NEW YORK – Is it possible the New York Knickerbockers have transformed themselves into a team to be reckoned-with this season? Let’s not get too crazy over one game but tonight, at Madison Square Garden in the season-opener, this team of mostly youngsters and young veterans got off to a great start as they opened their season at the Garden with a 115 – 110 win over the Miami Heat.
It was a game in which the Knicks, who had sported a sporadic grasp of new head coach Mike D’Antoni’s run and gun system throughout the pre-season, showed off all their new offensive chops while playing tough, physical defense against a Heat team not lacking in firepower with Dwayne Wade, Shawn Marion, and the league’s #2 draft pick, Michael Beasley leading the way.
It was also a game in which D’Antoni showed his cards as far as his player rotation is concerned. Shocking to some but not at all to others were the big “DNP-Coaches Decision” (Did Not Play) next to the names of Stephon Marbury and Eddie Curry, two of the higher profile players on this roster as well as the highest paid. Marbury, the New York kid from Brooklyn’s Lincoln H.S. sat so far down on the bench, away from his teammates that someone cracked he should put on the uniform of the Garden security guards since he was sitting closer to those guys than to his own teammates.
“I saw a lot of good things tonight,” D’Antoni said. “I thought the ball movement, especially in the first half was good. I thought David (Lee) and Zach (Randolph) played well. We mixed it up going inside and outside.
Both Lee and Randolph acquitted themselves well with Lee, now firmly installed as the starting power forward, hitting for 16 points and 11 rebounds. He also added a shocking five assists, a number rarely associated with a rebounding, defensive-minded forward.
Randolph, now a center in D’Antoni’s system, put up the same numbers he’s been achieving his entire career. He got his 20 points and his 9 rebounds and unlike last season, the ball didn’t get lost in a black hole when it went to him. He either shot it or found an open man quickly to pass it to.
The Knicks broke open the game in the second quarter with a 32-18 advantage to take the halftime lead at 60-45. They were cruising on all cylinders while holding the Heat to 34% shooting while scoring at a 50% clip, themselves.
The Heat began to eat into the lead with less than six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, when the Knicks had already built up a commanding 21 point lead, 104-83. The Heat went on a 16-3 run to close to 114-109 with 39 seconds to go in the game.
But, Nate Robinson, who finished with 13 points and 7 assists, hit both ends of a 1 + 1 two separate times, Jamal Crawford (28 points) hit two free throws to ice it for the home team.
D’Antoni reflected over the near loss of the huge lead his team had going into the final five minutes.
“I think the last five minutes were just a matter of oh gosh, we kinda shut it down and we can’t do that,” he said. “We’re not that good to be able to do that but we’ll work on that for sure.”
“In the last five minutes, we’re not going to slow it down,” D’Antoni continued. “We just weren’t real good about staying on their three-point shooters and our energies went down a little bit at the end. We didn’t get back on defense a couple of times. We’ll work on that.”
He got a little chuckle out of the press when he joked about this first win of his Knick career.
“The only thing’s that’s determined for sure is that we’re not going to lose every game this year.”
The Marbury situation does bare watching, as this is a proud All-Star caliber player who evidently no longer fits into the Knicks current or future plans.
“Well, obviously, it’s tough,” D’Antoni said. “There’s just certain guys I want to see and make sure and it’s a delicate situation and Steph’s been great. It hasn’t been his fault and I know he’s not going to be happy about it and I wouldn’t be either but this team goes on two different tracks. One is for the future and one is to try to win now. I played ten guys tonight, that’s too many and I need to play about nine so I can get everybody good runs but we’ll keep looking at it. As far as going forward, I don’t really have an answer about Steph right now.”
In an unusual post-game locker room setting, despite the fact there had been a big Knicks opening night win, nearly every member of the press circled around Marbury’s locker to listen to the once-All Star caliber point guard express how he felt about his healthy scratch from a game.
“I’m happy…we won. If that’s what he asks for me to do, I’m fine with it,” said Marbury. “This is a business and I understand it’s just business. If that’s the way they want to go, I’m fine with that. He (Coach D’Antoni) should do whatever he feels he should do. I can’t control what he does, he’s the coach. If this is what it is, there is always next year. I’m not going to harp on this year, it is what it is.”
“I got mad love for New York. I’m a New York Knick until otherwise, until my contract runs out.”
We’ll see how long Marbury’s love for New York can sustain him through a season of DNPs.