Tonight the Knicks have a chance to springboard into the 8th playoff seed in the east. The Knicks take on the Seattle Sonics at home while the Nets, who currently sit one-half game in front of them for the 8th seed, must travel to the lions’ den in Dallas. To make matters worse for the Nets, their loss this weekend to an improved 76ers team was dispiriting to say the least.
Unfortunately the Knicks have been here before, and more often than not the moment has been too big. The Knicks have played some of their worst basketball in such moments. Even more unfortunately, a number of factors conspire to suggest that we will see a similarly moribund effort tonight against the Sonics. Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis have been incredible the last couple games. And yet wins over the Hawks and Warriors, two of the league’s worst, have been down-to-the-wire nail-biters. David Lee is still day-to-day and today does not appear to be the day, as he is doubtful for tonight’s game. I am not sure about Nate Robinson’s availability. In addition, Eddy Curry seems to be hitting a wall of sorts. He was a non-factor in the last game due to what Isiah described as “dead legs,” reminiscent of the “dead arm” complaint often heard from pitchers during the dog days of August. Finally, Seattle will have it’s top player, Ray Allen, back for his second game since returning from ankle problems.
Yet, to quote the Lady Galadriel, “hope remains while the company is true.” Various members of NY’s bench brigade have stepped in and played admirably at times. Mardy Collins has improved the perimeter defense in Crawford’s absence. Richardson has been solid, though his back is acting up again. Renaldo Balkman continues to bring energy and defense. (He is also, quiet as it’s kept, one of the best on the team at cutting without the basketball rather than standing and watching.)
In some ways tonight’s game is the truest test of this team’s mettle and identity. This is a game that, despite being at less than full strength, the Knicks should win at home. But it is the kind of game the Knicks have lost in the past due to immaturity and carelessness. I want to believe that this team has grown a bit over the past few weeks through some big wins, some disappointing losses, and through inspired play despite injuries. But what I haven’t seen this team do is sustain solid play over a stretch of games. I am not personally one to label games “must-wins” until a team is down 2-0 in a best of seven. In this league, a player like Ray Allen can drop 60 on you on any given night and beat you.
Nonetheless, it is way past time for this team to begin building on good play rather than alternating good play with boneheaded play.