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With his job on the line this seasonwhy it wasn't before is between owner James Dolan and his GodIsiah Thomas has spent many of his press conferences tackling heightened expectations and wrestling them to the floor. "They're just a little bit of a better team than we are right now," he said about the Pacers, the Spurs, the Rockets, the Cavaliersand he's right, but as inspirational pre-game statements go, it's not exactly "win one for the Gipper." Awkwardly, however, he seems to have neglected to mention this to some of his players, who appear to be under the impression that they're supposed to win.
The Knicks have established a pattern in the first few weeks of the season: Their starters promptly fall into a double-digit hole. Eddy Curry looks perplexed by the notion that he should perhaps try to prevent the opposing team from reaching the basket, while Marbury and Steve Francis show only frustrating glimpses of their sizable talent. Channing Frye, the promising sophomore forward, began the season in a dreadful shooting slump from which he's just starting to emerge, and Quentin Richardson is on top of his game but can't carry the team by himself.
Finally Thomas calls on the Knicks' bench, who hurl the team back into the game with rebounds, steals, speed, and sheer energy, much to the relief of the crowd, which stops booing the starters to cheer Nate Robinson, David Lee, Jamal Crawford, and Renaldo "Who?" Balkman. They're young, they play defense, their salaries do not exceed the GNP of small developing countries, and for a little while the Garden sounds like it used to. Then, of course, the opposing team recovers from the shock, and the Knicks lose by anywhere from one to 14 points.
In other words: the Knicks are going to lose a whole lot of games this season. But this time they're going to go down swinging.
New York doesn't go in much for lovable losers these days; maybe the Golden State Warriors can rack up 10 straight losing seasons and still set new attendance records, but Madison Square Garden isn't having it. The Knicks are a proud franchise with a rich history, and their fans are not accustomed to being regarded with the mixture of mockery and pity usually reserved for supporters of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The supposedly sold-out home opener featured plenty of empty seats, and fewer fans came to each of the next three games; the attendance for the November 15 win against the Washington Wizards was the team's lowest since 1992. Remaining fans have taken to turning to each other and exclaiming things like "Look! Did you see that? I think Francis just passed to Marbury!" or "Wow, did Eddy Curry just block a shot?!" with equal parts bitter sarcasm and genuine surprise.
Before the game, a group of Wizards sat around the cramped visitors' clubhouse talking among themselves about their op ponents. They weren't discussing Marbury, the hometown superstar, or Curry, the 6-11, 285-pound underachieving center (for whom Isiah Thomas traded yet another draft pick, despite concerns about a possible genetic heart defect and . . . oh, never mind). They were discussing Nate Robinson, the 5-9 sophomore guard, whose highlights were playing on the clubhouse TV. DeShawn Stevenson took a look at his season averages and raised an eyebrow: "Robinson be gettin' it done."
(None of the Wizards were eager to go on the record with predictions for the Knicks' current season, but they seemed to think there was reason for optimism. "I play them in my video game sometimes," offered Stevenson. "They're not so bad.")
I admit to a soft spot for Robinson; it's hard to avoid rooting for a guy who's a foot shorter than most of his teammates and seems never to have noticed. Plus, he's the only Knick I have a solid chance of making eye contact with. (His locker is right next to Eddy Curry's; someone needs to give those two a reality show.) After the Knicks lost to the Spurs despite a thrilling fourth-quarter run, sparked by the bench, that brought the team back from 90-71 to 92-91, Robinson was still buzzing from the energy of the crowd, which for 10 minutes or so had been beside itself, waking up for the first time this season.
"It felt great, honestly, it did. . . . It was unbelievable, honestly. It was just fun to be a part of, getting the fans involved," he chirped, with an excited smile, before suddenly remembering that his team had lost. "But we kind of let the fans down . . . but if they stick with us it's going to get better and better, and louder and louder in the Garden."
"Stick with us" is the Knicks' unofficial slogan this year. Steve Francis used it on opening night, without much success, and several other Knicks have volunteered the phrase when asked about their mutinous fans. The other buzzword of the season is "chemistry," a thoroughly overused term in sports these days, but clearly on everyone's mind after last season's public debacle. "I think we have more chemistry at this point than we did all last season," said Jamal Crawford. "It hasn't really translated to wins just yet.
The sentiment was echoed more forcefully by David Lee, who appears dead set on avoiding another season like last year's by any means necessary. "We have more of a fight to us," he said. "After last season, we kind of decided as a group that we don't want to be embarrassed this year, we want to go get victories, and I think that sometimes just wanting that bad enough causes things to get better."
Certainly no one wants it more than Lee, the Knicks' best rebounder, who's pumped up and excited before every game and visibly deflated after every loss. But with a team this flawed, wanting it is, unfortunately, not likely to be enough for a winning record; you can only hope that they continue to win at leas t enough games to prevent their group of promising young players from getting too beaten down. Frye, Robinson, and Lee all mentioned the possibility of making the playoffs, but how long can they cling to their optimism if the Knicks embark on a major losing streak? Especially if the fans stop showing up?
One Knick who appears in little danger in that regard is Renaldo Balkman, the unheralded forward from South Carolina, whose surprise selection by Thomas at No. 20 in this year's draft was greeted with incredulous dismay by fans. He won them over in record time, however, and by the fourth or fifth preseason game was drawing more cheers than Marbury. Balkman, who was born in New York but grew up in Florida, is tenacious, aggressive, and speedy on the court but preternaturally calm and slow-spoken off of it. He says he only settled down from the high of being drafted " 'I made it' and all that"about a month ago and that he's adjusted just fine to New York, except for the cold. He was never too worried about the initial reaction: "I'm just gonna come and do my thing. I'm not here to let the fans down."
I don't know if the Knicks can ever be underdogsthe top of the salary cap is so far below them it's no longer visible to the naked eyebut they're doing a convincing impersonation.
Isiah Thomas is hard to figure. After listening to the traumatized fury of fans for over a year, I was completely disarmed on seeing him in person for the first time: soft-spoken, compact, immaculately dressed, choosing his words with great care, and periodically breaking out his trademark cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, which used to be endearing but now provokes uncontrollable twitching in millions of New Yorkers. I don't know if it was always there or if it's been brought on by the events of the last few years, but there's something a little off around his eyes; you can imagine friends and neighbors being interviewed on the local news, saying things like "I never would have thought it. He seemed like the sweetest guy!"
In Thomas's defensewait, stop throwing things!he didn't exactly inherit a thriving franchise. It's easy, and indeed advisable, to forget the Scott Layden era, but though Thomas is generally portrayed as having driven the team into the ground, all he really did is dig the hole a few feet deeper. And even his most seething detractors admit that Isiah does very well by the draft: Frye, Lee, Robinson, and Balkman are all his picks. His players speak highly of him, and Marbury and Francis, last season's most vocally unhappy duo, are trying to make a go of itat least for now.
Thomas grew up in a very rough west-Chicago neighborhood and isn't shy about pointing it out. Despite his calm demeanor, he keeps coming back to the word fight with regards to his team-at one point 20 times, by my count, in a single conference. He also tends to emphasize masculinity, telling reporters during the preseason that Curry needed to work on his "manliness." I'd argue, however, that at this point Knick fans would be perfectly content to see Curry in a tutu, if only he would play defense in it.
"I'm optimistic," said legendary Knick announcer and Hall of Fame player Walt "Clyde" Frazier, gamely, when asked about the team's chances. "I think Isiah has them on the right track. But I think the defense still has to improve a little more. See, defense you can play good every night. Offense is capricious."
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.
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.