When the lockout finally ended and the schedule for this hectic, abbreviated season was released, there were a few games that every Knick fan circled on the calendar. Once the Knicks added Tyson Chandler, those circles got re-circled: the Knicks were going to be contenders. Then, when they beat Boston in a burner on Christmas Day, another set of circles was added. Last night was one of those triple-circled matchups. And even though the Knicks, at least so far, aren’t who we thought they were, they put up a good showing last night. Playing without Carmelo Anthony, they were undermanned even more than usual. But they fought hard, rode the hot hand and were in it well into the fourth quarter. It was a loss, sure. But it certainly wasn’t the disaster it seemed like it would be when it was announced that Carmelo wouldn’t play and that Dwyane Wade would return from a six-game absence. The Knicks led 71-68 with 1:45 to go in the third quarter and Miami didn’t pull away until there were about five minutes left in the fourth. Not that bad considering all that has gone wrong with the Knicks’ season thus far.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: the Heat had, by my count, ten dunks, including some ridiculous ones, including an over the shoulder alley from Norris Cole to LeBron, a Wade to LeBron floater, both a reverse-two-handed Kobe Special and a pretty hop-step power move from Wade and perhaps the worst, a back-down-and-face-up left-handed explosion from LeBron that was arguably on Bill Walker’s face. Los Angeles Clippers who? The Miami Heat’s athletic ability and flair are unparalleled. No one can charge a building like they do.
Now back to the part of the game I don’t necessarily want to forget. With Carmelo out, there were a lot of minutes available in this one and Billy “Bad News” Walker, whose distate for LeBron is well documented, stepped up, carrying the Knicks in the second and third quarters with ridiculous three point shooting, which included one he banked from pretty much straight away. I think I just heard him call “glass.” He finished 7-12 for 21, all of his points coming off his 10 three point attempts. Walker also got physical with LeBron late in the game and didn’t hesitate to tell him about it. You’re not going to believe this, but LeBron just kind of shrugged it off.
Outside of Walker’s heroics, on the offensive end the Knicks didn’t do much to distinguish themselves. Making shots continues to be a problem. Other than Tyson Chandler (2-3), not a single player other than Walker shot better than 33% (Toney Douglas: 6-18, Amar’e: 5-14, Landry Fields: 4-12, Iman Shumpert: 2-6, Mike Bibby: 2-9, Steve Novak: 2-7, I could go on but I think you get it.) Their 41% shooting from three kept them in the game, but even with Walker’s hot hand, the Knicks made just 35.7% of their shots overall (30-84). All those misses, coupled with nineteen turnovers, means a lot of transition play for Miami and that leads to the paragraph above where I’m forced to recount LeBron and Wade’s score of aerial acrobatics.
Despite Wade and James combining for 59, which wasn’t surprising considering they were being guarded by a combination of Landry Fields (below-average NBA athlete), Bill Walker (can’t move laterally) and Iman Shumpert (able defender prone to rookie mistakes), the Knicks played good defense. They held the rest of the Heat to just forty points and limited Chris Bosh to thirteen on 4-18 shooting. On the road against the team that I’d bet is going to win the championship, 99 points isn’t a bad effort. Defense certainly kept the Knicks in the game early on and carried them until they got hot for what felt like the first time all season.
There are two things the Knicks need to take away from last night’s game. The first is that like pretty much every basketball team ever constituted, they are better when they move the ball. We all know this. They did a pretty good job of doing that last night and it eventually led to Bill Walker finding his stroke. That’s something Carmelo Anthony needs to be especially aware of. The second thing is that they need to emulate the Heat. Remember, James and Wade didn’t appear to be the best fit when they initially came together. But with time, serious determination to become a cohesive unit (remember the training camp on the army base?) and savvy play design from Eric Spoelstra, they’ve made it work. The Knicks haven’t had a ton of time thanks to the lockout, and they don’t have a coach who seems capable of scheming to the strengths Carmelo and Amar’e do have. But Anthony and Stoudemire can dedicate themselves to learning to play together. And with disbelief that they can do it brewing around the league and among the fans, the impetus for them to prove everyone wrong is there, just as criticism of LeBron’s Decision motivated the Miami. I don’t care if it costs the Knicks a trip to the playoffs because it leads to ten turnovers a game (and it probably won’t.) They need to devote the rest of this season to playing together. The Knicks are 7-12 and in tenth place in the East. How much worse can it get? In the long run it will be well worth it, whatever the cost.
The Knicks needed more than twelve points from Amar’e last night if they were going to win. They needed Mike Bibby to make more shots than he did, or Toney Douglas to get sixteen more efficiently. They needed to halve their turnovers. They needed one more sublime performance – Walker’s hot hand just wasn’t enough. That’s largely a function of the quality of the Knick personnel, especially without one of their stars; they simply didn’t have the firepower to keep up and it caught up with them in the end. But if Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony can find a way to emulate Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, this thing can still work. If they can’t, the second decade of the Knicks’ 21st century might not be much better than the first.