Game Thread: Knicks vs. Bulls

It seems fitting on this day that the Knicks and Bulls would be playing one another, a day when the world saw the passing of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. Why, you ask, is it a fitting matchup? Well, you have to go back to Quest’s heyday to get a sense of the thing.

I just turned 45 the other day, which hardly seems possible. Phife passed at the age of 45, which is an especially hurtful and troubling thing for me. We were contemporaries. We shared the world’s stage at the same moments. I was a bit player, and he a main character. When I was in college, Quest performed in our little, dingy gym in New Jersey. Phife took the stage first and then, suddenly, from behind the curtain burst Q-Tip, the single greatest entrance I’ve ever witnessed in person. Those were the days of the Pat Riley Knicks. It’s when we were on top, or damn near the top anyway. They were the days of our most intense rivalry with the Chicago Bulls, who boasted the singular talent of Michael Jordan and the particular genius of his coach, Phil Jackson.

Phife was a big Knicks fan. His lyrics were sometimes peppered with business about the team….from “Baby Phife’s Return”:

The mad man Malik makes MC’s run for Milk of Magnesia
Maybe that’ll ease ya
Master of this microphone macking, master as in great
I’ll have your brain going in circles as my style tends to modulate
I’m making moves, never movies, that’s why y’all MCs lose me
Retrace, won’t, so your stubborn like groupies
Kid, you know my flavor, I rip this whole jam apart
Fuck around and have your heart, like Jordan had Starks
While you playing hokey pokey, there’s no time to be dokey
Cause I come out to play every night like Charles Oakley

It’s been a tough season. The Knicks have no rivalries except with their own 20 year legacy of humiliation and futility. It’s a legacy they wrestle with even as Kristaps Porzingis offers hope of a future that seemed impossible a year ago. It’s a legacy they can’t escape as every move the organization makes is filtered through a shit-stained lens of Scott Laydens and Isiah Thomases and Stephon Marburies. It’s pushed as the dominant narrative in the big media accounts of the Knicks unfolding drama. Cynicism and mockery are the main ingredients in that fare. I rage against the machine of those dysfunctional narratives because I think they’re mainly self-serving to the hacks and loudmouths who get attention for their work by stoking the angst of emotional Knicks fans. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. There are plenty of reasons to be measured in your hopes that the franchise “gets it” and is moving in the right direction. Only time will ultimately tell that story. The rest is just masturbation. The truth is always more nuanced. We’re walking an organizational razor’s edge, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It means we have to be careful and step delicately.

Phife reminds us of a time when we did have a rivalry. We’ve had a few great ones over the years. Clyde and company had the Celtics, the Bullets, and the Lakers. Ewing and company had the Pacers, the Bulls, and the Heat. Those days were filled with optimism and the sort of arrogance that marks New York as a bulldog in a kennel full of beagles. Oakley embodied that spirit, as did Mason and Starks. There isn’t a single Knick with that kind of temperament today. The game has changed, sure, but toughness is still a pre-requisite. Arrogance goes a long way as long as you can back it up. Calderon is soft. Afflalo is soft. Melo is pretty soft. Porzingis is still soft, although you have a sense he’s built tough somewhere inside. Lopez is a nice guy. He’s tough-ish, but he doesn’t have enough to define the whole team on his own. Bulls-Knicks was a defining rivalry of the 1990s. Bulls-Pistons shared a similar dynamic. The Knicks and Heat engaged in a terribly unfriendly rivalry that helped create the NBA’s fighting protocols. We had a coach who did this:

The Bulls are in a bit of limbo. They lost some of their tough with the departure of Tom Thibodeau and the move away from Joakim Noah as a primary player. Fred Hoiberg was called out earlier in the season by his own player, Jimmy Butler, for being too soft on the team. The Knicks employed Derek Fisher as head coach, and while he was a tough player, he seemed to be a calm, cool, collected sort of guy on the sidelines and in the locker room. They replaced him with Kurt Rambis, who resembles a marshmallow with glasses, in both appearance and demeanor. Neither of these teams is particularly tough, and really nobody takes either of them very seriously. The Bulls have talent but few guts. The Knicks have almost no talent and even less guts. It’s hard to say where the Bulls are going to go from here, with Pau Gasol entering free agency, Derek Rose a shadow of his former self, and no real identity. The Knicks, at least, have room to sculpt themselves into something better. They can jettison their trash across the next couple of seasons, but they have a couple of VERY critical choices to make that might define the whole damn thing. 1) They need to absolutely nail the head coach hire, and 2) they need to add a lot of toughness. If defense is the key, and everything Phil Jackson has every said tells you it is, the coach and the new players have to be tough. The press and its zombie throng will focus and fixate on the Triangle, but we’ll be alright if Phil Jackson looks for defense and toughness as a winning formula. The system (aka The Triangle) is going to be fine as an offense. It’s the defense that will turn the franchise around. AND…it will bring back something this city desperately needs and want.

