The NBA stopped on its axis Thursday night as all eyes turned to Cleveland, Ohio, for a certain much-anticipated debut. And Derek Fisher did not disappoint, winning his road coaching debut. Felicidades, Coach Fisher! A deeply satisfying us-against-the-world effort by the orange & blue ended in a much deserved 95-90 Knicks' victory. Blutspender said it best: "I feel amazing. Thank you, New York Knicks."
The early action saw Kevin Love looking hot (12 points/7 boards/3 assists/several sweet-ass outlets) and Carmelo Anthony looking not. Melo missed 6 of his first 9 shots and tweaked his ankle with 49 seconds left in the first. Cleveland was up 7 and could have been up more, but the Cavs had a half-dozen fast breaks that came up empty early.
Early in the 2nd, JR Smith got banged up. Carmelo was already dinged. Ominous signs. Gotham needed a hero. Enter: Travis Wear. Cleveland went at Wear immediately, without success, and soon thereafter Cleveland's new small forward tried his luck against the Travis we deserve. No luck. Unfortunately on the other end, the Knicks, like opening night against Chicago, were giving up on the Triangle offense and reverting to the Woodson-gle. JR isolated his way into a turnover. Carmelo hit a long one-on-one jumper over Varajeo just inside the corner. Then Carmelo lost the ball out of bounds near the end of the shot clock, leading to a JR airball.
A nice secondary break three-pointer by Shane Larkin broke the iso spell and brought the Knicks back within three. A JR three (not out of isolation, coincidentally) tied things up, and soon after JR's dribble penetration opened up Larkin for a mid-range jumper. Shane looked more composed tonight, more comfortable. The Knicks ended the half on a 20-11 run, despite giving up a Tristan Thompson alley-oop in the dying seconds that everyone in America could see coming except the five Knicks on the floor. With a minute left in the half, Cleveland's new small forward was 1 of 9 from the field. Wonder if they miss Anthony Bennett yet.
Rachel Nichols reported that the Knick coaches gave the players a "strong" speech about energy and coming out with intensity for the third. Ask, and ye shall receive! The Knicks outscored the Cavs by 5 in the quarter. Larkin's composure shone through on a three-on-two where he ignored an open Carmelo drifting to the three-point line on his right to feed Jason Smith for a wide-open jumper on the left. After a few more Smith jumpers, Marv Albert began to get that excited-Marv inflection in his voice. Marv emoting over a player for the first time is like when Johnny Carson would invite comedians to the couch after their set. It means you've arrived. Jason Takes Manhattan.
The Knicks kept it coming. Melo returned and hit a three and a jumper, then threw a nice lead pass to Amar'e Stoudemire when STAT was being fronted, leading to a dunk. With two minutes left in the quarter, Cleveland's new small forward drove along the sideline and tried to turn the corner. Unfortunately, this corner was named Jason Smith. A foul was called. Jason knocked the ball away from Cleveland's new small forward, who got a bit testy and tried to stare Smith down. Priceless.
The period ended with the Knicks having hit 19 of 30 shots over the second and third quarters. It also ended with Melo picking up an offensive foul, his 4th. JR was mystifyingly lax and appeared to be sleepwalking more than once when dribbling into midcourt pressure and traps. It almost cost the Knicks when he turned it over near the end of the third, but Matt Dellavedova missed a bunny and Dion Waiters followed with an offensive foul.
Early in the fourth, Stoudemire got caught guarding Kyrie Irving 20 feet from the basket, leading to an Irving and-1 on a drive and pull-up jumper (he missed the free throw). Whenever I see a big man stuck 20+ feet from the basket defending a point guard, I whisper the name "Mike Woodson." The Knicks struggled all night getting shots off within 24 seconds. One bizarre sequence in the fourth featured Cole Aldrich missing what looked like the primordial ancestor of a hook shot. The rebound ended up in JR's hands, and JR missed a wide-open three. Emerging Knick legend Quincy Acy inexplicably tried to volleyball-tap the rebound instead of grabbing what looked like a gimme put-back; then, even more inexplicably, Acy dunked his own follow-up. Soon thereafter, Acy bailed out another expiring shot-clock with a 20-footer set up by Pablo Prigioni's penetration. Alliteration never felt so good.
Acy picked up his fifth foul, but the Knicks built a lead. Yet another possession that took 24 seconds saw JR hit a one-on-one jumper to put New York up six. Carmelo hit a long two on a secondary break that video review later changed to a three. The Knicks were up 9 and on an 11-1 run. Then Acy fouled out. Not cool. A few minutes later, Cleveland's new small forward drove to the hoop and was mushed by Cole Aldrich; unfortunately, the foul was called on Carmelo, which was his fifth. Also not cool.
You know what was cool? After picking up his fifth foul, Carmelo went right at Cleveland's small forward, drawing a foul on a three-pointer. Melo landed awkwardly from the contact and held his knee while not getting up, with all four teammates standing around waiting. Melo shook it off and hit two free throws. Irving found Cleveland's new small forward for a fast break lay-up. JR hit a one-on-one jumper. Cleveland's new small forward was called for an offensive foul for tangling up and shoving Iman Shumpert, who had a very strong game (more on him later).
