Don’t look now, but the New York Knicks are suddenly playing winning basketball.
Yup, after starting the year well on pace to miss the NBA playoffs for a sixth straight year, including a 1-9 beginning (the worst ten-game start in their 64 seasons of existence), en route to a miserable 3-14 record through November, the Knicks, for the time being, have turned things around.
New York has gone 4-1 in December, including its first three-game win streak of the season after defeating the Portland Trailblazers, 93-84, at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
Notice that final score.
Yes, that’s Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks, not Pat Riley’s, winning that way.
Remember when the ultra-intense Tom Coughlin first came to New York to coach the Giants, and that style seemed to rub his players the wrong way, and Coughlin remade himself? A sort of kinder, gentler, more coaxing, rather than the lashing out until-his-players-got-it-right style was much more effective. It kept Coughlin’s players loose enough to battle back from the brink of playoff elimination to winning a championship in a matter of weeks.
Maybe D’Antoni, in a different way, has also realized that he too, needed a departure from the philosophy which he had been used to for years, in order to get his own team to respond.
Let’s first add, that at 7-15, certainly no one is going to argue that this current good stretch of basketball that the Knicks are in, might even lead to playoff contention this season, let alone anything along the lines that Coughlin accomplished with the Giants. D’Antoni simply doesn’t have that type of talent, at least not until next year’s free agent bonanza hits.
But, D’Antoni has realized that his usual style of the successful running and gunning in Phoenix wasn’t going to work with his Knicks in New York. During their early struggles this year, D’Antoni and his staff recognized that the Knicks were playing too fast offensively, and they needed to slow everything down, move the ball, find good shots, and they have. That’s also led the team to refocus its energy and effort defensively of late, and slow other teams down.
All of that combined, has so far paid huge dividends during the Knicks’ mini turnaround. Ever since the Knicks started taking their time, they’ve taken off.
Their recent resurgence all started when they throttled the Phoenix Suns, who came to New York with an NBA-best 14-3 record, only to leave 126-99 losers to their former coach.
The Knicks are truly hustling, and dare we say it, playing solid defense, while executing nicely on offense, since they decided to settle down a bit and play in a lower gear.
They’ve also shown some nice poise and composure for one of the youngest teams in the NBA. After beating the Suns and losing in Orlando, they traveled to Atlanta, one of the better teams In the Eastern conference, a team that at 8-2 thus far, has rarely lost at home this season. But, they have, to the Knicks.
After starting awfully, trailing 11-0 in an instant, the Knicks rebounded to lead 35-34 after the opening quarter, extending that margin to a 13-point halftime lead. And, when the Hawks rallied with a big third quarter to regain the lead by one, the Knicks closed strong for a 114-107 upset victory.
Knicks’ forward Al Harrington said Atlanta’s 11-0 run made him think, “Man, we better do something or we’re getting blown out of the building.” They definitely did, and not just in Atlanta.
Trailing 61-53 at halftime to New Jersey at home on Sunday, D’Antoni had his team again slow it all down and play at a pace they could handle, outscoring the Nets 53-36 in a more defensive-minded second half, in a 106-97 win.
On Monday night, the Knicks broke open an 18-all tie after the first quarter, outscoring Portland 60-37 in the middle two periods.
And, even after the Trailblazers started on the comeback trail with a 17-2 fourth-quarter run to pull to within 80-71, forward Danilo Galinari ignited a 6-0 Knicks’ run with a three-pointer from the top of the arc before grabbing an easy steal and assisting on a fast break, conventional three-point play by forward Larry Hughes, to push the New York lead back to a comfortable 86-71, on the way to yet another win.
While the Trailblazers shot 47 percent (31-66) from the field, they were held to just 1 of 8 from three-point range. Meanwhile, the Knicks were a scorching 50 percent (13-26) from behind the arc, while notching a ball-sharing 20 assists on 32 field goals.
Hughes, who led five Knicks in double figures with 21 points against Portland, hit on some of Knicks’ keys to success lately. “Ball movement, we’re more aggressive, we’re playing better defense, just playing better on both ends of the court,” he said.
After the game, D’Antoni said, “A lot of it is psychological. They’re feeling better about themselves and they’re just having a lot of confidence.”
That self-assurance is leading to a lot of good things for the Knicks.
Defensively, they’ve been active, while forcing turnovers, blocking shots, and drawing charges. And, offensively, they’ve been getting into the paint, finding each other, knocking down shots, drawing fouls, and mostly… slowing the game down a little, just as D’Antoni and his staff have wanted.
That last one has been the biggest key. D’Antoni and the Knicks might finally be realizing that an NBA season is a marathon, and at least offensively for them, they’re having new found success living by the old adage “steady wins the race” — or least lately, basketball games — for the Knicks… four of them so far, in the first five games of December.