All photos by Jon Wagner, New York Sports Day
NEW YORK — If you hadn’t seen who was in charge on the New York Knicks’ bench on Tuesday night and simply watched his team play, you’d have never known there was a head coaching change made by team president Phil Jackson one day earlier.
Although Jackson dismissed former head coach Derek Fisher (who compiled a miserable 40-96 record in a little over 1½ seasons after Jackson hired him) on Monday, and promoted Kurt Rambis from the club’s associate head coaching position to take Fisher’s place on an interim basis, the Knicks (23-32) continued to look pretty much like they did under Fisher.
The all too familiar themes were repeated — yet another slow start, getting outplayed badly at the point guard spot and an inability to force turnovers, which resulted in being outscored significantly in transition.
But as it also had before, New York showed some late fight and grit to stay competitive and even rally from a large deficit to take a lead. However, most of all, there was also the recurring ending of coming up short yet again to a team the Knicks trail in the Eastern Conference standings as they continue their recent freefall while clinging to their playoff lives — sitting one spot closer to last place in the East than to the final postseason spot in the conference, five games behind that position — with only 27 regular season games remaining.
Picking up where the Fisher era left off, New York limped into the NBA All-Star break by starting Rambis’ temporary-at-least-for-now tenure with its season-high sixth straight loss and a 10th defeat in 11 games, during a 111-108 to the Washington Wizards (23-27) at Madison Square Garden.
From the outset, the things that Rambis ultimately hopes to help correct were the same ones that continued to cost the Knicks, just as they did under Fisher.
It took only 4:42 into his time as the Knicks’ head coach for Rambis — who was 24-13 the last time he was an interim coach (with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1998-99) before going a dreadful 32-132 with Minnesota (from 2009-11) — to call his first time out. That came right after Washington started 6-for-8 from the floor and led, 15-6.
Boos from impatient Knicks fans unwilling to cut Rambis or New York any slack came less than four minutes later, with the Wizards still shooting a sizzling 73.3 percent (11-for-15) and leading, 29-17.
The lead grew to as much as 35-19 in the closing moments of the opening quarter before Rambis helped New York adjust and take a one-point lead in both the third and fourth quarters — after the Knicks trailed 63-50 at halftime, at which point the they were only 2-for-12 from three point range while allowing Washington to shoot 10-for-12 from behind the arc by intermission. By then, nearly half of the Wizards’ 3-point makes came from forward Jared Dudley, who without missing a trey in the first half, made four 3s to already match the most he sank on only one other occasion in 48 prior games this season.
New York was also outscored 16-4 in transition to that point, something the Knicks improved upon in the second half, when Washington held only a slim 5-4 edge in fast break points.
“Well, obviously, in transition we didn’t do a good job,” Rambis admitted. “We had guys watching the flight of the ball and [the Wizards are] grabbing rebounds and taking off. We didn’t get our defense organized after our shot. We knew that going into the ballgame, that was going to be a priority…. but it took us a while to kind of get our bearings.
“We feel like we made the adjustment to stop their transition [game] in the second half… but our defense has to continue to get better.”
What was particularly troubling, was that even after the coaching change, it wasn’t so much a lack of preparation time showing up as a result of the change in leadership, but simply the Knicks — even for their brand new coach — not playing as hard as they could have until the second half, just as they had done too often under Fisher.
“Guys picked up their effort,” Rambis said. “You can come up with all of the schemes you want, but none of them work unless people put their heart and soul into getting stops.”
New York, which ranks last in the league in steals (5.9 per game), stayed true to that poor mark, with a mere six thefts, while forcing only 10 total turnovers (five fewer than they committed). Nearly half (seven) of the Knicks’ 15 giveaways came in the fourth quarter.
Yet New York’s biggest problem was with its starting back court, especially with point guard Jose Calderon, who went scoreless while missing all four of his shots in more than 28 minutes.
Although starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo was efficient, he didn’t shoot much (going 5-for-7) in more than 38 minutes, as he and Calderon were thoroughly dominated, 54-11, by the talented starting back court duo of John Wall (28 points) and Bradley Beal (26 points).
Wall also added a game-high 17 assists, nearly three times as many as Calderon (six) and only five fewer than New York (22).
“We know that real, quick, explosive point guards are gonna cause Jose some problems, and we’ve got to continue to find ways to support him and help him defend pick-and-rolls,” Rambis admitted. “There’s no team that’s perfect at all [of its] defensive positions. So it’s the job of the team to figure out where the weakness is, where they’re attacking, where the matchup problems are, and then you’ve got to support your teammate.
