Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 22, 2012

Knicks Find That Two Big Stars Don’t Make A Team

Walking west on 32nd Street one sees the Penn Plaza monolith from many blocks away, forming a giant roadblock on the far side of 7th Avenue. In the underground depths beneath the nondescript skyscraper Amtrak and commuter trains pull in and out of Penn Station, while behind it squats the massive circular arena that is Madison Square Garden. The Garden is the third busiest music arena in the world, the oldest home ice in the NHL, and the second oldest home court in the NBA; the role that it’s filling this Saturday evening. In the midst of a weekend trip to Gotham I join thousands of locals making their way along sidewalks freshly covered with the new year’s first snow, past the entrance where escalators carry travelers down into the earth to catch their trains, along the broad pedestrian walkway adjacent to the hulking office building, and finally up a short flight of stairs and through the doors into the Garden. Many of those around me are dressed in blue and orange, proudly displaying their loyalty to the New York Knicks.

Unfortunately, no amount of loyalty can calm the rising level of anxiety among those who follow the Knickerbockers. After opening the season with an impressive Christmas Day win over the Boston Celtics, and after posting a 6-4 record through their first ten games, New York has hit the skids. The team has lost five games in a row, including the last three at home. During that stretch the Knicks have averaged fewer than 89 points a game, far below the 106-plus points per game they put up last season. Of course, this is not only a different season, this is a different team.

When I last paid a visit to Madison Square Garden to catch a Knicks game, I wrote that they were a developing team that was probably still one impact player away from being a contender. Last February they acquired that player when they completed a multi-team trade with the Denver Nuggets Carmelo Anthony coming to New York as its centerpiece. The problem is that to acquire that one impact player the Knicks gave away most of that developing team. Gone from the New York squad that I watched play just fourteen months ago are Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph, and Eddy Curry. The Knicks now find themselves with two prolific scorers in Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, but a supporting cast that has not yet come together as a cohesive unit. The problem is compounded by the fact that they lack an effective playmaker, having been forced to waive Chauncey Billups to make salary cap room for their recent acquisition of center Tyson Chandler. They signed the veteran Baron Davis to take over the point guard role, but knew when they did so he would be unavailable until sometime next month as he recovers from a herniated disk.

The Knicks are 20-23 since the Anthony trade, while Denver is 29-12; and tonight the Nuggets pay their first visit to New York since so many players on both teams swapped uniforms. That creates a couple of odd moments during player introductions, as the normal boos from the full house at the announcement of each of the visiting team’s starters are replaced by cheers for Mozgov and raucous support for Gallinari, who became a fan favorite during his time in New York, beginning with his selection as the 6th overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft.

Still once the game gets underway the Knicks fans make it clear where their loyalties lie. Through the first half of the contest they have plenty to cheer about. While their heroes fall behind in the first few minutes, a quick rally puts New York into the lead midway through the first quarter. The suspect supporting cast seems determined to contribute tonight, and the team as a whole has a hot hand from the field. With the team field goal percentage staying above 50%, the Knicks lead by as many as 12 points in the second quarter before taking an 8-point advantage into the locker room.

This being Gotham of course the players on the court aren’t the only ones earning cheers. Throughout the game the scoreboard screen shows the usual assortment of celebrities and athletes in attendance. Former Mets catcher and slugger Mike Piazza is greeted with a loud ovation. Actors Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts are judged to be the hot couple of the evening, and WBA light middleweight champion Miguel Cotto gets a warm reception. But the biggest cheers for a celebrity are reserved for the big guy everyone has spotted without the aid of the jumbotron and the last one to be highlighted; Yankees ace CC Sabathia, sitting in the front row with his wife Amber.

Knicks fans may have ultimately wished that there were a few more celebrities in attendance, because as the second half wears on there is less to cheer for on the court. The home team can’t maintain its deadly shooting accuracy, and Denver steadily closes the gap. After three quarters the score is even at 72-72, and as time winds down the Nuggets pull ahead. While he will wind up taking 30 shots, as many as the next two most frequently shooting Knicks combined, Anthony is missing far more than he is making. Anxiety begins to get the better of some in the crowd, and for the first time in his brief career as a Knick, Carmelo Anthony hears boos raining down on his home court every time he misses.

But with just 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation and the Knicks down by a basket, Anthony turns the boo birds back into true believers. From just right of the top of the key he shrugs off a Denver defender and hits a fadeaway jumper to tie the score and force overtime. In that moment the crowd at the Garden is on its feet and as loud as I’ve ever heard it.

Unfortunately it is not a moment that can last. With a two point lead and less than ten seconds remaining in the first overtime, the Knicks foul Denver center Nene. This seems like a smart play as he is 0-4 from the foul line. But of course Nene swishes both shots to tie the score, and on the subsequent possession Anthony is unable to get off a final shot, instead losing the ball out-of-bounds. Then in the second overtime Gallinari takes over, scoring 9 of Denver’s 14 points as the Nuggets pull away to a 119-114 victory. On the night Gallinari scores a career-high 37 points; and in a cruel reminder to the Garden faithful of what might have been, Mozgov the other former Knick adds a career-best 16. Anthony finishes with 25 points, but on just 10-30 shooting, and Stoudemire scores just 12 while taking but a single shot after the 3rd quarter.

As the disappointed crowd makes its way back out into the Manhattan night, it is with the knowledge that their team now goes on the road for four straight games. By the end of the weekend the 6-10 Knicks are outside the top eight positions in the Eastern Conference that gain playoff berths. Rumblings about head coach Mike D’Antoni’s job security continue to grow. The lockout-shortened NBA season is already one-quarter of the way through its schedule. For the careening New York Knicks, that promising Christmas Day start now seems like a very long time ago.

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