As crunch time unfolded, the Knicks folded up the Triangle offense and switched to more isolations and pick-and-roll actions between Melo and STAT. Shump hit a nice long jumper off penetration by Larkin. With 2:18 left, the Knicks faced their most important possessions in the Derek Fisher era. What would they run? What would they do? When push came to shove, what would we see from this group?
We'd see progress and regression: the good, the bad, and the ugly, sometimes all within the same possession. In one set, Carmelo never touched the ball (good! change things up), Prigioni wouldn't shoot when he was open (bad, but #sopablo), and Jason Smith was left to try and single-handedly salvage the possession (ugly). Cue another 24-second violation.
After a nice twisting lay-in by Irving cut the Knick lead to three with 90 seconds left, the Knicks ran the clock down. Again. No ball movement. No direction. No leadership. No nothing. JR shot an airball. Kevin Love missed a three that would have tied things, then JR grabbed the rebound and hit a driving lay-up on the other end. Even more physically impressive than JR's body control on his basket was Charles Barkley not getting whiplash after so rapidly shifting from "Another bad shot by JR" to "JR's looked good and played in control tonight." Then Cleveland's small forward got a waaaaaay too easy lay-up. 44 seconds left. Knicks up 3.
Biggest possession of the year. Everyone knew the Knicks would go to Carmelo. What was refreshing was how they did it. Unlike recent years, when close-and-late situations meant Melo holding the ball for 22 seconds, then trying to create something from nothing, the Knicks actually ran some actions. Guys cut, and screened, and moved. Consequently, their defenders had to keep moving, too. Cleveland's defense couldn't just sit there and square up for Carmelo. When he got the ball, he had plenty of room to go at Cleveland's new small forward one-on-one. Swish. On their last meaningful defensive possession, the Knicks didn't threaten to commit any silly fouls. They weren't over-aggressive. They contested everyone behind the three-point line and appeared willing to concede the two. The Cavs, down 5 with 25 seconds left, got three-happy too early.
It's been a while since the Knicks won a game where so many guys contributed such strong efforts. This was the kind of win you like to let linger and soak in. There was teamwork. There were moments of indisputable basketball IQ. After the hype over Phil Jackson last spring, a summer of uncertainty over the direction the franchise (via Carmelo) would take, and the typical preseason that titillates without telling us anything, this night wasn't about potential. It wasn't about 2015, or 2016. It wasn't even about Cleveland's new small forward. This was about the Knicks. This was about performance, pride, and some tangible, immediate successes.
--Fisher played twelve guys in the first half. Twelve! Ten Knicks played 13+ minutes. Somewhere, Rolando Blackman is smiling.
--The lineup that brought the Knicks from seven down to the lead was Melo-free. Larkin, Wear, Amar'e, and the Smith Brothers led the charge. (P.S. Isn't it great when "Smith Brothers" doesn't involve Chris?)
--Two games does not a trend make, but when it comes to turnovers, so far this team's looking closer to 2013 than 2014, which is great. Fifteen tonight versus thirty assists. Nice. Very nice.
--The Knicks 24-second violations/near-violations weren't the result of maniacal defense locking them down. At least a half-dozen times, a guard would calmly pass the ball to a big man with 2-3 seconds on the shot clock, with neither player apparently aware of the time.
--Quincy Acy: 22 minutes. 8 points. 10 rebounds (6 offensive). You can keep Kevin Love, Cleveland? We're good.
--Shumpert took on a lot of the ball-handling late. He wasn't pressed too hard, but he handled it well. This was the beautiful blue moon Shumpert game that leaves his fans salivating. He was active and involved throughout the game, as he often is in big games. In one especially lovely sequence, Shump was allowed to work one-on-one against Dion Waiters, made a nice move off the dribble to draw a foul, then followed up the next possession with an off-the-bounce jumper. He also did a nice job cutting off Waiters' penetration all night, and even drew a foul on a three. Helped out on the boards. Rescued a woman tied to train tracks from a mustache-twirling ne'er do well. Good work, Shump.
--30 Knick assists! On 37 Knick baskets!
--At the start of the 4th quarter, TNT spoke with David Blatt. I thought he'd sound like Vladimir Putin. He sounded like Frank Vogel. My ears were scandalized.
--Someone somewhere once did the worst thing anyone anywhere has ever done. And Kevin Hart has a picture of them doing it. And that's why Kevin Hart Kevin Harts. Halftime treat: Marv Albert smiling while biting his lip, trying to bring the focus back to the game. I miss you, Marv. Mike Breen will always be Dick Sergeant to your Dick York.
--Is there a worse finisher on the break, as far as star players who can dunk, than Carmelo?
--High point for the Cavs tonight: the pregame intro, when the arena was darkened and all the fans were waving what looked like red swords. It was like 18,000 Sith Lords descended on Cleveland.
--Low point for the Cavs: those new unis. Good God...
In baseball, they say momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher. For the Knicks, momentum is a home game Sunday vs. Charlotte. Lose that and they're 1-2. Win and there's cause for optimism. Tonight the Knicks got a view of their ceiling. Sunday's a chance to establish something even more meaningful: consistency. But Sunday's a thousand years away. That happy, well-earned buzz you'll fall asleep with tonight and wake up with tomorrow? That's all yours, Knick fans.