Yes, the Knicks lost another game tonight. They did so by continuing to repeat the same season-long pattern of poor play in the first halves of games followed by frenetic, catch-up aggression in the second half to make final scores respectable. And, yes, they are still at a loss to figure out how to play strong, in-your-face defense. But, Knick fans, there may be a silver lining to all of this misery.
In tonight’s loss to the Utah Jazz, by a final score of 95-93, the Knicks may just have found a sparkplug on their roster who can become a part of the team’s future. It certainly looks like they’ve found a player who has blasted himself into the regular rotation, that’s for sure.
Welcome to the coming out party of Toney Douglas, number 23 in your program but possibly, number one in coach Mike D’Antoni’s head and heart. Douglas, the Knicks first round draft choice from Florida State, scored a career-high 21 points in just 23 minutes off the bench. Coming off of a 16 point performance in his previous game against the Milwaukee Bucks, it looks like the 6’2” guard, drafted as a high-energy type player with good defensive instincts and a nose for the basketball, is quickly developing a creative, little offensive game, something the Knicks need badly from their point guard position.
D’Antoni was impressed with the rookie.
“I thought he played really well,” he said. “I thought his speed, athleticism, and tenacity on defense really picked us up. It’s funny, he kind of broke the dam and everybody else was following him trying to make their shots. Toney gave us a nice spark.”
There were still enough bad things to continue to worry D’Antoni that this season can spiral out of control before it hits the quarter mark in games played. His team scored a season-low 31 points in the first half. It’s the first time since 2002-03 they’ve begun a season with a 1-7 record. Tonight, despite the close final score, they never led once, suffering their first wire-to-wire loss of this season. They trailed tonight by as many as 21 points in the third quarter, then closed the gap to a point midway through the fourth quarter before losing the game, as their record fell to 1-7. So, life isn’t all good here in Knicks land.
The Garden was rocking out last night when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played their greatest hits for three and half hours in front of their devoted fans. In the first half tonight, the Knicks rocked out in a different way, when they essentially shot rocks for all of the first 24 minutes of this game.
The first quarter started out like other first quarters this season, with Knicks allowing open looks to Utah for easy jump shots and layups inside. The Knicks were fortunate to keep the score to 25-18 but you had to know D’Antoni, after looking at the horrible starts his team has had in most of its games this season, wanted to come out fast and not fall behind. It was not to happen.
The second quarter was more of the same. The Knicks continued to allow Utah uncontested shots on almost every possession, inside and outside. It almost seemed like the Jazz could get shots at will as All-Star point guard Deron Williams penetrated and dished with ease to wide open shooters, especially Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur. The Knicks stayed in the game, somewhat, with an occasional three-pointer or a fast-break layup but with two minutes to go in the half, Utah had spread its lead to 12, 43-21, as boos began to trickle down from the Knick faithful.
Utah wasn’t finished. Carlos Boozer hit a layup (uncontested, of course) to make it 48-31 at the half as the boos went into full mode. The Knicks, the team with the wide-open offensive sets and the acclaimed offensive coach, had scored 31 points in the half against a team that is not known for its defensive skills.
Danilo Gallinari looked lost on defense guarding Kirilenko, who was allowed to shoot freely from three point land, hitting 5 of 8 for the game. Gallinari’s minutes were limited in the second half as D’Antoni felt his best perimeter defenders were Douglas and Larry Hughes.
“Toney and Larry out front were causing problems for Utah,” said D’Antoni. “We’ll probably use this going forward. Basically, you still have to defend a man.”
Yes, this coach was talking defense after a game. Maybe, he really does coach it.
For the half, the Knicks shot just 35% from the field, including an unbelievable 0.0% (0 for 10) from three-point land. Meanwhile, the Jazz were hitting at a 48% clip (21 of 44) from the floor including 3 of 7 from the three-point stripe. The Jazz also dominated the Knicks on the boards to the tune of 31 to 20. Despite all the Knicks misses, they only retrieved one offensive rebound during the first 24 minutes, truly an unbelievable statistic.
Chris Duhon continued his struggles. In 18 minutes, he scored just two points on just two foul shots. He had no assists and two turnovers. It seemed time for a change at the point guard position.
Enter the youngster, Douglas, who had his coming out party for the home crowd tonight. He played almost 16 minutes in the second half, shooting 6 of 9 and 3 of 5 on three point shots, scoring 15 points in the half. He played with poise and with control, taking shots that were not forced and dishing to open Knicks when the opportunity came his way.
The Knicks mounted their patented last quarter comeback, outscoring the Jazz 29-17 in that final period. Douglas tied the game at 93-93 with two consecutive layups. But Mehmet Okur of the Jazz followed Deron Williams’s missed shot with an offensive rebound and laid the ball in. The Knicks regained possession with 6.4 seconds remaining, but Douglas’s 10-foot jumper at the buzzer missed it’s mark and that was the game.
“All I do is try to come in with energy and focus on defense,” said Douglas. “Coach said if the shot is there, to take it. The last shot was supposed to be for Larry (Hughes) but it wasn’t there so you have to adjust to it. I always try to be ready and await my turn and be productive when I come in.”
It looks like the kid is beginning to earn his minutes now. For better or worse, it will probably come at Chris Duhon’s expense. For the Knicks, at this particular moment in their season, they have nothing to lose.