The Knicks Fix: Where Has the Swagger Gone?
Saturday, March 10, 2012
By Alan Hahn
The clichés come easy after games like this. Some pro athletes have mastered the art of feigning sagacity, but really what you never want to do is look like you are an expert at losing.
So what Amar'e Stoudemire should be doing is looking exasperated. Carmelo Anthony should be furious. Neither one of them have much experience in losing before they came to New York, so it's strange that they seem so comfortable right now as the Knicks appear to be back in another freefall after a fourth straight loss -- and seventh in 10 games -- following the 119-114 defeat in Milwaukee on Friday night.
After watching this 0-4 road trip, which included three losses that saw late rallies fall painfully short, the most maddening result is how impressive this team can be in closing large deficits in a hurry. And it leaves you wondering why that urgency doesn't exist for 48 minutes, the way it seems to exist with the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and, for the most part, the Chicago Bulls.
Where is the determination to be more than just mediocre? Where is the drive to win games, climb the standings and back up that talk of being a championship contender?
Where is the killer instinct to want to bury inferior teams, especially those that dare to come at you as if they have enough game to compete?
Where is that swagger?
Where were Stoudemire and Anthony when Drew Gooden -- Drew Gooden! -- out-jumped both of them to a Brandon Jennings airball and tips it to an unchecked Ersan Ilyasova for a back-breaking put-back to give the Bucks a 116-113 lead with 28.7 seconds left?
After a game that saw Melo score 22 points on 7-for-17 shooting, the Knicks' star correctly pointed to the fact that the team exerts so much energy battling back from large deficits "and then you have to dig deeper and try to find a little more energy to win. It seems right now we don't have that energy to win basketball games."
How can that even happen?
You can fail to have the talent to win. You can even not have enough luck to win. But energy? Isn't that a product of will? Isn't that the most critical element of winning?
Yes, it is. Tyson Chandler, who is emerging as the true leader of this team, proved it at halftime of that game against the Cavaliers on Feb. 29. The Knicks opened with an awful half and played with little energy and Chandler let his teammates hear it in the locker room. He then played a ferocious third quarter, loaded with sweat, grit and floor burns and the Knicks ran away with the win.
Without him over the last three games, that element has been noticeably absent. No one stepped forward to provide that impetus on the defensive end and as a result, the Knicks looked lifeless. At least until the threat of losing became real. Then suddenly the fire was lit, but it was always too little, too late.
And when it was over, it was alarmingly acceptable in the voices of the team's leadership.
Mike D'Antoni offered a telling perspective when he discussed the need for "consistent energy" and to "defend harder" and to play with "a desperation about us that we need to get into the playoffs."
Those are the three components the Knicks really needed to develop during that minicamp week they had after the All-Star break. But how the heck do you practice emotion and determination?
"Sometimes we focus on things that are not important," D'Antoni said, "and offense is not important, because it will come."
In other words, forget about your shot totals, your point totals and your minutes. Make an impact on the game in any way you can, including the defensive end (And for Heaven's sake, when Tony Parker is sprinting by you for the umpteenth time on the pick-and-roll, throw a forearm into his ribcage one time, just to show you actually do care that he's been running a layup line against your team all night).
Forget everything you have read during this losing streak in regards to chemistry and systems. Put away the trade machine and your whiteboards. The Knicks' problems are not at all tangible. The issues aren't about talent, lineups or rotations.
This is simply about heart, will and want.
The remedy is simple, but the cure is up to the patient.
POINT GUARD DUET HAS PROMISE
Speaking of energy, Baron Davis played with a great deal of it, especially in leading the Knicks in that fourth quarter rally. Davis finished with nine points, nine assists and five rebounds in 30:51 off the bench. For a long stretch, he started looking like the classic Baron Davis with strong dribble drives to the basket and excellent passes.
"At least I found my fire," Davis said. "I was able to find my fire and do some things out there."
What still remains for Davis is to find his shooting touch. He broke an 0-for-11 streak from three-point range over a three-game span when he drilled a three early in the fourth.
Davis paired with Jeremy Lin for a large block of the second half and the tandem had success in the small-ball laden game.
Meanwhile, reports of Lin's demise have been grossly exaggerated. He had a strong game against Brandon Jennings, with 20 points, 13 assists, 4 steals and five turnovers in 41 minutes. He finished the game a team-high plus-13.
TRADE WINDS STARTING TO BLOW
With the trade deadline approaching Thursday, the rumor mill is churning at ludicrous speed. After years of being extremely busy around this time of year, the sense I'm getting is that the Knicks are not expected to be active. The franchise is at a point right now where the days of roster turnover and constant transition are over and the current group -- and coaching staff -- are being given time to develop.
But other teams are expected to be extremely busy, starting with the Portland Trail Blazers, who will be at the Garden on Wednesday, a day before the deadline. Former Knick Raymond Felton, who has clashed with demanding coach Nate McMillan, is firmly on the block. Another former Knick, Jamal Crawford, could also be on the move, which is interesting, since Crawford turned down a smaller offer to sign with the Knicks to play for the Trail Blazers.
Other very active teams will be the Washington Wizards, who would love to unload Andray Blatche, a target of the few fans who actually do show up at the Verizon Center these days. JaVale McGee has also been shopped around, as GM Ernie Grunfeld searches for a veteran big man who can provide a needed presence in the locker room and play pick-and-roll with the franchise's most valuable piece, John Wall.
There's talk that the Milwaukee Bucks may move oft-injured center Andrew Bogut, while Scott Skiles would give anything to see the team dump the troublesome Stephen Jackson.
As for the Charlotte Bobcats, word is just about anyone -- Boris Diaw, Tyrus Thomas, etc. -- could be had. The issue Michael Jordan's team faces is there aren't many players on that roster anyone wants.
Ken Berger of CBSSports.com reported that the Houston Rockets are aggressively pursuing Pau Gasol, who, amazingly, could be traded by Thursday. Well-known Lakers insider Roland Lazenby reported on Friday that Gasol was on the verge of being traded.
Though Dwight Howard has been the biggest name in the gossip this season, the indications I'm getting from NBA executives suggest that the Orlando Magic will not deal him. The franchise believes they have the best chance to re-sign him and at worst they'll gain a great deal of salary cap space to rebuild. The Cleveland Cavaliers, thanks to the No. 1 pick that landed them Rookie of the Year favorite Kyrie Irving, have made a relatively quick recovery in the wake of LeBron James' departure.
If Howard remains in Orlando through the deadline, that leaves the Nets in limbo as well with Deron Williams. As we reported on the pregame Fix earlier this season, the Magic are not at all interested in Brook Lopez, so the teams don't have a deal to make.
The Nets are in the same situation with Williams, who will opt out to be a free agent this summer. They can go into the summer with the plan to target Howard and re-sign Williams to complete their star tandem for the Brooklyn debut, but the risk is they lose both if Howard re-signs with Orlando or goes to the Dallas Mavericks, where Williams would likely follow.
CHANDLER RETURNING TO LINEUP?
After practice on Saturday at MSG Training Center, D'Antoni said Chandler is expected to be back in the lineup for Sunday's game against the 76ers. With the team's defensive anchor back, D'Antoni will go back to the traditional starting lineup of Lin, Landry Fields, Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler.
SUNDAY BRUNCH AT THE GARDEN
Remember to move your clocks ahead one hour when you wake up Sunday morning, as we spring ahead. The Knicks and 76ers are scheduled to tip-off at noon on MSG, which will feel more like 11 a.m. This will certainly test the Knicks' recent penchant for sleepy starts.