NEW YORK — It goes without saying that many things have gone wrong for the New York Knicks so far this season. After all, that’s how a team that was originally thought to be among the NBA’s Eastern Conference gets to a record of 7-17.
The Knicks have suffered key injuries. They’ve given half-hearted efforts too many times. They’ve underachieved. They’ve been embarrassed. And they’ve just been downright dysfunctional.
And no, it hasn’t all been head coach Mike Woodson’s fault. Nor has he completely forgotten how to coach after guiding New York to its first division title in 19 years last season.
But the way in which the Knicks’ 102-101 loss to the Washington Wizards (10-13) ended at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, may have revealed just how little control Woodson might actually have over the dismal and unacceptable way his team is performing.
Forget that the Wizards were reeling with four straight losses; that they hadn’t won in Garden in 10 previous tries, dating back to 2006; or that they were 0-5 this season and 3-24 going back to last year without Nene, who was missing against New York.
Nevermind, even, that a visiting team in that situation was allowed to build a 15-point lead as the Knicks were loudly booed on their home floor — a place where New York fell to 4-9 this season after starting there with 10 home wins en route to a 31-10 Garden record last year.
Also, forgive Woodson for not playing 6-foot-7, 260-pound reserve forward Metta World Peace (signed to be a tough defensive presence in the offseason) for more than a mere 3:13 as fellow reserve forward, 6-foot-7, 230-pound Martell Webster (who entered the night averaging 12.3 points per game) went off for 18 second-half points while finishing with game-high and personal season-high 30 points on 9-of-13 shooting in 35:38.
Yes, please indulge, and dismiss all of that for a moment, because the Knicks wiped out that deficit in a span of 6:14 during the third quarter, and later erased a seven-point, fourth-quarter hole to lead by three points with 1:07 left.
And they were still up by a point, and one last defensive stop away from a much-needed victory that would have made them 5-3 since a season-worst, nine-game losing streak.
However, that’s exactly when the layers of what may truly be at the core of New York’s troubles started to unravel and uncover themselves.
That’s when, as much as the team’s troubles have largely been on Woodson’s players, that Woodson showed he may be deserving of a greater share of the blame himself.
After guard Beno Udrih (12 points, five assists, no turnovers) drew a foul and sank the first of two free throws to put the Knicks up, 102-101, with 24.2 seconds remaining, Woodson, by all accounts, became more responsible for his team’s problems than anyone else in New York’s huddle during a Washington time out.
Moments later, the discombobulated Knicks might as well have returned to court via a clown car and ran around the floor aimlessly, because that would have resembled how organized they were as another winnable game slipped away from them.
Even though guard Bradley Beal (21 points) started the game as the Wizards’ leading scorer with 20.6 points per game, and although Beal had already scored a dozen fourth-quarter points (in his first game back from a leg injury) — half of which came on consecutive 3-pointers that turned a four-point Knicks lead into a 100-100 tie — Woodson never ensured that the team he put on the floor for Washington’s final possession was certain it should use the foul it had to give in that situation. Nor did he at least try to get the ball out of Beal’s hot hands.
What happened instead was utter confusion.
Beal drove around Udrih for an easy, game-winning layup with 6.9 seconds left.
Rather than accepting accountability for that, Woodson threw his third-string point guard under the clown car (or bus; take your pick).
“We knew we had a foul to give,” Woodson said, using “we” loosely, because apparently, Udrih didn’t know that much.
Woodson continued, “Beno opened the flood gates…. it happened so fast. He was thinking the help was there, but it wasn’t there, so he couldn’t even reach to grab the guy to take the foul.”
Still, Woodson insisted that the correct instructions were given, while again blaming Udrih. “We told them that we had the foul to give,” he said. “[Forward Andrea] Bargnani was positioned the other way and should have been positioned low so we trap or foul, and Beno already exposed himself.”
What ensued was even more damning.
Udrih was complaining to Bargnani (13 points, six rebounds) about their defensive miscommunication while star forward Carmelo Anthony (game-high 32 points, five rebounds) was yelling at Udrih to hurry and inbound the ball.
