Game Notes: Suns at Knicks
An Appleson Production. All lefts reserved.
by Jake Appleman and Russ Bengtson
Hello. Yes, it’s us again. So sorry. And once again we are gimmickless. Which in itself may be a gimmick. That’s up to you to decide.
Here’s the thing. You probably already know that the Knicks beat the Suns last night. (And if you didn’t for whatever reason, you sure do now.) So it seems rather pointless to do this the usual way, breaking the game down in chronological order from pre- all the way through to post- when you know what the outcome is. (Dumbledore dies, Darth Vader is Luke’s father, Jesus Shuttlesworth disses the shady agent and goes to Big State.) Like Charles Oakley once said, if it ain’t broke, break it. Part of me wants to type up my notes in bullet form, then have Word alphabetize them by paragraph and run them that way. Sure they’d be hard to follow, but at least the ending would be a surprise. But I won’t. (I fully expect someone somewhere to steal this idea—thanks in advance!)
Oh well. On with the show.
Russ and I have the following exchange:
Me: I think I’m just going watch Shaq.
Russ: That’s cool; just leave the other nine guys to me.
I set ‘em up, he knocks ‘em down, like the Stockton to Malone of comedy, or poorly maintained beards—whatever works. Seriously though, given the Big Shaqtus’ recent renaissance, the exercise only seemed right. While writing damn near everything Shaq did was fun, it proved pretty draining. As such, I’m taking my overall thoughts, adding details, and putting them into four mini-essays about his performance. You will see them below each quarter’s worth of hilarious and insightful Bengtson game notes.
Which start, uh, now:
The Suns locker room is full. Not of players, mind you—of waiting media waiting for players. Grant Hill is out there, of course, continuing to be the nicest human being in existence despite the spectacular failure of that whole “Just Like Mike: Only Better” thing. (Confession: That was my line. And it seemed like a good idea at the time.) In one corner, in front of Shaq’s empty locker, we find Lang Whitaker, Russ Bengtson, Chris Sheridan and Ken Berger. Veteran NBA scribes all, they’re discussing who-knows-what. (I believe I am currently speaking in the fourth or fifth person, and I apologize.) Fairly new Suns forward Jared Dudley, quietly getting ready in the corner, suddenly interjects. “Hey, what’s the biggest story leading into this game?” Something like that anyway. I suppose (Russ supposes?) one of us should have done our best Joe Friday impression—“We’re asking the questions here, wise guy.”—but instead we debate whether Shaq or Nash is the bigger story. In the end, we waffle and go with the whole D’Antoni thing. Completing the role reversal, Dudley goes on to ask who’s drawn more media attention at the World’s Most Famous, LeBron or Jordan? Sheridan, the eldest of our four sages, answers the question in detail (hint: it was the guy who did the whole talc thing first), but that story is for another time.
Somebody named “Joe Venice” performs the National Anthem. It is thought (and perhaps even Twittered) that this is only because Jim Rome was not available.
I’ve been meaning to address this next point for a while, and I suppose it’s the right time. In the historical highlight reel that precedes the Knick introductions, they jump from a Clyde Frazier steal against the Lakers to the infamous John Starks dunk on Horace Grant (and in the vicinity of Michael Jordan). Which means roughly 20 years of Knicks history simply never happened. And while that probably doesn’t bother guys like Eddie Lee Wilkins and Brian Quinnett, I think Bernard King might want to talk to someone in the video department.
While he’s only been President for 48 hours or so, and I’m sure there are more pressing matters for him to address, Barack Obama really should push for unilateral t-shirt gun disarmament. And, barring that, I’d like to see the NYPD institute a “t-shirt gun trade-in” program where those in possession of t-shirt guns can trade them in for cash without fear of further prosecution. It would be for the best.
Hello, receiving line. Shaq walks all the way over to the Knicks bench to greet the assorted D’Antonis. Meanwhile, Mike proceeds past the Diesel to meet Nashty halfway. I’m pretty sure this means something, but I’m not sure what.
A quick note on the food. Things are often interesting at the Garden—one night they had macaroni and cheese, baked ziti and plain penne with a selection of sauces. Perhaps they thought everyone was running a marathon the following today. But on this night it’s pork chops (recognizable as such) and potatoes—red ones, still in their skins. Such readily identifiable food was almost too attractive. But hey, the potatoes were tender and I didn’t contract trichinosis, so bravo to the kitchen folk. (They did continue the strange habit of putting out chicken fingers roughly 15 minutes before tip-off. Not sure what that’s all about.)
(An aside. It’s currently 2:28 in the a.m., and as a) I’d like to get to bed before sunrise, and b) I just wrote 700-odd words on pregame alone, I think I’m going to limit myself to four observations about each quarter. Cool? I thought so.)
David Lee kicks off the Knicks scoring with an 18-footer. This is smart for three reasons. Number one, there’s no way Shaq’s trying to contest a jumpshot. Number two, Mr. Lee’s already bountiful confidence will continue to skyrocket if he keeps hitting long jumpers. And number three, this is a talent that will come in handy when he’s playing alongside Tim Duncan in San Antonio next season.