Take it from the Five Foot Assassin.

 

Game Thread: Knicks vs. Wizards

Greetings Knickerbuddies.

Tonight, on the menu, the Knicks take on the 33-35 Washington Wizards. The Wizards are only a game and a half out of the 8th seed in the East and looking to make some things happen in the final weeks of the season. This is a team that started the year with high expectations, and John Wall was even heard to say that he’d be competing for the MVP. The pre-season predictions never quite materialized for the Wizards and I’m sure they’re all surprised to be out of the playoff mix this late in the year. A lot can happen between now and the final game, but it’s getting late early.

Wall looks like one of the best players in the league by the counting numbers, but his efficiency on offense is less than stellar, holding the team back in some respects. He’s undeniably a plus on the floor for the Wizards, but he does turn the ball over quite a bit. Bradley Beal was a pre-season darling to break out, even prompting some insane talk of the Wall/Bradley backcourt as an elite NBA tandem in the company of Curry/Thompson. While Wall has been quite good, generally, Beal never made his quantum leap into the elite of NBA shooting guards. In the end, you have a very good, but not great guard duo in Washington with room to continue improving. The Wizards really needed that quantum leap from Beal. The team has a decent collection of pros, including the solid strongman Marcin Gortat and an assortment of versatile, if unspectacular swing players.

The Knicks are languishing in a stretch of low energy performances, which have prompted Carmelo Anthony to question his teammates desire. As a fan, it’s hard to bring any sort of passion to the weekly contests. The team feels dead in the water. As a player, you hope that pride wells up every night to prevent yourself from being embarrassed, but these guys are human too. When you start to see opposing guards blowing by your teammates every night and there’s not a single adjustment you can make to stop it, you begin to lose your motivation as you confront nightly double digit deficits. The early season “fake comebacks” have become late season garbage time. This is the sort of thing that Phil Jackson watched last year to see who had the guts to play for him as the team began its rebuild. Certainly, he’s watching again as he tours with the club in person. It’s a sure thing that some of these Knicks bros will get their walking papers at the end of the year. It hasn’t been pretty.

This game has that classic shit show feel to it with Wall and Beal poised to drop 50+ on the Knicks. The Knicks seem to play the rest of the Wizards roster very competitively, so you feel like there’s hope. It will all depend on the forwards and bigs making up major territory on the guards…which is the story of the season…but it can happen. It has happened.

Enjoy the game. Be nice to yourselves and one another. It’s mercifully coming to an end before too long.

Quick Threecap: Knicks vs. Suns

Me (7:30pm EST) – “Sasha Vujacic is starting. *&^*&^ Rambis. This is going to be awful.”

Me (11:00pm EST) – “SASHA VUJACIC!!!!!! GREAT KNICK OR GREATEST KNICK?!!!”

As bad as the Knicks were last night, they were just as sharp tonight. I don’t want to hype the performance too much because the Suns are glugbaciously bad. They’re so bad I made up a nonsense adjective to describe how bad they are. Devin Booker and Alex Len are very good basketball players and the Suns can take some solace in the fact that they have some foundational players for whatever comes next. That’s about all the solace they deserve after a shockingly terrible performance against the Knicks. The Knicks shot 46-82 from the field and 16-24 from three. A few of the shots were of the difficult variety, but many many many many many many of them were wide open and uncontested from every spot on the court. Sasha Vujacic actually *made* the shots, so he deserves kudos, but most of them were layup-easy.

If you want to know how bad the Suns were tonight, you should go watch the March 8th game between the Knicks and Nuggets and filter your understanding of tonight’s Suns through the Knicks of 24 hours earlier. It’s refreshing to know that we can actually have a night like that against someone else, instead of being on the receiving end all the time.

Porzingis still can’t get it going, but it hardly mattered. Calderon was a team high +30 tonight with 12 assists. I can’t remember Jose getting those sorts of alley-oops to his teammates this season, but they were all there for the picking in Phoenix. The half court lob to Derrick Williams was one of the best Knick highlights of the season – non-Porzingis category.

You know what makes me irrationally happy? Robin Lopez dropped 13 and 8 with 5 blocks, while Tyson Chandler got himself a nifty 4 points and 9 rebounds with no blocks and 3 turnovers. I was a pretty big Chandler fan while he wore our jersey, but the way things ended left me feeling cold to him. Tonight was a little schadenfreude moment for me. Wheeeee!!

Enjoy all the feelings you forgot you had. Take some selfies. Get naked and run the streets. Tell the cops Sasha Vujacic lit the world on fire tonight. They’ll understand.

