By Jake Appleman (regular font) and Russ Bengtson (italics)

The following is an AppleSon production. All rights reserved. Rated PG-13 for adult situations, adult language and Jerome James.

I should have seen this coming. Running late, I get off the elevator at 5—the Garden level—to go straight to the locker rooms. And turning a corner, I run straight into a mob. It’s the Jeff Van Gundy pre-game press conference. Sure, it’s been a lot of years and a ton of coaches since JVG walked the home sideline, but he’s still a good quote after all these years. This, my friends, is when I make my second mistake.
I figure the Rockets locker room will be (comparatively) empty. Instead, there’s a huge arc of media watching Yao Ming watch a DVD of the last Knick game. No one speaks, or comes within three feet of Yao. Yao sits still, not looking away from the TV. Scott Padgett sits off to one side, headphones in, and Rafer Alston is off in a corner, dealing with his 18 tickets (not a bad total). Billy Hunter comes in and exchanges pleasantries with Dikembe Mutombo and Juwan Howard. Thanks, Billy—it’s not like it’s media time or anything.

Oooh, Steph vs. Bassy is followed by The Handler (Steph) vs. Skip to My Lou. Now, if we were at Rucker, both of them would shoot. But we’re not at Rucker, so they will both pass, move away from the ball and, for the most part, stand there.

Amongst the media in the visiting locker room is my main man Bobbito Garcia, waiting to sit down with Skip for a pre-game MSG network piece. Bob (who incidentally dropped the “DJ Cucumber Slice” moniker to return to the prior “Kool Bob Love” upon turning 40) is still the busiest man in…well, anything, doing the MSG thing, DJing, repping hard for Nike, and still playing ball every chance he gets. The Skip piece airs pregame, while we’re in the media dining room, and Bob is still nervous seeing his own work. Crazy. The Knicks are lucky to have you, bro.

The finest moment in the Rockets locker room, however, occurs when Van Gundy emerges from the back and digs into the Powerade cooler for a Diet Coke. There are five or six cans of regular Coke right on top, but no matter how deep he digs, JVG can’t come up with a DC. He only drank 50 a day when he was here, so you’d think he’d have been taken care of. “No Diet Coke?” someone says. “No fucking way,” comes the muttered response. He digs for a few more minutes before walking off empty handed. “Fuck!” Welcome back, Jeff.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Garden was how damn cold it was. And I’m not alone. When Channing “Cameron” Frye gets to the stripe, he starts rubbing his arms to warm them up. Either they’re cooling the hockey rink directly below the court, or somebody didn’t pay the heating bill. [Or maybe the Dolans are implementing savage cost-cutting measures to pay off Larry Brown.] Maybe the North Pole relocated downstairs to Penn Station, but the likelihood of that would be akin to me being woken up by two homeless men fighting over a bicycle that they found and then finding out that Cosmo Kramer went Mel Gibson on a fan. Oh, wait.

Tonight’s inactive Rockets are Bonzi Wells and Bobby Sura, the Baldwinest player in the NBA. Well, sort of in the NBA. I’d forgotten he was still around.

Shane Battier starts off guarding Steve Francis, with Stephon Marbury on him at the other end. Guess he’s the 2 tonight.

Yao is nimble, as he dominates Eddy Curry early. It’s just too easy. The shots he misses are jumpers and even those are pretty. It’s kind of like watching Jordan [um, what?], in that Yao’s form is nice enough that you don’t remember his misses as much as his makes. Instead of harping on how he’s missed a jumper or two, I think about how easy and smoothly he got those shots off.

Eddy Curry slams into Yao Ming, picking up his first offensive foul with 9:57 to go in the first quarter. This comes as a surprise to absolutely no one. Less than a minute later, Marbury runs over Battier. Aaaaand, that’s a charge for you.

Channing Frye puts up a couple bids for a signature “STOP SHOOTIN’” shirt. New ball, old ball, bowling ball—it doesn’t matter. Off is off.

BD Wong, of Law and Order [and OZ, homie!], is two seats behind Patrick Ewing. John Lucas, a former NBA coach whose son plays for the Rockets, sits 10 rows behind Wong. Wong did sing the national anthem, but still…

Yes, Patrick Ewing is here again, this time sitting in the prime seat next to the announcers—and he arrived before the tip, so he’s relatively unnoticed. Or, at least as unnoticed as a rather large seven-footer can be while sitting right on the court…

Isiah Thomas looks absolutely miserable.

