a Knicks offense in the midst of one of its isolated bouts of pass-happiness. If ever there was a team against whom a big lead should have seemed safe, this was it.
And yet, slowly and steadily, it began to disappear. The Knicks spiraled, as they have so many times this year, as they did with some regularity even amidst their relatively abundant success last season. Ball movement ground to a halt, silly fouls were committed (JR Smith stabbed a guy in the heart with a trident!), technicals were earned, defensive assignments were abandoned, stink-eyes were shot at teammates. And the unthinkable happened: the team that couldn’t score started to chip away. Want to know how bad it was? Here are the shooting stats for the five players who attempted the most field goals for a team that erased a 23-point deficit tonight;
Mike Dunleavy: 7/24, 3/11 3-pointers, 3/3 FTs, 20 points on 25 weighted shots.
Kirk Hinrich: 3/11, 2/5, 3/4, 11 points on 13 weighted shots.
Carlos Boozer: 6/10, 0/0, 0/0, 12 points on 10 weighted shots.
Marquis Teague: 2/7, 0/1, 3/4, 7 points on 9 weighted shots.
Tony Snell: 1/7, 1/4, 1/3, 4 points on 9 weighted shots.
TOTAL: 19/59 (32.2%), 6/21 (28.6%), 10/14 (71.4%) for 54 points on 66 weighted shots.
Again, THOSE PLAYERS led a team back from 23 points down tonight. To tie the game. Shooting like that.
My point is this: when you let that happen, maybe it’s good to lose. Maybe it’s good to have to explain how you let it get away. Maybe it’s good to not get to fall back on empty platitudes like, oh I don’t know:
Carmelo says the difference for Knicks is it sunk in that NYK are tired of losing.
— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) December 12, 2013
Melo, on the gm: “I dont wanna say it was stressful, but to keep looking up & keep seeing the score get closer & closer… We had to [win].”
— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 12, 2013
Woodson, on the late-game shots: “I’ll take a shot from Melo all day long [in that situation].” Says some of those iso plays were designed. — Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 12, 2013
I’ve seen one quote that came out of tonight’s postgame that meant something real to me and it came from Mr. Anthony himself:
Carmelo: “From a mental standpoint, if this game would have gotten away from us there ain’t no telling what would have happened.” #Knicks
— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) December 12, 2013
And that kind of perfectly hits on what I’m trying to say here. I DON’T know what would have happened. But I kind of want to. Because positive results often serve as an implicit affirmation of the underlying method, even if only subconsciously, even when we actively try to block such things out. And tonight, the underlying method — in the second half, at least — was to abandon a perfectly effective offensive strategy based around Beno/STAT pick and rolls and activity away from Melo to clear the space he needs to get him the ball in good position. It was to let up considerably on defense in the second half after a thoroughly tenacious first two periods. It was to give the Bulls the freedom on the interior to grab 16 offensive rebounds (a whopping 35.6% of those available to them). And, as the lead got tighter and tighter, it was to shed precious seconds off of the shot clock with a single-minded determination to put the ball in Carmelo Anthony’s hands and take the other 4 guys on the team out of the play. The Bulls couldn’t have asked for an approach more forgiving to their offensive woes and more ripe for a semi-miraculous comeback.
Believe me, I know how I sound. I root for a 6-15 team and I’m griping after a win: equal parts beggar and chooser, head buried 4 feet down a gift horse’s throat. But tonight I watched a team inflict wounds on itself that its opponent would never have been capable of meting out on its own merits. I saw it collapse on itself with in-fighting and uncertainty. I saw it earn something and give it away and have it come back through a reprieve borne only of mutual incompetence and the merciful expiration of a 48-minute timer.
A win has value. Always, always, a win has value. But this kind of win? In this kind of season? You take it, of course. You’re happy to get it, for sure. And you hope against hope that the people who have a hand in all of this can separate the means from the end.