 

Game Thread: Knicks vs. Suns

Hey! Yeah, you.

Stop looking at that car wreck and listen for a minute.

Remember that really bad 1-11 stretch that followed the Knicks’ 22-22 record. The one that’s sort of still sliding off the edge of a cliff? I said stop looking over there. Look right at me.

The “1” in the “1-11” was a victory against the Phoenix Suns. You know who we’re playing tonight? Thaaaaaat’s right. The Phoenix Suns. Melo was near a triple-double and Afflalo scored 17. Langston Galloway started in place of Calderon and put up 11-7-5 with 2 threes, 3 steals, and a block. Derrick Williams did some Derrick Williams things off the bench and everyone played solid basketball. Kristaps Porzingis even played relatively shitty basketball and it didn’t matter. The Suns just aren’t very good, although they have some young talent, and even this putrid bunch of Knicks had little trouble doing them in.

Now, about that car wreck. In addition to the awful Suns, the Knicks have managed to beat the awful Timberwolves, the awful Orlando Magic, and the up-and-down Pistons in an extended 4-20 stretch, leading into tonight’s game. The car wreck in question is pretty bad. It seems like our vehicle is totaled. No insurance is going to cover the entire bill. The driver of the car is something like Mr. Magoo and he’s still got his license somehow.

Watch where you’re going Kurt Rambis!!!

As I look at the road ahead, the Knicks play 17 more games. I count about 4 that I think are winnable, given the current state of affairs. Tonight’s game against the Suns is one of those games. The upcoming game against the Lakers is another. I’ve plucked out games against the Nets and the Sixers as the other pair. The truth is, all of those games are losable too. No one would be surprised. No one would be surprised if the team went 0-17 to close the season, frankly. I’m still counting on those 4 wins to get the club to 30 wins, just for the hell of it. I had the team as a 35 win club in the pre-season, so 30 will make me feel less despondent…which is something very different from satisfied or elated. To get to my magical turd of 35 wins, the team would need more than those 4 wins. The Knicks would have to close the season 9-8, which would certainly feel pretty good, all things considered and lift a few dreary spirits before putting this debacle to bed. I don’t know where 5 extra wins can be found in the remaining games. It seems “undoable” when you start to look at who’s coming up. There are a few Hornets and Pacers and Wizards and Pelicans and Kings to be bagged, but it’s best not to get your hopes up.

I have some other post-mortem type thoughts on the season to share, but they’ll wait for another time. This is a game thread for our winnable tilt against the Suns. A win would make me feel better. I think I really need a big Porzingis game to run deep enough to make me feel again, though. I need 30 minutes of 20 point, 11 rebound, 5 block action from The Future….please. There’s no chance he’ll top 25 minutes though, so he’d better start quick.

Be good to each other Knickerbuddies. We’re all in this together. Keep it positive. Go Knicks.

Quick Recap: Knicks vs. Celtics

Of course.

The Celtics close the game on a 12-4 run to capture the lead and the win. Melo busted his ass all game to put the Knicks in the driver’s seat, but while his teammates were shitting the game away, Kristaps Porzingis was rotting on the bench. The Knicks were cold, and the Celtics forced the ball out of Melo’s hands. No Porzingis. The Celtics drove straight to the hoop again, and again, and again. No Porzingis.

Until the last minute or two, when Kurt Rambis decided to play offense/defense with the 2nd best rookie in the league, Kristaps had played under 20 minutes.

I really don’t feel like writing much more than this. Isaiah Thomas predictably shredded our backcourt. His starting mate, Avery Bradley, didn’t seem to have it against the Knicks again, but Evan Turner went Super Saiyan, posting and toasting every inept Knicks guard and carrying the Boston offense for long stretches in the second half. Calderon and Afflalo actually held their own on offense tonight despite getting roasted on the other end. The two took turns during the 3rd quarter blundering the Celtics into a lead.

This is a tough one. Be kind to yourself and others.

Game Thread: Knicks vs. Celtics

It gets harder and harder to focus game threads on the specific games to which they’re attached, I must confess. The Knicks are playing their enemy tonight and it could end up being a good, spirited game. I always feel like the Knicks can beat this Celtics team. Two of the three best players on the floor play for the Knicks. The rest of the best players on the floor from 4-10 are all Celtics, though, with the exception of Robin Lopez who deserves to be in that mix somewhere. The inevitable storyline before every game is: Which opposing guards, or guards, will light the Knicks up tonight?