Quentin Richardson buries an open three, and Yao responds with a sweet baseline spin for a dunk. I don’t remember Gheorghe Muresan ever doing that. Or Shawn Bradley. Or Manute Bol.

Battier tries—and fails—to draw a second charge on Steph. Instead, the ball goes out of bounds, the Knicks keep it, and Steve Francis does a lot of dribbling that leads to absolutely nothing at all.

It’s Asian Heritage Night, by the way, which I’m sure has nothing to do with Yao Ming being here. What it means is Asian-themed entertainment (like the Chinese lion dance during a timeout) and pretty horrific Chinese “food” in the pressroom. And the Rockets’s red uniforms, of course, which reflect the Mao Zedong Communist Chinese era of the ‘50s. OK, not really.

Hey, look, it’s Dikembe Mutombo! He may move like an oak tree and sound like a garbage disposal, but he’s still the best. THE BEST.

And wow, Channing Frye hits from the outside. Party! At least until McGrady whaps a trey on the very next possession. He does that sometimes. 17-12, Rockets.

Cameron Frye fumbles away a pass, though strangely he’s not credited with a turnover. Still, to quote Ferris Bueller, “He’s so tight, if you shoved a lump of coal up his ass, you’d probably get a diamond.” A short while later on D, Frye properly sags off of Juwan Howard, but loses him after doubling somebody (T-Mac?) on the baseline. He ends up boxing out Dikembe Mutombo. The miscommunication isn’t what’s bothersome; it’s the flustered look on Frye’s face that is indicative of something just not being as smooth this season. If there’s one guy, despite the endless rotations, that is probably missing Larry Brown right now—BLASPHEMY—it’s Cameron Frye. After another miscue, he doesn’t fully hustle down to the other end and the Rockets convert a fastbreak. Russ: “This is the scene where he falls into the pool.” He promptly shoots two massive bricks, one from point blank range and the other, an 18 foot baseline airball. (The funny thing is that Frye recovered and had a decent game the rest of the way by shooting himself back into respectability—7-13 from the floor, 4-4 from the line—after his dreadful first quarter).

Frye fumbles a Francis pass inside (the one noted by Jake earlier), and Battier is right there to scoop it up. Then it’s the same exact thing, only with Curry as the fumbler instead of Frye. Sooooo, at center, David Lee! He instantly scores over Mount Mutombo and draws a charge on Skip. And incidentally, if Rafer is “Skip To My Lou,” can we start calling Jerome James “Walk To Mid-Court”?

Shockingly, Dikembe Mutombo commits a defensive three-second violation. The shock, of course, is that it took this long. Battier is pulled for Kirk Snyder, Francis hits a jumper on one possession, then travels on the next, and Frye fumbles again, this time to Juwanji. Meanwhile, on the other end, McGrady is guarded by Jamal Crawford. Yeah, good luck with that. Next possession he’s over on Kirk Snyder, which isn’t much better.

The whole development kind of felt like Cameron Frye’s character arc. After Frye hit a pretty jump hook, I turned to Russ and noted, “There, he just saw Sloan’s boobs.” His biggest push—7 points in over 6 minutes that spanned the end of the third quarter and the early part of the fourth—was his “killing his dad’s car scene.” He stepped up and did what he had to do, even though he and his mates wouldn’t come out on top in the end. Hopefully, Channing, like Cameron, can turn that corner.

Channing Frye airball. Channing Frye airball. No, I didn’t type that twice just for emphasis. Jerome James is allowed on the court for the final 13.1 seconds of the first quarter. Then, with 2.3 seconds, Van Gundy puts in Battier and Luther Head, and Isiah counters with Marbury for Lee. This is chess, not checkers! Um, actually it’s checkers. McGrady takes the final shot of the quarter and misses. 21-20 Rockets after 1.

It could be that we’re sitting behind a basket, but it appears that Marbury and Francis both have a similar problem: They don’t make right pass on the break quick enough. Often, they recognize the open man and then pause. After wasting that extra split-second, the advantage is somewhat compromised. Example: Quentin Richardson appears to wide open streaking down the right side. In the time it took to make a decision instead of just trusting instincts, an uncontested dunk is exchanged for 2 free throws. Though the problem might just be that the instincts aren’t to pass…

Shane Battier is guarding Nate Robinson.

