The last time the Knicks played a game that counted, Earl Barron logged 40 minutes. David Lee played 33 and Sergio Rodriguez 20. Bill Walker led the team with 28 points and Chris Duhon chipped in 5 assists. The Raptors piled up 73 points before halftime of last season’s finale at the Air Canada Centre en route to a 131-113 blowout of the blue and orange. All the while, a dreadlocked big man named Chris Bosh watched, injured, from the Raptors’ bench. “No matter,” we told ourselves, “he’ll be ours in a couple months, and a certain headband-wearing, chalk throwing, triple doubling Global Icon along with him.”
What a difference a summer makes.
Tonight, the Knicks took to the same court in Toronto. Chris Bosh wasn’t in the building, nor was LeBron, nor Lee, Rodriguez, Barron, or Duhon. In fact, of the 12 Knicks on the active roster that night in April, only three were in the house this evening (Douglas, Gallo, Walker — Chandler was inactive with an injury at the end of last season). Change was the story of the night and, when that is the case, you can typically expect equal parts excitement and growing pains. And so it was.
The Knicks put together an adequate if uninspiring performance, winning 98-93 in a game that would not have been that close but for some spotty perimeter shooting and an inability to stay in front of Toronto point guard Jarret Jack, who penetrated to the tune of 5 layups, 4 free throw attempts, and some nice dump-off assists following successful drives to the rim. After staking themselves to a quick 16 point lead, the Knicks slogged their way to a 4 point halftime edge and briefly trailed early in the fourth quarter before Wilson Chandler – who at age 23 passes for one of the old guard on this overhauled roster – rattled off a series of Carmelonian isolation sets that bought the Knicks some breathing room.
From there, the biggest, brightest, and most expensive of the newcomers, one Amar’e Stoudemire, carried the Knicks home, scoring 7 of his otherwise unassuming 19 points during a 1:31 stretch late in the fourth quarter. His burst pushed the lead to eight points, each of which the Knicks would need to hold on to an opening night victory. I mean that literally; a final unimpeded Jarrett Jack drive would have been enough to erase a two-point deficit in the last ten seconds, but the three point margin meant he had to kick it out to Linas Kleiza, who airballed a corner three into Danilo Gallinari’s waiting arms. Two free throws later — converted with little drama by another newcomer, Raymond Felton — the Knicks were off to a 1-0 start.
A night that started with change and hope ended with a win. Let’s hope the Knicks can keep that up; it’s the only change that really matters.
Player Ratings (in order of minutes played):
Raymond Felton (37 min, 15 pts, 6 reb, 6 ast, 3 to, 6/14 fg, 1/4 3p, 4/4 ft): Very solid debut by the Knicks’ new point guard. Ran a high-octane offense for stretches of the first half but didn’t force the break when it wasn’t there. Could have done a better job with Jack on the defensive end, but didn’t get any help on switches (and Douglas was the culprit for many of Jack’s better moments — we’ll get to him later). All in all, he was an impressive floor general who played better than his stats. B+.
Amar’e Stoudemire (36 min, 19 pts, 10 reb, 2 blk, 9 to, 7/16 fg, 5/6 ft): The turnovers are the first thing that jump out and, to be honest, the number surprises me. I thought they would be high but it certainly didn’t feel like 9. Mostly, he seemed kind of out of it, not quite in tune with his new point guard, not really commanding a lot of attention against a defense with nobody worthy of defending him. I’m tempted to say I liked him better on the defensive end than on offense tonight, if only because his athleticism makes him capable of the type of high-flying swats that we haven’t seen since the days of Marcus Camby. In the end, a forgettable debut, but a huge 2 minute stretch in the fourth quarter and zero signs of anything we should be worried about once he and Felton get in sync. B-.
Danilo Gallinari (33 min, 12 points, 6 reb, 1 ast, 0 to, 3/9 fg, 2/5 3p, 4/4 ft): Not good. Bad, even. The only Knick with a negative +/-. That can be a fairly meaningless stat on an individual game basis, but it felt pretty appropriate tonight. His shot was off and, while he has the ability to do other things to affect the game, he was mostly invisible tonight. At least he got 6 boards, which shouldn’t be a big deal for a 6’10” forward but in his case represents progress. No real reason for concern, his shooting will improve both in terms of percentages and the number of looks he clears himself for. We all know that he’ll be able to score efficiently in high volumes on a lot of nights this season. Tonight just wasn’t one of them. C-.
Landry Fields (30 min, 11 points, 4 reb, 4/8 fg, 3/6 3p): For me, the best part of the night. I mean, the kid is just everywhere. Don’t even look at the stat line because its irrelevant. All the cliches that we use to talk about glue guys are in play here: he does the little things, he’s in the right place at the right time, he doesn’t need plays drawn up for him, he plays better than his numbers, he makes the most of his talent, etc. etc. etc. Just every single meaningless cliche personified. He ran down loose balls, he got big rebounds, he waited for his shot and made half of his threes. He can absolutely start on this team, he’s a much better fit than Chandler with the first unit. Didn’t think he looked out of his depth athletically, which was the worry, but then again he will face much better opposition down the road. I suppose time will tell, but I couldn’t have asked for much more out of his debut. A.
