Like eager children on Christmas morning, New Yorkers got up early to fill Madison Square Garden with their hopes and expectations. They couldn’t wait to rip the wrapping off their shiny new Knicks team, reconfigured on the fly last season with the Carmelo Anthony trade, refined with the acquisition of Tyson Chandler.
In a noontime opening matchup – daybreak in NBA terms – the Knicks gave the believers plenty of reasons for optimism in beating the Boston Celtics, 106-104.
They also gave the doubters plenty of reasons for skepticism.
It will be a tight, compressed year of transition for New York and coach Mike D’Antoni, who will be without his usual up-tempo transition game. Renowned for his six-seconds-to-shoot approach in Phoenix, D’Antoni finds himself with a roster more likely to see six seconds left on the shot clock.
The frontcourt pair of Anthony and Amar’e Stoudamire gives the Knicks two exceptional scoring forwards and defensive liabilities. Chandler is a perfect compliment, bringing tough interior defense and doing the hard work underneath, while not needing the ball on the offensive end. Chandler had six blocks in the opener, all of them within six feet of the basket, and took five shots from underneath, three of which drew Celtic fouls.
New York was third-worst in the league in points allowed last season, fifth-worst in opponents’ field-goal percentage. In the first seventeen minutes against Boston, they opened a seventeen-point lead while holding the Celtics to 42.8% shooting.
The question marks for the Knicks are in the backcourt; Toney Douglas and Landry Fields are almost certainly the weakest starting guard pair in the NBA. Fields was a pleasant surprise for New York last season with his decent shooting touch and basketball know-how; he is not, however, a player who should be getting a starter’s minutes.
Douglas, in his third season, is more a shoot-first guard than a creator for the offense. He had nineteen points on nineteen shots, and his backup Iman Shumpert showed equally little conscience, putting the ball up fifteen times in 22 minutes of action. Shumpert, a rookie out of Georgia Tech, demonstrated more determination than judgment before leaving the game with an apparent sprained MCL that will keep him out of action for a while.
New York’s general manager Glen Grunwald picked up Mike Bibby and Baron Davis during the post-lockout free agent frenzy. Bibby’s best days are behind him, and at best he’ll be an adequate stop-gap measure. Davis has been an electrifying and dangerous true point guard, one of the best scorers and creators in the league while with Golden State. Since 2008, however, he has been out of shape and uninterested in performing for the lackluster Clippers and Cavaliers. He is expected to miss about two months with a herniated disk, and at age 32, he’s a lottery ticket – a long shot to shake off three years of fat and rust, but with a huge payoff if he can.
The team’s deficiencies at point guard were evident as Boston came storming back in the third quarter. While the Celtics, playing without Paul Pierce, turned a ten-point halftime deficit into an eight-point lead by the end of the period, the Knicks had no one capable of controlling the flow of the game, no one able to get Anthony or Fields involved in the offense. Boston shot 70% for the quarter and held New York to seventeen points.
In the fourth quarter, however, Anthony put those issues aside and took the game into his own hands. Working from the right flank, he hit four jumpers and drew three shooting fouls, scoring seventeen points that included the Knicks’ only five points in the final 2:45. Stoudamire contributed four points and a critical block down the stretch.
As the clock wound down with the Knicks up two, Rajon Rondo – who had 31 points and 13 assists for a team that had been actively shopping him for the last month – passed to Ray Allen near the three-point line on the right. Allen drove baseline, and saw a wide-open teammate in the left corner; fortunately for the Knicks, that teammate was Marquis Daniels, who missed the three-point attempt. When it’s Paul Pierce later in the season, the result will probably be different.
The Garden crowd headed out into the Yuletide streets energized by the win, excited by the return to relevance. If they think they have a Eastern title contender on the level of Miami and Chicago, however, they’re missing the point.