Some thoughts on defense, toughness, and blue paint
Humor me for a second.
I’m a big fan of Michigan State basketball. Always have been. My dad — along with a good grip of my closest friends — went to MSU, I very nearly went there, and I spent the better part of my youth in a town just a shot down 1-96 from East Lansing.
From the mid 90s until well into the new millennium, I proudly called myself a fan of two teams who counted defense honor’s bloody badge: The Knicks and the Spartans. MSU in particular, like many of their Big Ten brethren, treated the craft in a manner that would make Tom Thibadeau blush. Famously, Tom Izzo — in an effort of emphasis — has even gone so far as to run actual football drills in practice. Defense, rebounding and, above all, toughness were and remain the standard issue garb for the green and white; the currency that purchased no less than six Final Four trips in the last dozen years.
Then, something weird happened. By the late 2000s, both my teams — first the Knicks, and then, more surprisingly, the Spartans — regressed somewhat from their toughness-uber-alles approach. The ‘Bockers, as we all know, were just awful at this point, and as such their precipice plummet could be chalked largely up to a mere dearth of talent.
But the Spartans had a different problem; a weirder fall from gladiator glory. After advancing to the National Championship game in 2009 (they were promptly bludgeoned by Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough & Co.) Tom Izzo’s squad had suddenly turned prima donna. Two-way stud Chris Allan was constantly getting in trouble, Durrell Summers seemed unwilling to truly hone his undeniably monstrous abilities, while All Big-Ten floor general Kalin Lucas appeared burdened by the specter of champion Spartan points past. All the while, the grit, gristle and grizzle that had defined their perennial bracket razings had instead morphed into a strange sense of entitlement. After going a combined 59-16 in the two years previous, last year the experienced, Senior-laden Spartans struggled through a 19-15 campaign (including a 9-9 Big Ten run), losing close games they should’ve won, getting blown out in others, and leaving many in East Lansing wondering whether the glory days were fast coming to a close.
By March, a mere two years after their dance with the mighty ‘Heels — and one year removed from yet another Final Four loss to the hands of the Gordon Heyward-led Butler Bulldogs — that palpable dynamic came to a final, painful head when the Spartans were summarily ousted in the first round of the NCAA tournament UCLA. This despite rolling out a starting lineup which included no less than three of the previous two title-sniffing teams’ starters.
It’s not that they stopped playing defense; Izzo wouldn’t allow that. It’s that, when the chips were down, so went their inner fight. Personality had something to do with it, obviously. After all, no human being — no matter how talented or seemingly malleable — responds exactly the same to the same input or stimulus. In that sense, Izzo may have just had the wrong group of players for his nitty gritty system. But set against the template of recent Spartan teams, the core of Lucas, Summers, and Allen seemed particularly unresponsive to their admittedly pushing and prodding skipper. At the end of the day, they just didn’t want it bad enough.
Entering this year, with just one of those starters (Draymond Green) back in the fold, many took to preemptively chalking up 2012 as a rebuilding year for the always dangerous Spartans. And after two early losses to North Carolina (on a battle ship: awesome) and Duke, that wisdom seemed well-founded. Since then, the Spartans have rolled off 14 straight wins. Towards the end of Tuesday night’s barn-burner against Wisconsin — whom they hadn’t beaten in Madison in 11 years — Brad Nessler explained the Spartan surge thusly: “Last year, they had talent. This year, they have toughness.”
By now you’re probably asking yourself: What the &%#@ does all this naval-gazing have to do with the Knicks? For starters, this: Like the Spartans of a year ago, the 2012 Knicks already seem imbued with a similar sense of entitlement — a kind of caustic nonchalance borne out in a style of play as blase as a pair of horn-rimmed glasses or just-so scarf; a sense that success — victory — will be bequeathed, eventually and like Times Square clockwork.
Mind you, this is not an indictment of Amar’e and Melo’s — and to a lesser extent Chandler’s — media dynamic, or their fashion sense. After all, part of the allure of ballin’ Big Apple style comes with making the camera’s light your South Beach sunshine or Hollywood heat, in a time of year when breath turns to ice almost as quickly as a Garden’s scorn. Thing is, it’s been cold in the city these last few days — hella’ cold. And when the boos’ winds come howling out of 34th and 6th and meet Manhattan’s own frigid pulsings, there’s only so much shelter a concrete jungle can offer.