Jerome James makes his presence felt in nearly 3 minutes of action. In between a few missed jumpers, he fouls Kirk Snyder on his arm so hard that Snyder airs two free throws, the second one using his left hand. Snyder appears in the hallway after the game with his arm in a sling. James would end up playing tougher defense on Yao than Curry; in fairness to Curry, Yao shot jumpers over him and just went around James, which actually means Curry, with less effort, played better defense on Yao. Get it? Got it? Good.

Renaldo Balkman (who I’ve still never spoken to despite his Official Player of Three For All status) checks in for the first time with 10:24 to go in the half. In celebration, the Rockets turn the ball over, JC misses a shot, and Jerome James fouls somebody. I love this game!

Jerome James picks up his third foul and takes a seat. Eddy Curry is immediately snuffed by Yao, and despite a save by Lee, that’s a 24-second violation. In something like nine minutes of play, Curry has managed exactly zero points and zero rebounds. Right after I note this, a Balkman shot careens off the rim and hits Eddy right in the chest. He never gets control of it—and it bounces away to the Rockets, but the official scorer still gives Curry a rebound. With luck, a ball will bounce off his head into the basket and he’ll get some points, too.

And hey, he actually hits a jumper over Yao. On the other end, Battier posts up Steph, drives into the paint, and kicks to Padgett in the corner for a three. The next possession, Battier-to-Skip-to-Padgett—in the exact same spot—with the same results. Yeah, no need to guard him or anything.

McGrady bowls over Q, which is both a charge and a chiropractor’s wet dream.

Curry comes out to set a screen on Battier, who’s guarding Crawford. So of course JC goes baseline—away from the screen—right into a second defender, and he shoots anyway. Francis comes off the bench and hits Curry with a very nice alley-oop. And then Eddy commits his third foul, which means we’ve all been sentenced to 3:08 of Kelvin Cato. He does manage four points in that time, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it or anything. A Battier free throw (his first point of the game) and a Yao J provides the Rockets with a three-point cushion at the half, 48-45. In 20 minutes of play, Battier didn’t take a single field goal attempt.

Steph finally shoots with under two minutes left in the second quarter.

Second Half:

The Knicks start off the second half with something I don’t remember ever seeing before—at least not to start a half. A 24-second violation. And it’s not like the ball gets knocked away, or someone misses a shot. It’s just bad basketball. Skip hits, the Knicks turn it over again, and Yao hits a bucket to make it 52-45. Exit Marbury and Francis.

If Zeke can’t manage Marbury and Francis together on the floor—or either of them at all—he should stick them in a room together and lock the door. These two need to figure out their issues. Quickly. In related story, I just took a record and smashed it over my head. Not that I care about the Knicks, but it’s genuinely frustrating to watch talent waste away after a while.

This is where the collapse gets going. Skip dribbles into the paint—seemingly into trouble—but hey, if Skip’s still GOT his dribble, he’s fine. The ball finds it’s way to the Bruce Bowen Memorial Corner, and Battier buries a three, his first field goal of the game. Then a Juwanji baseline J pumps up the Rockets lead to 10.

It’s another old-fashioned Knicks reunion, by the way, with Ewing and Allan Houston sitting courtside (nowhere near each other, by the way) and Van Gundy and Charlie Ward (who’s wearing a lavender shirt and a tie that looks like Mardi Gras threw up on it) on the Rockets bench.

David Lee is guarding Yao. Yao is a head—a Yao head, which is like two times bigger than a normal head—taller than David Lee.

By the way, Steph and Stevie are still on the bench, as is Curry. Steph’s got a towel over his head. The Knicks close a little, and then Tracy McGrady bangs down one of those laser-guided stepback threes of his that make him look like the greatest player in the history of history. Yowza. He misses one the next time down, though.

Nate Robinson makes a stunning block of a Yao shot that we will be seeing for years to come. He also catches him the face, but he’s Nate Robinson—he’s wildly out-of-control, it’s to be expected. The crowd is going nuts after three quarters of relative quiet. That play might have been worth the price of admission [which for us, of course, was free].

Nate actually appears to be hovering like a hummingbird when he blocks Yao. Yao doubles over holding his eye—perhaps to distract everyone from the fact that he just got blocked by a guy two full feet shorter than him—and Lee gets an easy dunk on the other end, his second in the span of a minute. The Rockets are still up, 65-62, at the end of three, but the crowd is back in it in a big way.

Yao gets hit in the face again. An elbow? I’m starting to speculate as to whether or not Zeke wants his guys beating the unstoppable giant up. Probably not, but the thought did cross my mind.

