It’s hard to avoid the story that Kobe Bryant has likely played his last game at Madison Square Garden, and by “likely,” I mean “definitely.” The way he was making the hugging rounds yesterday, looking deeply into Sasha Vujacic’s eyes, murmuring softly in Italian, it seems certain. It reminded me a lot of the Derek Jeter goodbye tour, as a champion and an icon of a generation limped sadly into the night. Kobe played within himself for stretches of the game, rolling on a handful of signature jumpers, but there’s really nothing left. He looked foolish trying to defend Melo on nearly every possession they were matched up, which is saying something given Melo’s present condition. Carmelo Anthony isn’t all the way back yet and you can see him labor to move on occasion. That didn’t stop him from cooking soup at Bryant’s expense throughout the game, and he played ball denial on Mamba in crunch time as if he were 1990s Dennis Rodman.
The crowd was decidedly pro-Lakers at several points, or at least pro-Kobe Bryant. In a way, I felt bad for those fans who trotted out their preposterous looking yellow and purple clown suits to salute a player who’s given them so much, only to watch him participate in fumbling away a game they led in the 4th quarter. It’s no fun watching a player who has been invincible in your uniform look so mortal. Kobe wasn’t really the chief problem for the Lakers yesterday. He chucked a few crazy looking shots in a “mega heat check” kind of way. It’s as if he thought he’d better try to shoot some fadeaway 40-footers just in case he had that 101-point Garden finale in him, and when it was apparent he did not, he sat in stretches as part of a normal rotation. This is a Knicks blog, so I won’t belabor the point about the LA stuff more than I have to, but their roster is a mix of placeholders and youngsters and it hardly makes a lick of sense from the outside. They have a coach who doesn’t seem to understand the way the league is headed, an ancient star who still plays as if he’s due 20 shots, a mix of instant offense shooters with no other discernible skills, and some good young guys waiting in the wings to take over. The future may be fine in LA, but the present is a hot mess.
Our Knicks showed some of the same sloppy, disjointed play that had them coming in as losers of their last three games. In the quick recap I noted that the game may have been over at the half if they’d been playing an elite team, but you always knew that the Lakers were just too bad to hold on if someone on the Knicks could string together a few nice possessions. In the end, the starters provided a lot of the winning push, with a huge contribution from Langston Galloway, who seems to be in the middle of every successful run. The Knicks figured out how to get Calderon some open shots off Jerian Grant penetration, Melo did Melo things, Robin Lopez played with some fire and intensity, and Kristaps Porzingis continued to build on his all around play.
The numbers for both teams were eerily similar. The Knicks shot 33-84, while the Lakers hit 33-94. Both teams were 9-27 from three. The Knicks were 24-29 from the free throw line, and the Lakers wake up this morning bemoaning the fact that they only mustered 14-23 from the stripe. That seems pretty significant given the final margin. Both teams turned the ball over at a low rate…9 apiece. The Knicks were actually outrebounded on the offensive end, which is mildly surprising. Part of that situation may be related to Kyle O’Quinn’s 11 minute invisibility act. He came into the game in the Top-10 in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate and you can’t grab boards on the bench. I mean, you can but that would be weird.
The other big story from the game was the ejection of Derek Fisher. Fish is too cool for my liking sometimes. I think it’s an admirable trait to maintain poise in the face of pressure, and it rubs off on the players a lot, but there are times when it pays to get fired up. The Knicks complain a lot about the whistle, game to game, and I think some of it has come to a head. The reality is, every NBA team complains a lot about the whistle. It’s almost an epidemic. Porzingis never complains, though, and he rarely crinkles up his nose at some of the ticky-tack calls he’s been getting. He commits stupid rookie fouls, there’s absolutely no question, but a handful of the calls that have gone against him so far have been plain terrible. The phantom foul on the Kobe three attempt was just awful and deserved the sort of reaction it got from our coach. It was worth being tossed, given Porzingis’ cool and the recurrence of his fouling woes. He must be on the floor for the Knicks to compete, and it seems like Fisher will have to be more vocal about the whistle he’s been getting.
After he left for the locker room, Kurt Rambis took over the team and immediately sat Vujacic in cement. He also left O’Quinn on the bench and tightened the rotation a bit. I don’t know if he has a different take on who should be playing, but his second half choices reflected a bit of a departure from the head coach. People might make a bigger deal out of that than it deserves, but Rambis seemed to push a few of the right buttons. One of the rotation situations to keep an eye on is the slimmer role Derrick Williams is playing in the nightly mix. Even when the Knicks are struggling to find offense, he sits firmly on the bench and when he enters the game, he only plays in relatively short spurts. He’s obviously never in the game at the end. Clyde and Breen brought up the point that he’s second on the team in free throw attempts despite his low minutes, and he managed six attempts from the line on a night when he only played 15 minutes. When Afflalo returns, it will be interesting to see how he’s used. Something worth monitoring.
The last note is something of a bridge to our next contest with Toronto. It appears as though there’s a chance that Arron Afflalo will be back in time for that game, and he’s sorely needed. Cutting either Calderon or Vujacic out of the rotation can only improve things that seem to be broken at the moment, and it seems pretty clear that Vujacic is the odd man out. I imagine he might still get some spot minutes on the opposing team’s star, just to frustrate and bother them, but Afflalo was signed to play big minutes for the team and take some of the pressure off Melo. The Knicks desperately need that now, despite getting a lot of production out of Porzingis right out of the gate. If you can triangulate Melo, Afflalo, and Porzingis things will open up a lot and we might see less struggle to score the ball. The Grant kick outs that Calderon splashed will benefit Afflalo as well, and the spacing may even benefit Derrick Williams in whatever minutes he gets.
Toronto is going to be a very tough test, but then again every game this season is going to be a test until the club proves it’s ready to sustain energy and efficient play, and especially that it can close out winnable games.