The New York Knicks are difficult to watch. They play with a lackadaisical attitude fit more for a shoot around than the game itself. Many nights in many arenas teams open in free-flow mode: one pass, open jumper, two passes, open jumper. Defense is for after muscles are loosened and minds are right. For Charlotte the game officially begins with 7:58 remaining in the first quarter with a one point lead and the score 14-13.For New York, the score is 67-44 at the half – they are down 23 points – and the game has not yet begun.
The Bobcats shoot open jumpers the entire half. Their forays to the basket are met with minimal resistance. They regularly have second and third chances to score on possessions where they miss shots. On the defensive end of the floor, as soon as they put forth the effort to get a step closer to the Knicks shooters, the team in blue collapses. New York plays the entire first quarter without running a set play. Not one.
Their head coach, Isiah Thomas, watches dispassionately. He has seen this act before. Their last effort against LeBron James and Cleveland resulted in a 108-90 dismantling of the Cavaliers. The following day the Cleveland and Akron, Ohio sports pages were filled with talk of how the defending Eastern Conference champions were just not a very good team. In New York there was talk of how getting off to a good start equals a good game and how Thomas is charged with the responsibility for that start. Isiah Thomas cannot suit up for games, step onto the floor and play the game.
Watching, it is a wonder that Eddie Curry has any points at all. Zach Randolph plays as if he has incentives for converting a certain number of jump shots per game. Jamal Crawford will not venture any closer than 18 feet from the basket. Quentin Richardson plays with an appalling indifference (when pulled from the game by Thomas in the 3rd quarter, Richardson has the nerve to curse the coach on his way to his seat).
Thomas’ substitutions, which were magical against Cleveland, render him nothing more than the same listless, misguided play as the starters. David Lee misses a layin and a dunk, Nate Robinson jacks up jumpers, Malik Rose is beaten repeatedly on the defensive end of the floor Jared Jefferies fails to fight for rebounds and does not finish shots near the rim.
Charlotte shoots 58% from the floor in the first half, a whopping 13% higher than the league average and has three players who have scored in double figure.
Though the Bobcats come out as if they have the game already in hand, which normally signals an ebb in the game where the opposition usually makes inroads into a deficit. Instead, with 7:20 remaining in the 3rd quarter the score is 78-57 Charlotte, then 79-55 with five minutes to play. The Knicks have gone “small” and Randolph is their tallest player. When Lee returns to the floor, he becomes the de facto center against Emeka Okafor. But the Bobcats play basic pick-and-roll basketball and the Knicks fail to adjust. Repeatedly, Gerald Wallace burns his defender – Malik Rose – and the buckets, though fewer, still come easy and the score is 85-66 after three.
Thomas keeps most of his starters on the bench and the remainder of the Knicks finally awaken. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Knicks cut the Bobcats lead to 13 at 90-77. It is the fortune of New York that Gerald Wallace is the only player on their team who comprehends that an NBA game, at 48 minutes, is a long journey. With the score 92-77 and New York still clinging to hope, Wallace shoots a passing lane, tips the ball off of Nate Robinson and appear to shut off hopes of a Knicks comeback.
However the New York team on the floor does not fade and cuts the lead to 10. This is accomplished only because the game is ugly. The helter-skelter style, against a better team, would be bemusing. It rattles Charlotte.
With the 3:05 left in the game and score 95-84 Nate Robinson is at the line and can cut the lead to nine; he misses both free throws. It is the epitome of New York Knicks basketball, 2007-08. They play nonchalant basketball. They fumble. They grumble at each other. They argue and curse the coach. They fail to execute the most basic of plays. And they fail to put forth the requisite effort it takes to stay competitive night after night.
Within their lineup exists players with enough spirit and willingness to learn and grow as basketball players to create the core of a team. It is the group that is alleged to be the primary member of the New York Knicks that are the poison: Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, Eddie Curry, Quentin Richardson. Though each carries a particular type of toxic ingredient, they are poisonous nonetheless. They need to be jettisoned from the team as soon as possible for the Knicks to flourish. But their coach and GM, Isiah Thomas, is, if nothing else, hard-headed. To this point he believed in himself to the point where he feels he can tweak these men and trigger whatever it is that can make them truly care about the game as he did.
But now, even Thomas is beginning to see that his experiment has failed. Soon we may see time taken from starters and handed to those on the bench who give more consistent effort. He will put up with the grumbling, the griping to the press, telling management – Thomas – they want out. For most of them, they are one last trade away from being persona non grata in the league. Curry is only 25, but no one has ever inspired him to report to camp in shape. Marbury once averaged 20 points and eight assists in spite of himself. Now, a step slower and beaten a bit more by the death of those close to him, “Starbury” is a shell of the player he once was. Randolph is just greedy and his high basketball IQ is lost in his want for the world to revolve around him. Quentin Richardson is, like Thomas, athletically gifted and Chicago stubborn. But unlike his head coach, he is not hoop savvy.
Whatever their problems, they all need to go. The players they receive in return might be lesser in talent, but if they are willing to share the ball and play with purpose, half the battle is won. Thomas might save his coaching position and the Knicks fans can hope once again.
And they will actually be enjoyable to watch.