I was unusually at peace at the end of this loss. It was aggravating, sure, to watch the Knicks go flat and spill a double-digit lead in the second half. There was so much good, though-- so many glimpses of this team's potential-- that it was hard to be totally upset. These guys are clearly not ready yet, but they're competing with solid teams anyway. A Mike D'Antoni squad just came close to winning consecutive road games while shooting under 40%. That's kind of wild, no? Can we at least appreciate the wonderful absurdity of that before we recap this loss?
Appreciated? Okay, cool. So, tonight's game kind of broke down into three acts. Act I: In the first quarter, the Magic force-fed Dwight Howard and that muscly loaf o' bread just dominated inside against Shawne Williams and Amar'e Stoudemire. Orlando went up double digits.
Act II: With Howard resting, the bench Knicks played fine defense and cut into the lead. When he returned, New York managed to keep the ball away from him and tilt the deficit in the other direction. Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Chauncey Billups synced as magnificently as we've seen from them, connecting for impressive buckets and maintaining the busy defense of their bench friends. They put together a 37-point quarter while holding the Magic to just 3-17 from the field, entering the half up eleven.
Act III: In the second half, the Knicks gradually lost their edge. Invasion of passing lanes and full-throttle closeouts had limited the Magic guards in the first half, but a bit of a letdown in that department allowed them to flourish. Jameer Nelson ran amok off the dribble while the brothers Richardson (Just kidding, Quentin is Jason's great uncle.) and Ryan Anderson (who I feel totally comfortable lumping in with the guards) started cookin' soup from outside the paint. On the other end, New York sputtered to a stop with lapses in concentration and some seriously rancid shooting. Chauncey Billups and friends got enough foul shots to keep the Knicks afloat, but a few tough calls and a hit on Billups (more on that later) sank 'em for good. Fin.
That's pretty much it. The BJabs comment quoted in the headline pretty succinctly summarizes what went wrong in the second half. For a bit more detail on those "couldn't"s and also some stuff on what worked earlier on, take the jump.
- Shawne Williams and Ronny Turiaf were the two guys who spent most of their time on Dwight Howard, and they were predictably helpless at times. Orlando did a brilliant job of creating motion away from Howard until he either crossed to the strong side or sealed off the weak side, then setting him up for an easy point-blank task. When the ball movement found him in position, Howard went nary a touch without at least a foul call. Then again, there were stretches in which Turiaf, Williams, and a number of helpers denied Howard the ball or pestered him when he had possession. After a 17-point first quarter, he scored just ("just") 13 for the rest of the game. So, that's something. All told, though, giving up a 30-point game on just 15 field goal attempts isn't something for the Knick frontcourt to put on their resumes.
- The thing is, the Knicks won soundly a first half in which they allowed Howard to dominate. It was when the other bros stepped up that things fell apart. At the half, Jameer Nelson (whose team-issued nickname is elite stuff. Also, RIP Fanhouse.) must have been reminded that he is fleeter of foot than Chauncey Billups, because he suddenly seemed interested in torching Chauncey by dribbling through screens. The help defense that had previously been focused Howard suddenly had to handle Nelson as well, and that was too much for a strange bunch of less-than-lockdown defenders. Everybody got confused, assignments were missed, open looks went unchased, and the Magic swung the affair permanently in their favor.
- In that brilliant second quarter, we were treated to some flashes of brilliance from the Amar'e-Carmelo tandem. (Note: A portmanteau of the their first names, "Amarelo" also means "yellow" in Portuguese. I'm not sure what to do with this discovery). I was particularly tickled by consecutive offensive sets that were variations on the same concept. On both plays, Stoudemire held the ball on the left elbow. In the first set, Melo started from the right corner, then curled across the paint to catch the ball for a deep post up. If I remember, correctly, he kicked it to a driving Billups for a foul. I might be conflating two events there, but whatever. I liked it. On the next possession, Amar'e handled the rock on the left elbow once more. This time, Melo darted from the left (strong) corner toward the rim, receiving a perfectly timed pass from Stoudemire for the easy finish. These are good activities for friends to do together. I'm a big fan of these Melo-in, 'Mar'e-out plays.
- After those second quarter connections, though, Stoudemire and Anthony kinda diverged. Amar'e continued to have success by scoring in isolation when matched with Brandon Bass or Earl Clark, stepping outside when faced with Howard, and running a few splendid pick-and-rolls with Billups. Melo went to plenty of iso as well, but had a lot of trouble scoring. His made jumpers were few and far between (though his three-pointer in the third that was immediately preceded by a Billups three momentarily felt like a game-changer), and his rambling romps into the paint didn't receive quite as many foul calls as he'd hoped. Stoudemire finished with 30 points on just 17 shots while Anthony got 25 on 24.
- Watching Chauncey Billups is an absolute treat, especially when Chris Duhon is presented for contrast. Chauncey still hasn't had a good shooting night, but he continues to make a living from the foul line. Tonight, he bulled and bumped his way into a career-high 20 free throws, 18 of which he made. That singular ability to summon contact in any offensive situation nearly saved the Knicks in Cleveland, kept them in it tonight, and is going to win them some ugly games in the future. It's something else. Interestingly enough, Chauncey supplemented all of those one-pointers with threes and threes alone. He shot 4-9 from downtown but missed all of his two-point attempts. Man loves his odd numbers. Oh, and "Burps" (my favorite game thread nickname so far) threw some pretty fancy passes as well. Have a look at this pin-point bounce 'tween his legs. Again, for contrast's sake, last year's starting point guard wouldn't have had the confidence nor creativity to throw that pass. Even if he tried it, he'd probably pelt himself in the nut or something.