That scenario could have actually been a blessing in disguise, as it bought New York more time to realize that it had
a full time out and a pair of 20-second time outs remaining.
However, thanks to a brain lock by Woodson and his players, those went unused, just like that last foul the Knicks had to give.
On that, Woodson admitted culpability — well, sort of — while finding a way to once again blame Udrih.
“I probably should have taken the time out there at the end,” he said. “But you know, Beno grabbed [the ball] to inbound it and the ball was in Melo’s hands before I could even react… I should have reacted a lot sooner once the ball went through the bucket, so that is on me… I didn’t call the time out, so I’ve got to take the heat for that.”
Guard J.R. Smith, who broke out of a prolonged shooting slump with 18 points on the strength of 5-for-11 shooting from behind the arc, was surprised the time out wasn’t taken but he refused to point any fingers at Woodson.
“As soon as the ball went through the net, I was expecting to call time out,” Smith said. “We knew we had three time outs. We’ve guys who’ve been in this league for 10 [or] 11 years… we can’t put everything in Coach’s hands because he’s out there thinking and reacting like we are… we’ve got to a better job as players and be generals out there.”
If that’s the case, the bottom line is that the right decisions still weren’t made in game-defining situations, which is ultimately a reflection on Woodson.
Anthony concurred with Smith, saying, “That’s a tough way to lose a game. If [Woodson] said it’s his fault, there’s no need to for me to make excuses or talk about it. As players, we have to be smarter. We knew we had timeouts [left].”
However, guard Iman Shumpert, known for being a little more forthright, had a far different take on what Woodson did or didn’t tell his squad during the timeout before Beal’s game-winning field goal.
“I don’t think we discussed that in the time out,” he said. “I think we were banking on getting our stop. We usually get stops, but, you know…”
Shumpert didn’t have to finish the sentence. It was apparent from what he said, and more so, from what took place on the court, that regardless of what Woodson claimed or what Smith or Anthony tried to say to protect their coach, that Woodson didn’t seem to have much of a contingency plan had the Wizards actually scored to take the lead.
Thus, rather than the directive being something along the lines of, “Now, listen, if they score, we have three time outs left! Call time out and let’s set up a play to win it,” it probably went something like this: “Let’s get a stop, fellas.”
And that’s probably where the plan ended. While unfair to assume that’s what happened, it certainly appears like that’s pretty close to what transpired, given Shumpert’s words and the results over the game’s final two possessions.
Ah yes, that last possession, after Beal’s hoop on the prior trip.
After Udrih finally stopped yelling toward Bargnani long enough to get the ball inbounds, Anthony dribbled up court without much of a rush, as if he expected a time out (that of course, never came) once he moved into the front court.
Thus, the reigning NBA scoring champion, who in the loss, tied Nate “Tiny” Archibald’s 41-year-old streak of leading his team in scoring for a 24th straight game, was left to take a very low percentage, highly contested, running 3-pointer along the right wing that never had a chance to draw iron, let alone go in.
The ending felt like a turning point in a season or a career — sort of like what took place with New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and his infamous “butt fumble” against the New England Patriots last year — even for the heretofore staunchest defenders (myself included) of retaining Woodson as the Knicks’ coach.
Yet enough seemed unearthed in that single sequence to tell those supporters that maybe Woodson doesn’t have the handle on things that he should.
Team owner James Dolan gave Woodson a public vote of confidence nearly a month ago, but New York has gone 4-9 since, and Dolan also said before the season (reasonably or not) that he expected the Knicks to win an NBA title this year.
I asked Anthony if the particular circumstances of the badly mismanaged ending in New York’s loss to Washington, on top of the Knicks falling to a season-high 10 games under the .500 mark have him worried about Woodson’s job security, but Anthony remained steadfast in backing his coach.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s secure right now,” Anthony said. “I haven’t heard anything. There’s nothing to discuss. He’s our coach and we’re rolling with him.”
At least to Milwaukee, for the Knicks’ next game, on Wednesday night.
Beyond that, however, there should be no guarantees.