New Yorkers aren’t easily impressed -- unless the Knicks are leading the East before Thanksgiving. Then we find stubborn citizens uncharacteristically feeling weak in the knees. New York has let its defense down, at roughly the same time as the Knicks learned how to play it.
Yes, when it comes to the Knicks, the buzzword is hope, whereas in the recent past, it was nope. A franchise that saw Isiah Thomas pull off one of the all-time magic stunts -- he made an entire decade vanish -- is bathing in the luxury of early-season success. Not only are the Knicks winning, they’ve done it decisively at times, leading a championship-starved city to prematurely party like it’s 1973.
Carmelo Anthony, the biggest star since Patrick Ewing, is playing at an MVP level for perhaps the first time in his life. A coach who lost his last job when his players “planked” on him is getting his message across. A group of older Knicks, considered up past their bedtime, have hiked the basketball IQ level tremendously. And this is happening while the Knicks are missing two mainstays in the rotation, their scoring big man and their best ball-hawking defender, both on the mend and expected back soon.
For those who’ve followed the Knicks, it sounds make-believe, almost too good to be true, thanks to a dreadful recent past that all but made the Knicks irrelevant. They’re no longer that bad, and now we’re only left to wonder if they’re really this good.
Can they win 50 games and the division and fetch a high seed in the playoffs? Well, sure. You forget, they play in the same conference as the Wizards, Magic, Pistons, Bobcats, etc., etc. A watered-down East all but assures that much.
Can they win a few rounds in the spring, something they haven’t done in over a dozen years, and make LeBron James sweat hard enough to wear two headbands? Ah-ha. That’s what we don’t know. And neither do the Knicks.
“I’m still trying to learn this team,” said coach Mike Woodson. “We’re all still in that learning mode. But I think we can improve on both sides of the ball. Guys are committed and they’re buying in.”
A lot can go right. A few things can go wrong. Right now they’re playing at a best-case scenario. Among other things, the schedule has worked in their favor. They whipped Miami by 20 on an emotionally-charged opening night that tipped off just days after a severe storm paralyzed the area. The only other quality victory came in San Antonio, largely done without Melo, who had an off shooting night. Starting on Tuesday and over the next nine games, they’ll see only one division leader, and that’s the Bucks. When their rematch with Miami arrives on Dec. 6, the Knicks could be 12 games over .500, and the local swooning will only increase.
There’s more. Their older players are showing more spring than expected, with Jason Kidd reincarnated as a three-point shooter and Rasheed Wallace stubbornly solid in the low post after a two-year layoff. They’ve made the team smarter; the Knicks are committing by far the fewest turnovers in the league (just 10 per game) and seem to make the right play more often than not.
Raymond Felton, his rep in tatters after being booed out of Portland, is making Linsanity a distant memory. The Knicks set themselves up for second-guessing last summer after getting Felton on the cheap and letting Jeremy Lin go. Meanwhile, Felton was upset that everyone focused on last season, when he was admittedly doughy and out of shape, and not his previous four years, which were quite respectable. Felton had become so undisciplined with his eating habits that he hired a chef to make him not one, but three meals a day. He outplayed Tony Parker last week and, more important, won the endorsement of Melo, something Lin never earned.
“I’m a guy who’s going to bring it every night,” Felton said. “I take pride in my toughness. And I’m not the player I was last year. I’m better.”
And Melo. He came into the season lighter and more determined. He genuinely seems interested in being a complete player. The defense, the rebounding, the search for the open man, the hustle after loose balls, all the little things that were either missing or in short supply are now evident on a nightly basis. Anthony could always score, especially in the half court, where nobody is better, not even LeBron. But his teams couldn’t win that way, and maybe now he finally realizes that.
“My goal is leadership,” he said. “I’m going to supply it. I’m going to do whatever my team needs me to do. It’s just a different mindset for me.”
Spurs forward Stephen Jackson said: “Last year I think Melo would have forced a lot of shots. He’s trusting his teammates more now.”
Woodson has the Knicks playing defense at a level not seen since Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy endorsed a brass-knuckles style that helped the Knicks challenge for championships. The Knicks are No. 2 in the league right now, giving up 90 a game, and defense is on their business card. This only makes Woodson a better coach than he was at the end of his run in Atlanta, where the Hawks lost by 25 points a game to Orlando and simply gave up in the most lopsided playoff sweep in NBA history.
“He’s given us a defensive gameplan, and we follow it,” said Tyson Chandler. “When one guy is out of position, there are four guys barking at him.”
These are all reasons to believe what you see, that the Knicks have staying power, but that largely depends on the unknown factors that ultimately will determine their long-term fate. In a conference that’s up for grabs after Miami, at least at the moment, the Knicks can’t afford a setback that could cost them a shot. And there are definitely questions.
Like, where does Amar’e Stoudemire fit? Along with guard Iman Shumpert, he’s expected back by Christmas from knee surgery. But Stoudemire was never a good defender even before surgery. There’s also the nagging issue of his chemistry with Melo, which is probably bigger in the minds of the media and fans, but still a perception that the two players have never really killed. Finally, would Stoudemire be worth more to the Knicks on another team? His contract is a killer; he’ll make $20 million a season for the next three years, but no contract is untradeable. Because they’ve played so well without him, the Knicks could ship him by the deadline without much risk, especially if the Lakers feel Stoudemire fits better in the system with his former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni than Pau Gasol.
Also: In a few months, will Kidd, Wallace and Marcus Camby, all over 35, still have their legs and lungs? Does Felton keep this up? Is Woodson, who never got past the second round in Atlanta, cut more from the mold of Red Holzman or D’Antoni when the playoffs arrive?
Until then, the Knicks are prepared as anyone to seize advantage of a weak conference and a rejuvenated superstar. Those are the biggest two factors in their favor. And nowhere in New York is the anticipation bigger than in Midtown Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue, home of NBA headquarters. The NBA doesn’t need a great team in New York in order to survive, but there’s a certain cache that’s missing when the largest market goes begging for glory for this long.
That’s history, so it seems. Forty years after they’ve given the city reason to throw confetti, the Knicks are quickly building steam and a band of believers. Carmelo Anthony says it’s safe for New York to think big. As if the city knows any other way.