Doubting Thomas

Even Isiah can't fix the Knicks

Not everyone loves Frazier's patented blend of sports commentary and beat poetry, but I've always enjoyed it, and last year it was one of the few remaining pleasures for MSG Network viewers. "They're using hustle and muscle," Frazier will say. "The Knicks are dishing and swishing," or "bruising and cruising." Good defense is "vexing," and the bench players are "vivacious." You needed someone like Frazier last year, when the level of play wasn't going to keep anyone glued to the screen all by itself. He also gets points for attending one of Thomas's pre-game press conferences wearing a piercing cobalt-blue corduroy suit and matching alligator shoes.

The Knicks' bench is hardly flawless, but the team does pride itself on its defense. Thomas is reluctant to juggle his starting rotation, however, using the rather circular logic that since his bench players are doing so well right now, the system must be working. It's still very early, and lots could change in the next few months, but it seems wrong to force paying fans to watch Steve Francis play with Nate Robinson sitting right there.

If the Knicks are going to lose, we should at least get to watch Crawford sprint around making ungainly but effective three- pointers and Lee cleaning the boards while they go down. The team can't get back under the salary cap until at least 2009; it's paying over $60 million to players no longer with the team, on top of the $18 million Larry Brown will receive simply to be somewhere else; it's stuffed with untradable contracts; and it's traded away next year's high draft picks. The least Thomas can do to atone, while we're all stuck here together, is to let his most engaging players put on the best show they can.

photo: Anthony Causi

The game against the Wizards was the first in which the Knicks didn't have to stage a dramatic comeback; the starters kept the team in the game. But the play was flat on both sides, and it was still anybody's win, until Lee came in and picked up a dizzying 15 rebounds, Balkman collected 18 points in 21 minutes, and Robinson roused the crowd, such as it was, out of its stupor. The Knicks won 102-82, their first decisive victory of the season, and their first of any kind at home.

After the win, a cheery and relieved Marbury bounced into the locker room and took in the reporters thronged around Balkman and Lee. "Welcome to the NBA, son!" he shouted to what was visible of Balkman over the field of tape recorders. "Superstar!" Then he turned to the writers surrounding Lee, grinning widely. "Nobody wants to talk to me tonight? Fuck! We won!"

Less than a week later, however, when Thomas seemed to concede the fans' point by benching Marbury and Francis for much of the second half during a home game against the Rockets, the starting guard was not in such good spirits. Last year Marbury had a tendency to sullenly drape a towel over his head when unhappy, which was so often that the thing was practically eligible for the Sixth Man Award, and it appears to be making an ominous comeback. Fans could be forgiven for not paying it much attention, however, because they were too busy recovering from the shock of watching Nate Robinson defy the laws of gravity, physics, and common sense to block a shot from 7-6 Yao Ming. The play was an instant classic, destined to be remembered for years to come; the Knicks lost 97-90.

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