The Knicks were 22-22 and we were all feeling fairly optimistic about the rest of the season. The last 18 games have been an unmitigated disaster and we’ve seen the firing of a coach and a lot of booing at the Garden as the new coach has failed at every aspect of his interim position. We had an unfortunate Jimmer circus. We have a new Melo circus. The owner’s name has suddenly found its way into the tabloids again. How long before Isia……I’m not going to even say it.

I think many of us have a strong suspicion about the Knicks’ biggest problem during the 18 game Armageddon. The guards can’t stop anyone, and they can’t make up for their defensive shortcomings with a balancing offensive contribution. They’re terrible at defense and mediocre, at best, on offense. I decided to go back and look at the disparity between our starting guards’ performances over 18 games as compared to the performances of the starting guards on the opposition. Before I share the numbers with you, I’ll note that the Knicks largely go with the Calderon/Afflalo starting backcourt, but Galloway either started in Calderon’s place, or played the bulk of the minutes at the point for a stretch of five games in the middle of the plummet. Calderon was hurt. Likewise, in a recent game the Knicks started Calderon and Galloway in the backcourt with Afflalo at the small forward when Melo sat. Mainly, this is all Calderon/Afflalo.

During the 18 game slide, the Knicks starting backcourt has put up:

.407 FG%, .917 FT% (on 2.7 combined attempts a game), 20 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.6 TOs with 2.3 3PM per game. That’s the average numbers of BOTH guards. If you split the numbers in half to create an artificial “per player” set of averages it looks much, much worse, obviously. You can do that math quickly in your head, and chase it with a couple of aspirin.

During the 18 game slide, the opposition’s starting backcourt has put up:

.439 FG%, .818 FT% (on 8.6 combined attempts per game!), 35.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 11 assists, 2.5 steals, 3.5 TOs with 3.3 3PM per game. 

The FTA differential is pretty staggering (the Knicks are -6). The point differential is also pretty staggering (-15). Melo leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists on the season (the only player in the league to do that), so it’s no surprise that the Knicks starting backcourt has been -5 in assists throughout this collapse. I don’t want to suggest the Knicks struggles can be so easily reduced to this one slice of information. There are a lot of problems, frankly, and while the guards are a big part of it, there are other things that can be said as well. That said, you can’t put yourself in a 15 point hole every night because your backcourt is bad on both ends. The hole gets bigger, in terms of overall contribution, if you acknowledge the impact the assist number may have. Although it’s imperfect to make assumptions about assists from the straight counting numbers, you’re talking about an additional number of points in the Knicks’ hole, depending on which non-starting guard makes the shots on the other end of the passes. It’s not a stretch to say that the Knicks starting backcourt is regularly -15 or more to their counterparts. That’s where all the fake comebacks are born.

The Celtics come in on a tear. I’m too lazy to go back and look at their winning streak, but they’ve been on a month+ tear in which they’ve established themselves as a team no one wants to play during the playoffs. The irony is, if you go back and look at the scores and the individual performances, the Boston club known for its tough defense has been on a winning tear by scoring a boat load of points. The Celtics have played good defense during their recent success, but they’ve also won and lost a lot of games in the 110s. The starting backcourt of Isaiah Thomas (note the extra ‘a’) and Avery Bradley have been combining for 40 points a game for a very long stretch now. What’s more, it isn’t all Isaiah Thomas going off for 30-35 and Avery Bradley tagging along with a smattering of points. Those two guys are hovering around 20 points a game each. Bradley has spent the last month dropping around 17 points on close to 50% shooting from the field. Thomas does what Thomas always does.

This is a nightmare scenario for the Knicks. During the 18 game slide, noting all the numbers I provided above, there were some Mudiay/Gary Harris nights and there were some Lowry/Derozan and Wall/Beal nights. The results were predictably different and the level of basketball bloodshed was proportionally gruesome. Thomas/Bradley seems, on paper, like some middle ground between the extremes, but the way they’ve been playing for more than a month promises to be more Wall/Beal than Mudiay/Harris. The Knicks might take solace in knowing that the last “down game” either of the Celtics’ guards had was a 6-point stinker by Bradley against New York. When you consider that the Boston guards have been stellar over an extended stretch and that the Knicks guards are typically -15 in points, tonight’s scenario starts from there. Add on top of it the notion that Jae Crowder does a respectable job on Melo and can score in his own right, you’re looking to Porzingis and Lopez to make up a ton of slack. That’s the game in a nutshell.

The good news is, there will be no Jimmer chanting in Boston tonight, and there’s no shot any of us hear thunderous booing of the Knicks unless it’s coming from our own living rooms. The team will undoubtedly benefit from being away from the toxicity of the Garden and the prying eyes of James Dolan, who usually appears like a vulture to pick at the carcass of another failed Knicks experiment. The Knicks, hopefully, can concentrate on basketball and maybe steal one against a good Celtics team. That would feel nice.