First: take a deep breath.
Tonight, the Knickerbockers lost what felt like a Capital “I” Important game 118-111 to a depleted Chicago Bulls squad. The result completes a Chicago sweep of the teams’ season series, the only such sweep the Knicks will suffer at the hands of an Eastern Conference foe this year. So that’s a mite frustrating. Add the fact that it’s the Bulls, weavers of many a recurring nightmare for our 21-and-over crowd, and it gets a little worse. Toss in a catalytic 35-point-outburst from former Knick and Once and Future miniature-cocktail-hot-dog-with-extra-relish Nate Robinson and the wound starts to feel decidedly salty. And then top it all off with a surprisingly chippy, postseasonal atmosphere (no doubt exacerbated by Joey Crawford’s special brand of “keep the game in such tight control that I infuriate the players to the point where I totally lose control of it” officiating) and this loss felt like it meant something.
Fortunately, it probably didn’t.
For starters: the starters. Field Captain Circle von Beardsman opened the game with a Felton-Prigs-Shump-Melo-Copeland look that, despite the lack of an interior presence or any discernible positional structure, improbably leapt out to a 23-6 lead behind torrid three-point shooting. Problem was, the guy on the opposing sidelines plays with live ammo and quickly implemented a series of defensive adjustments that allowed the Bulls to close out on the three-point line and dare the Knicks to beat them on the interior. Which, mostly, the Knicks didn’t; the lead slowly slipped away as the previously wildfire-hot trio of Melo, JR, and Copeland struggled to a combined 28/75 from the field.
There was some good here, Felton (19-6-5 on 17 FGA’s) put together a sublime first half before fading in the second, Melo (36 and 19…on an off night) and JR (27 and 14) hit the glass hard and, when they picked their spots to take it to the rim, finished and drew contact with aplomb. But too frequent were the contested mid-rangers, the off-balance step-backs, the rushed headlong drives into traffic. The Knicks played like a team that had grown accustomed to all its shots dropping, and not without reason. But they didn’t drop tonight and the fact that they were STILL just a clean Melo 18-footer away from a win is a testament to their ball protection (7 team turnovers in 53 minutes!) and an inspired defensive effort by their undermanned, undersized group down the stretch (believe it or not, the Bulls missed their last 8 field goal attempts of regulation, including a potential game-winning runner by Luol Deng off a right-handed drive that an in-prime Bruce Bowen couldn’t have defended any better than Melo did).
Want to be upset? There’s plenty here for you too: Kidd (0 points, 6 rebounds, 5 fouls) looked utterly lost, not a criticism that can often be hung around his neck. Prigs (7 points on 4 shots, 2 assists) looked sharp in his 24 minutes but was chained to the bench down the stretch, even as Felton’s game waffled and knee spontaneously combusted (note: the medical term is “hyperextended”) as he closed in on 50 minutes played for the evening. And then, of course, we have Nate – the pocket-sized whirling dervish who polarized* Bocker-backers throughout his Knick tenure and has set his mind to antagonizing them in days since. I loved Nate during his New York days and still root for him to succeed against 28 NBA teams but, boy, a night like tonight can really make a normally candy-assed pacifist such as myself long for the good old days when Anthony Mason would’ve put an elbow through his eye socket. Robinson (35 points, the most by a Chicago reserve since Ben Gordon 5 seasons ago) packed the full experience into one night – from 28-footers that splashed to runners that missed nearly everything, from primal yells to annoyingly choreographed celebrations to technicals and facepalms – and, along with Bulls wingman/toy-at-my-friend’s-house-that-I-now-want-for-myself Jimmy Butler (22-14-2-3-3), managed to do just enough to prove the decisive factor in a Bulls win rather than the decisive factor in a Bulls loss. All of which to say: Nate gonna Nate.
*The word “polarized” must, of course, be understood in the context of simpler times before the advent of the emergent Melo-might-not-be-as-good-as-Durant-OMGFOHHATER debate.
So, yes, this one sucked. I come not to bury that sentiment, but to reinforce it. It made me question our depth, our coach, and – most of all – what in God’s name constitutes a technical foul. But that’s what a loss is. It’s an opportunity to ask questions about the things that went wrong, identify solutions, implement changes. Tonight, the Knicks lost for the first time in 14 games. They lost on a night when their two best bigs were on the bench in street clothes, a night when their two best scorers missed 61% of their shots, a night when a 6’8″ rookie was their primary center, a night when the Lex Luthor of NBA officiating had his claws in them, a night when the Bulls cashed a winning 5’7″ lottery ticket. And, if an open 18-footer by the hottest player in the league had dropped at the end of regulation, they wouldn’t have lost at all.
Tonight was annoying. Tonight was frustrating. Tonight was disappointing.
Take a deep breath. Tonight was meaningless.