by Sherman Johnson

Whoever coined the phrase “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game” must’ve been talking about the preseason. The Knicks blew it down the stretch but they looked good against the Sixers and seem to be improving under D’Antoni’s up-tempo scheme. They’re a long way from the seven seconds or less run and shoot style that was in vogue in Phoenix but they’re definitely getting there by leaps and bounds.

In a nutshell, it was a high-scoring affair from the outset with the Knicks staying within striking distance a making a run down the stretch only to capitulate in the end. The more things seem to change mostly it remains the same. Nate Robinson, David Lee, Zach Randolph and Wilson Chandler all made key contributions. In fact, they’re all excelling under the new system. Role players making things happen.

On the other hand, mainstays like Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, and Eddy Curry were lackluster to say the least. Curry played all of six minutes in the first half, scored a point and nearly fouled out in the first few minutes he saw action. Same with Marbury whose involvement was minimal but at least he still seems fine with it and was even upbeat in the locker room with reporters afterward. Like a lot of people, I’m still waiting for him to crack and return to form. Curry, like Marbury, insisted he was fine but he didn’t look good at all. He looked emaciated like he hasn’t fully recovered from the sickness that sidelined him at the start of training came and looked sluggish. He didn’t even come out to the bench in the second half, and the peanut gallery in the press section speculated as to whether he got held up at the Wendy’s during intermission.

The bright spot was Wilson Chandler though. He really came on in the second half and like David Lee seemed to score at will from inside and out. He was 7-15 including 5-6 outside the arc and displayed the full range of his arsenal, particularly his athleticism inside on the perimeter when it came to freeing himself up for open looks at the rim. Lee was sluggish in the first half but came on strong in the second and single-handedly kept the Knicks in it in the third quarter when the Knicks consistently went to him down low around the block. He fumbled the ball a lot in the first half and looked uncomfortable when forced to put the ball on the floor or was left open to prove his shot. A jump shooter he is not, but inside — creating his own shot and picking up loose balls for the put-back — he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Zach Randolph had a great game and looks like he’s adjusting well to the new scheme. He scored 17 points on 7-10 shooting and even knocked-down a three and pulled down the most rebounds.

Nate Robinson led all scorers with 21 and was exceptional in transition, proving to be unstoppable with his quickness and explosiveness. He knocked down four shots beyond the arc, including some important one’s down the stretch. He was definitely more effective than Chris Duhon at the point and has continues to improve in terms of the decisions he makes on the floor. The Knicks would be insane not to resign him at the end of the season because like David Lee he brings so many intangibles to the table that seems to ignite the Knicks and spur them onward. Unfortunately, he’s still a liability on defense as the Sixers’ Andre Miller demonstrated. But then Miller is a different story altogether and was unstoppable no matter who was guarding him. He was too either too fast, too strong or too smart and crafty for the Knicks front court and led the Sixers throughout, contributing major minutes alongside Andre Iguodala who came on strong down late in the game due to the presence of Elton Brand.

Brand didn’t score a lot and didn’t get a lot of looks, but he looked solid and attracted a lot of attention freeing up Iguodala down low and Miller on the perimeter. He struggled on the offensive end cribbing a lot of close up shots (3-10), but he got to the charity stripe enough. As he maintained in the locker room after the game, he’s ready, he looks a 100 percent, even though he was heavily iced around the knees and ankles and limped slightly from the showers but looked like he’s got a new lease on life. Still, there were a few times I mistook Brand for Theo Ratliff on the floor, sporting the Ratliff’s no. 42, and out-rebounding everyone on the floor. He finished with finishing with 11 for the game. Though Brand had a relatively lackluster game, he still finished with a double-double and his presence speaks for itself as he still draws plenty of double teams.

It took a lot attention away from Iguodala and enabled him to post-up down low and tear and slash through the baseline for some rim-rattling finishes and easy backdoor scores to catch the Knicks looking. His scoring on the perimeter was spotty but he showed a knack for hitting the open man. Iggy looks prime to lead the Sixers through a 40+ win season and once again into the playoffs where hopefully they can get through the first round. He sounded confident that’d be the case in the locker room after the game even though there’s parity and much improvement in the East this season.

Of note for the Sixers: Thaddeus Young. He’s got a plethora of moves inside and out with gifted athleticism and underestimated toughness (he logged 35 minutes), and inventiveness getting to the basket for high percentage scores. He’s another one to look for who makes good decisions. Willie Green didn’t play much but he made a notable contribution on the offensive glass keeping the ball alive for second chances. Reggie Evans and Marreese Speights are big bodies, bruisers who really know how to put a body on the opponent. Look for them to consistently be a thorn in the side of opposition throughout the season defensively.

Late in the game at a critical point when the Knicks were surging Speights crammed David Lee’s attempted slam down his throat to stop them cold. Louis Williams didn’t have a great game although he did show flashes of brilliance. The same is true of Samuel Dalembert, who played sparingly. The presence of Brand in the frontcourt will only increase the effectiveness of the Hatian who looks like he’s bulked up somewhat around the shoulders. He only had two rebounds but he was most effective keeping the ball alive on the offensive end for some critical second-chance baskets.

Andre Miller, on the other hand, was the brightest spot for the Sixers. He seems to be getting better with each season. Never lacking in confidence, he’s the real playmaker on this squad. Highly underrated he’s deceptively quick and always makes heady plays whenever he’s in the game. He continues to prove an instrumental asset to the organizations success since his acquisition from Denver for Allen Iverson, proving that he was well worth the change.

Overall, the Knicks have a lot of work to do, particularly on defense. Just because the emphasis on the offensive end increased doesn’t mean the defense should suffer. Their offense worked best in transition when the defense created opportunities for them to run in the open court. That’s when they were the most effective and exciting. As it is, they’re half-court sets were largely ineffective when confined to a two-man game of cat-and-mouse picking and quick shots. The team’s most effective when moving the ball around the entire court, involving everyone on the floor.

David Lee will have to improve his shot if he’s going to see more minutes. As it is, he’s most effective around the basket and on the fast break. Randolph’s too inconsistent from the perimeter to be effective and for my money works best inside slashing to the basket as well, and keeping the ball alive on the offensive end collecting second chance points along with Lee. The same with Jamal Crawford who was virtually nonexistent from the outset after canning a long range shot. Marbury’s contribution was minimal but he’s still integral to the offense which flowed best when he was on the floor as the first substitution with Robinson Chandler and even Marty Collins

I’m still up in the air as to whether Starbury is more effective as a starter but mostly because Chris Duhon didn’t impress me at all with his aggressiveness on either end of the floor. Maybe he’s still trying to find his place under the new system with a new team like everybody else on the squad

There was a lot to be impressed with, though. And like the economy, things can only go up, even the attendance, which was surprisingly low. Still, Spike Lee and a handful of the Giants were in attendance along with every scout from every team up and down the eastern seaboard. It was fun and instructive standing alongside Stephen A. Smith and Peter Vecsey afterward in the locker room talking shop with members of both teams. Very informal and casual affair that it was, seemingly a new day is dawning on Madison Square Garden. Even the fans in attendance seem to feel it in the air and responded with uncommon enthusiasm throughout. It was definitely more laidback and more fun than last year!