Start of the fourth, Patrick gets his moment on the scoreboard, and another standing O. Didn’t we just do this two nights ago? Do any season ticketholders actually go to consecutive games anymore? Besides Spike Lee, of course, who’s sitting courtside wearing a blaze orange Polo sweater. I know it’s Polo because the horse logo is so big that I think Spike rode it to the arena.

The hustle lineup eventually begins to play well together on offense, which essentially means that Jamal Crawford reached his comfort zone, Cameron saw Sloan’s boobs, and David Lee, Renaldo Balkman and Nate Robinson flew around the court, using their speed to corral loose balls and change the flow of the game.

The Knicks cut the Rockets’s lead to 1 on a Lee follow dunk off a Robinson miss, but Luther Head hits a three to push it back to four. Balkman finally makes his first appearance of the second half, and the Knicks bring it back to even at 68-all. There’s a big moment a little later—as Crawford fires up a rainbow three from the corner that would put the Knicks ahead—but it misses.

8:19 left in the fourth: Steph re-enters after about 15 minutes of bench splinters. Less than three minutes later, he’s replaced by Francis after committing a turnover and a foul. Any semblance of flow is killed. Flow starts with the point guard. Shouldn’t Isiah know this? [Not to mention, didn’t Isiah make a point of saying he’s be playing Francis WITH Marbury? When?]

Stevie might as well just try and sneak onto the Rockets bus after the game. Could he legally seek asylum in Houston?

This is the time when Jamal Crawford tries to take matters into his own hands, by doing things like trying to dunk on Yao (doesn’t work) and taking mid-range jumpers that he creates himself (does work), or floaters in the lane (doesn’t work), As Jake astutely points out, he gets a lot of unassisted baskets.

Class (the commentators) I have an essay question for you guys. It’s in two parts and includes a bonus. Points are equally rewarded for creativity and coherence. There might be a prize, also:

1) Considering his style of play and taking stats into account, approximately what % of Jamal Crawford’s points come on assisted plays? Why is this important and how do you think it effects various members of the Knicks (choose 2-3)

2) Digging deeper, what % of points scored by Jamal Crawford do you think really matter? (Note: there are no right answers to this question.)

Bonus: Down 9 points with under a minute remaining, of how much relative importance is a Jamal Crawford 4-point play?

This exam will last into the weekend.

There’s funny, and then there’s Yao Ming and Nate Robinson lined up next to each other during free throws. Perhaps remembering the whole block thing, Yao boxes Nate out with one huge calf. The free throw goes down anyway. Luther Head hits a three, some other stuff happens, and then Head hits another three, because guarding him would be hard and stuff. Wonder what Larry Brown would think of that? Then the inimitable (literally) Crawford turns a four-point play (LJ, where you at?), and with under a minute it’s actually a two-possession game. The Knicks press full-court, Skip gets fouled by Frye, and an obviously nervous T-Mac wanders over to the sideline to talk to Ewing about mutual funds or diamonds or something important like that. Crawford comes the other way and launches another three, but like my man Vast Aire once said, miracles ony happen on 34th, and the Garden’s on 33rd. Miss. Frye misses the follow, Yao gets fouled, and he ain’t no Shaq. Your final, after some inconsequential scoring and banter, 97-90. And the Knicks are 4-8.

Postgame:

Russ is busy interviewing somebody for SLAM 105

Kelvin Cato comes back to greet his old teammates. Lots of very tall men congregate. This is made even more awesome by Dikembe Mutombo’s desire to talk about everything, and Patrick Ewing’s very presence. Scott Padgett on Patrick Ewing: “That’s a lot of man.”

Given the international flair of the Rockets, the Reverend Jesse Jackson enters, presumably to talk to Yao and Deke.

Over 20 reporters, Chinese and American, hover around Yao. He does a session in Chinese and then a session in English. It’s redundant and tiring for him. [And everyone else.]

I talk to Mutombo briefly about foreign policy. He says that US is getting better at helping Africa, but more can be done. And then he makes a very cogent point: So much is made of the problems in the Middle East, but problems in Africa occur on a larger scale and it would behoove us to focus some of our Middle Eastern attention on Africa. So if you’re going to give to a charity, give to one in Africa. You can probably make more of a difference. But that’s just me, agreeing with Deke. [I missed this somehow. I wish I didn’t.]

Since I had to interview someone for SLAM 105, of course the Rockets locker room opens so late you’d think it was an after-hours spot. And for the second straight game, by the time we get to the home locker room it’s closed, and once again we’re not all that broken up about it.