- Speaking of Knicks whose foibles I don't miss, Quentin Richardson had himself a pretty solid second half against Melo. Hedo Turkoglu got a second technical and an ejection for, from what I gathered, queefing at a nearby ref from his seat on the bench. Seriously, though, Turkoglu wasn't shouting or anything, so he must have said something particularly heinous about butts and genitals and feces and whatnot. ANYWAY, Hedo's absence left room for Q to spin, and our former comrade made use of his 17 minutes. He played some seriously physical defense (too physical, if you ask me) on Anthony and appeared to get under his skin. Richardson also sank some important shots and did a lot of sneering and growling and probably some queefing to boot.
- The Bad News Billups: Chauncey really couldn't stick with Jameer Nelson, which doesn't bode well for a battle against Chris Paul tomorrow. Also boding poorly is Billups's quadricep, which got contused as hell by Dwight Howard's jaunty knee. He had to sit the game's final few minutes, and may not be good to go against the Hornets. I'm sure we'll know more on the morrow.
- I know I've made a stink about this before, but here it is again: Do teams get to know exactly how much time is left on the shot clock? As I understand it, the shot clock measures tenths of a second, but does not display them. Thus, when a dead ball occurs and a team is inbounding with a reading of "1" of the shot clock, they could have anywhere from 0.1 to 0.9 seconds in which to get a shot up. Obviously, that's a meaningful range of possibilities that demand different approaches. Less than half a second would probably warrant a lob or tip-in, while a window of around eight tenths of a second would leave room for a catch-and-shoot. Are coaches and players privy to the exact amount of time left on the shot clock? Shouldn't they be? Am I entirely too interested in this bit of minutiae?
- Alas, the time since the All-Star break and the roster renovation has not been especially Landry. Tonight, Landry Fields was excellent on the glass (11 boards), but aggravatingly inaccurate on offense. He connected on just one of his five three-point attempts, all of which were routine outside looks. There's not much to say here, really. I refuse to believe that my Landriest of Landries has so much as grazed a "rookie wall", but he is in a bit of a slump. It's nothing to worry about. I'm not worried. Do I look worried? Hell no. The Knicks need his touch, though.
- Toney Douglas, too. After that brilliant night in the ex-Nuggets' debut, it's been Bricks 'R Us (a real store, it turns out) for Douglas. Tonight, he went 1-6 and, like Fields, missed some jumpers that reaaaaaally would have helped.
- Really, none of the role players have filled the jump shooting void since that first game. Bill Walker had a personal five-point run in that second quarter, but finished just 2-6. Shawne Williams didn't poop even once from the corner. Anthony Carter confirmed that he should, indeed, never shoot from outside. New York probably needed to match Orlando's second half perimeter production to win this game, and they totally did not.
- The Knicks shot 45 free throws and the Magic shot 50. Is this why Orlando starts games half an hour early?
- Jared Jeffries! Sporting a fly suit and a fresh cut, Jared did a little sideline interview with Tina Cervasio in which he expressed earnest delight at rejoining D'Antoni and the Knicks. He also revealed that he will be wearing number 9 to honor his friend (from the '03 Wizards, I assume) Michael Jordan in the Olympics. The fact that the Knicks cut Corey Brewer (who was going to wear number 2) now infuriates me. A roster with every single digit number (except for 0, I guess) would have thrilled the obsessive-compulsive six year-old still lingering within me.
- To clarify: Yes, I ate an obsessive-compulsive six year-old.
- I'm pretty sure Walt Frazier called them the "Magics" at least once. I'm 100 percent certain that he described Jameer Nelson's drives to the basket as a "lilliputian thriving in the land of the Gullivers".
- Lineups without Chauncey Billups should include Anthony Carter, if you ask me. All signs point to him never, ever shooting the basketball evereverever again, but he does keep the continuity alive and play some active defense. He's also perfectly comfortable barking orders on both ends of the floor, which is a quality Toney Douglas hasn't shown to date.
- Shelden Williams played and did pretty much nothing of note. Renaldo Balkman did not play, but probably did plenty of noteworthy things that we just didn't hear about.
That'll be all, I think. The loss stinks, but I can't help but dwell on the fact that New York nearly beat another Eastern Conference favorite on the road without even remotely efficient shooting. That's something. The Knicks' offensive familiarity is at the nametag stage, their defense wavers (Jeffries will be a big addition, for real), and their role players have been underwhelming, but by golly, they're still hanging. (Is that an appropriate use of "by golly"? It's not really something I say). These issues bear a striking resemblance to those of the 3-8 November Knicks, whose potential had not yet been realized. We know from experience that they can be overcome. Mixed in with all of the struggles are hints that we've the makings of something very dangerous on our hands, and should those sparks ignite, all signs point to a team on the rise. Best wishes to Chauncey's quadricep. Hornets tomorrow. Good night.