It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Last night’s basketball game was a tale of two cities. Or better yet two halves.
The Suns came into the game as the second best team in the league (or the first, depending on how you rank them). Although the Knicks beat Phoenix in a thrilling triple overtime earlier this year, talent wise they’re not on the Suns level. When talking about the Suns’ streak on Pardon The Interruption, the announcers assumed Phoenix would win tonight.
From the start of the game, it appeared the Knicks wouldn’t be much of a challenge to the Suns. On the first Knick possession Jared Jeffries nearly walked before turning over the ball with an errant pass. In the first 5 minutes the swingman would turn the ball over again, force a post up shot, and commit 2 fouls. Despite the poor start, New York held their own against Phoenix and more. Balkman had a dunk with almost 9 minutes to go to give the Knicks a 10 point lead. The Suns rallied back, but had a meager 3 point lead at halftime.
The Knicks were toe to toe in the first half with one of the best teams in the league due to an odd set of circumstances. With Marbury unavailable due to injury and Jeffries unavailable due to a lack of talent, Isiah Thomas had to improvise with the rotation. Lee, Robinson, & Balkman saw more time than they normally would, and it paid off. As usual Lee rebounded well (4 REB in the first half) and chipped in 6 points. The diminutive Robinson didn’t shoot well (1-7), but pulled down an astounding 6 rebounds and got Steve Nash into foul trouble. Balkman played defense well in Jeffries’ stead, and provided a spark off the bench. As a team, the Knicks held the Suns to a halftime offensive efficiency of 94.1, well below their yearly average of 116.6.
Additionally the Suns had no answer to Eddy Curry in the first half. The Knick center led all scorers with an 21 points, and did so in a highly efficient manner. Curry hit 7 of 9 from the field, and 7 of 10 from the stripe. Exiting the first half, it appeared New York was going to give Phoenix a fight to the wire.
But the wheels came off the bus in the second half for New York. Phoenix went to a zone defense that stymied the Knick offense. By playing zone they were able to nullify Eddy Curry’s low post dominance and forced the Knicks to beat them from the outside. Following games that the Knicks use a zone defense we usually end up writing something like “Detroit feasted on the outside shot” or “Pacers worked the ball to get any shot they wanted against the zone.” However the Knicks were unable to capitalize from the outside. Nate Robinson shot 4 of 12 in the second half, and Jamal Crawford was only 2 of 7 from downtown. The Knicks futility from outside combined with Curry’s impotence (only 4 second half points) gave the Suns a 13 point lead by the final quarter.
At that point, New York still had a final chance at a victory, but Isiah’s rotation would be his undoing. Curry left early in the fourth quarter with an injury, and Thomas chose Malik Rose to play the final 12 minutes. The veteran was largely a non-factor. Rose hit only 1 shot and had only 1 rebound to go with 2 fouls and a turnover. Renaldo Balkman, who helped stabilize the defense in the first half, played only 5 minutes in the second half. Instead of Balkman, Thomas inserted seldom used rookie Mardy Collins for the final quarter. Granted Frye was in foul trouble, Richardson looked hurt, and Jeffries still sucked, so Isiah’s options were limited. But Balkman had played well earlier, and has about 400 more minutes on experience over Collins. Predictably Collins was a non-factor (0 pts 2 ast).
Seeing Curry dominate was promising. Watching the Knicks unable to break the zone was disheartening. Having Renaldo Balkman provide a spark on defense was uplifting. Seeing Malik Rose close the game was dismaying. In the end the Knicks turned an encouraging first half into a disappointing second half.