Even in the wake of Wednesday’s 118-110 home drubbing at the hands of the lowly Bob City — their second consecutive Garden loss to a perennial sub-.500 team — various reports had it that the attitude in the locker room reflected more a sense of cosmic misfortune than outright rage. “They’re a hot shooting team,” quipped Amar’e Stoudemire, as if to suggest the ‘Bockers had somehow been felled by Jimmy Chitwood and the Hickory Huskers. Perhaps more predictably, Mike D’Antoni reminded all in press room attendance that the other team in orange and blue is, after all, a professional basketball team, and sometimes, you know, professional basketball teams have good games.
And so on.
Even given the relative infancy of the season at hand, to Knick fans, reactions of this ilk reek of the patience preaching and nothing-to-see-here mantras force fed to us with forklifts for the better part of a decade. We’re tired of it. We don’t care if we’re “only” six games into the season. We don’t care that our newly constituted roster wasn’t afforded the requisite time to gel that exactly zero of the other NBA teams were given. Because it’s not just about poor execution and not knowing your teammates — that stuff, while at times infuriating, is at least somewhat understandable. But defense, rebounding, toughness — these things are basic, instinctual even. Sure, they require practice and time to hone and perfect. Just ask Tom Izzo and and his uniquely tasked equipment manager.
Employing these things, to my mind, requires little more than a willful flipping of a switch; a will to effort. Admittedly, that switch might be buried deeper in some than in others (you know who you are). And it’s not as if the Knicks have yet to collectively flip it: They’ve done so numerous times. Problem is, it’s tended to be at the behest of a crowd taken to flipping it for them, or a scoreboard too lopsided to ignore.
In short, toughness is a choice.
The Knicks didn’t just drop to 2-4 in the season; they didn’t merely fall victim to “hot hands” (when a larden Boris Diaw, Gerald Henderson, and Byron Mullins combine to go 28-36 from the floor, you’z got problemz); and they didn’t simply “have an off night.” Using these as excuses reflects a lack of accountability that has long permeated the organization; an accountability that no amount of Tyson Chandler can somehow magically conjur. Accountability might spread through raised voices and finger-pointing and showing of game film like forensic evidence to captured criminals. But it starts in the mirror.
So no, the Knicks didn’t just lose a game. Temporarily at least, they seem to have lost a fan base; one in many respects weened on an identity and sense of accountability whose decade-long waning might be chalked up to sheer generational divides, if one couldn’t so easily fix their gaze to any number of teams where that very practice was still the order of the day.
That’s not to say we won’t come back. Of course we will. Like a battered spouse who remembers too fondly past romance and hopes too highly for future thrills, we’ll come home — more than likely through a front door unlocked and slightly ajar. Friday at Washington, to be exact. We’ll be back and we’ll likely believe this will be the game they figure it out. Maybe not the offense; that indeed takes time, and on that front we owe them some semblance of patience. But the defense — that had better be there. You had thousands of very loyal, very angry people booing you very loudly Wednesday night. Consider yourself called out.
Need a little extra push? Your front line — deemed by many in the wake of the Chandler signing the best in the league — has spearheaded the following gems: 23rd in defensive efficiency, 26th in offensive rebounding rate, 22nd in defensive rebounding rate, and 28th in total rebounding rate.
This needs to stop.
For much of the 90s, opposing teams dreaded coming into the Garden floor’s blue paint. And with good reason. They dreaded it because the knew they weren’t just slashing for the best shot or exploiting an open seam. They were breaking and entering. They were trespassing. They were treading on soil they had no business treading on. They were fools who knew not the error of their ways, and they were treated as such: Brute justice, in the form of flailingly aimed limbs to arm, shoulder, legs and — if necessary — skull.
Today, the paint is orange, which is in someways befitting a team by their nature sunnier, brighter, and quicker to smile. But it’s still the paint; they’re still breaking and entering; they’re still trespassing; they’re still treading on soil they have no business treading on.
So stop them.
Beyond his work for KnickerBlogger, Jim is a contributor to the New York Times Off the Dribble NBA blog, ESPN.com, and The Classical. He is currently working on a biography of Robert Silverman, titled "Clownin' and Astoundin.'" Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.