Wilson Chandler (29 min, 22 pts, 8 reb, 0 to, 10/18 fg, 1/3 3p, 1/2 ft): Listen and listen good — he is the perfect 6th man for this team and there is absolutely no way he should be starting at shooting guard. On the court with the second unit, serving as the primary scoring option, Ill Will ran some isolation sets that were worthy of the league’s best slashers. He works so well with Douglas because either of them can start the offense — either with Douglas lurking as a spot-up threat when Chandler attacks or Chandler lurking as a reset-and-drive option if Douglas gets in trouble. They make a serviceable pairing defending other team’s perimeter players as well. Chandler is still the most tradeable of the Knicks three young wings and he still can become infuriatingly enamored with his very mediocre jumper (7/8 in the paint tonight, 3/10 outside of it — DRIVE WILSON, DRIVE!) but he is a fantastic weapon off of the bench and should be utilized as such. Simply put, the Knicks do not hold off the Raptors rally without his second half performance tonight. Keep it up. A-.
Tony Douglas (27 min, 10 points, 4 reb, 0 ast, 5/9 fg, 0/3 3p): A weird performance and not a very good one. The points are fine and the percentage is good, but zero assists in 27 minutes still made me feel like he doesn’t know what position he’s supposed to be playing. For my money, produced the two worst plays of the game: an impossibly bad telegraphed pass that was picked by Reggie Evans and an equally boneheaded fourth quarter foul that sent David Anderson to the line, where he tied the score at 82. Of all the important Knicks who had off nights, he’s the only one I worry about a little, simply because I’m not sure if he works better running the second unit or playing off of Felton. I’m not sure D’Antoni knows either. C-.
Ronny Turiaf (23 min, 8 pts, 4 reb, 4 blk, 2 stl, 3/4 fg, 2/2 ft): Ronny Turiaf had 4 blocks tonight. That is, by any measure, very good. He had 2 steals tonight, also solid, especially by a big man, especially in limited minutes. He did these two things while committing zero fouls. Impressive, right? Probably a pretty rare feat? Maybe only happens once a year or so? Guess what? The last Knick to do it was Patrick Ewing in 1999. Before that, the last Knick to do it was, well, Ewing again in 1997. Before that, the last Knick to do it was nobody. The list of Knicks who have had 4 blocks and 2 steals in a game without committing a foul — at least in the 25 years covered by the basketball reference play index now reads “Patrick Ewing, Ronny Turiaf.” Now, is this kind of a contrived stat? Sure. Does that make it unimportant? No, not really. The Knicks have not employed a true shotblocker since Marcus Camby (unless you want to count one season of the geriatric Dikembe Mutombo). They spent two years trying to convince themselves that Jared Jeffries was some sort of disruptive defensive presence. They trotted out David Lee at center for two years. You will not find a bigger David Lee fan than me. But even as I write this, I’m watching the Warriors opener, and their announcer just said of a Lee foul, and I quote, “You know, I don’t mind that foul by David Lee. Is it great defense? No! But why give him the easy lay-up?” You know another way to prevent easy lay-ups? BY HAVING A CENTER WHO PLAYS F—ING DEFENSE. And guess what? Now we do. What Turiaf’s stats don’t show is that, in the span of 58 seconds, Linas Kleiza was whistled for not one but two travelling violations that were purely the result of going up for a shot against Turiaf, realizing he had absolutely no chance of converting, and awkwardly shuffling his feet til the whistle blew. Party on, Turiaf. Keep drinking that Ron-Ron juice. A.
Bill Walker: I would type his stats but that would represent more effort than I saw from him in his 10 minutes on the court. The one truly awful performance by a Knick tonight. His highlight was missing a dunk, claiming the rebound and, in a sea of FIVE raptors, with open shooters everywhere, going back up for a putback attempt that was, inevitably, rejected. It will be a short leash if he continues to play like this and Fields continues to play like he did, especially when Anthony Randolph returns. F.
Timo Mozgov, Roger Mason Jr.: Whatever. Mozgov couldn’t stay on the court because of foul trouble, not super encouraging against a pretty ordinary front line, but we’ll give the kid a break and chalk it up to his NBA debut. Mason missed three jumpers and wasn’t heard from again — he’ll make most of his appearances when the Knicks are badly in need of a three or someone is in foul trouble. Not much room for him behind Douglas, Fields, and Chandler. INCOMPLETE.
Sorry for the long-winded recap — I’m so excited to have the NBA season back and I hope you are too. The team will face tougher competition but should get better as it jells. If you thought, as I did, that the Knicks would sneak into one of the last two playoff spots in the East this year, I didn’t see anything tonight — good or bad — that should make you change that.