“And I’ve got to continue to urge Jose to be aggressive offensively… I want him to be not only a facilitator and organizer, but he’s got to be a scorer for us too.”
One bright spot at the guard position for the Knicks came from Langston Galloway, who helped spark New York’s rally while finishing with 14 key points, five rebounds and five assists in about 28½ minutes off the bench.
“I thought Langston did a good job,” Rambis noted, even though Galloway had a critical turnover in the final seconds and missed a right-wing 3-pointer that would have sent the game to overtime as time expired (Galloway did also hit a big trey to keep the Knicks alive on their previous trip, though).
Rookie of the Year candidate Kristaps Porzingis did his part, too, with 14 of his 20 points coming during the third quarter, when New York erased its 13-point halftime deficit and forged a tie going into the final period.
Porzingis, whose three blocks on the night gave him 105 for the season, to break Patrick Ewing’s rookie franchise record by two, said, “I think this game was very similar to the last game that we had (during Sunday’s home loss to Denver), starting slow… the coaches are doing whatever they can, they’re doing their best. Now it’s on us [as players] to do our jobs.”
The agile, 7-foot-3, 20-year-old, who during the contest also became the tallest player in NBA history to make at least 60 3s in a season, was grateful both to Fisher and for the delicate way the Knicks broke the news of Porzingis’ first NBA coach being fired.
“We’re almost like a family here,” Porzingis said. “They really take care of me. They asked me how I felt about it… just to make sure I’m okay.
“It was a shock for me… I’m very thankful for what [Fisher] did for me.”
As for the new regime, Rambis was pleased to return to a head coaching role, saying, “It’s a lot of fun, it really is, the energy in the ballgame, being the decision maker out there…. just being out there on the sideline once again, it’s a lot of fun.
“I’ve been a head coach [before] so it feels natural to me… it felt good, I felt happy out there… you get frustrated as a coach and you get proud of your team when they do things right. I’ve got to do my part of helping them stay organized and execute better, challenge them, drive them, and continue to find units out there that can play really well together. So I’ve got challenges in front of me too, not only the players.”
Hoping the Knicks, who thanks to the All-Star break, won’t play again until Feb. 19 in Brooklyn, will be ready after an extended layoff, Rambis added, “This is gonna be a long break for us in between games… my message to them was to make sure they don’t just lay around over the break. They’ve got to keep up the cardiovascular conditioning and they’ve got to be able to get into a gym… they can’t just lay around for 10 days and then come back and expect to get off to a great start.”
New York’s best player — star forward Carmelo Anthony (who had game-highs of 33 points and 13 rebounds) welcomed the break — as he heads to Toronto next weekend as an All-Star for the ninth time in his career, saying it “couldn’t have come at a better time” for the struggling Knicks.
But he also warned that his teammates need to have a much greater sense of urgency under Rambis now, with the schedule dwindling fast.
“We have to go get it at this point,” he said. “We’ll take this break to kind of reboot mentally, physically, come back and be ready for a dog fight. Everybody, top to bottom [has to] be ready [and] prepared… this is a test for us. This is gonna show if we really want this or not.”
Starring with Denver for more than 8½ seasons after being taken third overall in the 2003 NBA draft, Anthony is the last remaining holdover in New York since joining the Knicks late in the 2010-11 season (Feb. 21 will mark the five-year anniversary of the blockbuster trade that made Anthony a Knick).
Rambis is Anthony’s fourth coach and Jackson his fourth executive-in-charge since that time. Anthony has also played with 69 different teammates during his six seasons as a Knick. So he is certainly used to having a severe lack of continuity and being forced — for better or worse — to go with flow through periods of constant change during his stay with New York.
Basically, the only mainstays at the Garden since the Brooklyn, N.Y. native returned to within a few miles of his home town are Anthony, team owner James Dolan and celebrity super fan Spike Lee, sitting courtside. Other than that, it’s been constant upheaval for a franchise that once again is trying in vain to search for a myriad of answers.
“It’s always different,” Anthony said of playing for a new coach, in general, before being more specific about Rambis’ leadership relative to Fisher’s. “Different mindset, different messages, but still in the same scheme of what we want to do, what we’re trying to accomplish. Yesterday was tougher than it was today, but we’ve got to move on.”
As do the Knicks, to much better ways, while leaving far behind the same problems that plagued them under Fisher. And they need to do so quickly before time runs out on their season.