Wilson Chandler pulls off a nifty play where he drives, slows, fakes a handoff to Quentin Richardson around the three-point line, then kicks it back into gear and flips up a layup over an unsuspecting Phoenix front line. Brilliant.
The Suns start off hot. Part of this is because Jared Jeffries is chasing Nash—an inspired bit of gamesmanship, except it leaves Lee and Chandler to deal with Shaq and Amar’e. Ouch. The Suns go up 20-9 and then 25-16, this despite something of a Nate Robinson mini-run. The Knicks somehow wind up with a lineup of Nate, Al Harrington, Chandler, Lee and Tim Thomas. The scary thing is, with Jerome James sidelined for the year and Eddy Curry still out, this is their big lineup.
Danilo Gallinari, the newest fickle-fan favorite, checks in for the final two and change. His first bucket, a driving layup from the left corner, is acknowledged with a brief burst of Alice In Chains’s “Rooster.” This is because Gallinari’s nickname is “Rooster,” not because he’s a heroin addict from Seattle. Just wanted to clarify that. Suns lead after 1, 30-26.
The Immovable Force: Shaq looks like vintage Diesel for much of the first half. Granted, he’s not going up against any true centers, but Steve Nash throws him so many passes over the top, I nicknamed the area he caught the ball “the lobby.” Other legendary facets of his game are also on occasional display: the clinically-good passing out of the post—a casual bounce with good speed to an open Matt Barnes, who bricks a three and a fancy feed to Jason Richardson for a dunk; the baby hook shots; some intimidation here and there; rim rattling stuffs; and a presence that leads to the requisite hacking.
(Note: He’d only finish with a single assist but he had a few assist opportunities that were blown underneath.)
It’s a Shaqwards testament to what he’s still able to provide that so much of the Knicks’ success came from adjustments that were designed to stop him.
He ended up a +4 on the night, and he didn’t play well at all in the second half.
There is a play where Tim Thomas plows over Alando Tucker, and Tim Thomas is called for the charge. He disagrees. Vehemently. Referee Mark Lindsay carefully considers Tim Thomas’s viewpoint, then awards him a T. One has the thought that if Tim Thomas put as much effort into his game as he did arguing this one call, Tim Thomas would probably be a far better player. The game goes on.
An errant Al Harrington jumper results in Suns forward Louis Amundson committing the most blatant loose-ball foul since William Bedford hit Joe Barry Carroll upside the head with a brick in 1986.
With 3:36 remaining in the half, David Lee throws down a monster dunk on Amar’e Stoudemire that actually moves the apostrophe in his first name over a couple of letters. Nate Robinson, who isn’t even in the game at the time, gets T’ed up from the feet up. Were this game being played in the streets, people would have rushed the court, beers would have been bought, and the game would have been declared over. Songs would have been composed, graffiti would have been graffiti’d, a legend would have been born. But this is the NBA, so Lee just gets up and shoots his free throw. Knicks lead, 52-46.
The Suns finish off the half with a flurry of dunks of their own. Amar’e, Shaq and Jason Richardson, oh my. Several of them are uncontested, and, by my count, the Suns have more dunks than they do made field goals. While this is counter to all logic and basic rules of mathematics, that’s not my problem. Suns lead at the half, 58-54.
The Officer: Because he no longer has the stamina to be the all-encompassing terror that he once was, Shaq’s presence often looms larger than the unique special effects that have defined his career’s dominance. He’s the biggest dude on the floor by a good eight-year old, and watching him preside over the proceedings, it’s easy to see him as a modern representation of his future self, Sheriff Shaq. (Sidenote: In this metaphor David Lee played the role of Bob Marley, and shot the sheriff.)
Specifically, Shaq’s imposing stature and bald dome conjure up images of Bunny Colvin presiding over Hamsterdam in season three of The Wire. By that, I mean that Shaq, like Bunny, has neither the manpower nor the inclination to deal with the smaller issues that many others get caught up in. Legalizing crack dealing in a free zone is akin to not running up the floor when the situation calls for it. Letting the young hoppers sling because the system is broken is like eschewing the need to get low and throw your massive frame into your man while boxing out.
And giving Eddy Curry a pound before the game is like fraternizing with lesser officers out of necessity while still hoping to impart some visionary wisdom.
Shaq is good police already. He’s learning when to pick his spots, even if the chaos around him gobbled him up when it mattered on this night. It’s part of the job. Just because you have a gun and a badge doesn’t mean you can control everything.
A Chris Duhon make ties things up at 58 with 10:48 to go. With a chance to take the lead, the Knicks entrust their faith in a Jared Jeffies jumper from the corner. Right. Bernie Madoff is more trustworthy. But David Lee grabs his ninth rebound and scores his 21st point, and the Knicks lead, 60-58.
If Steve Francis suffered from “streetball Tourette’s,” Jared Jeffries has a mean case of “free throw Parkinson’s.” In interests of fairness, however, he successfully completes an and-1, then minutes later converts a tough layup.
Amar’e Stoudemire gets the ball in deep, pump fakes once, collects himself, and attempts to dunk on the entire New York metropolitan area. He’s fouled by Bushwick and Astoria.
Nate Robinson scores with six seconds to go, the Knicks party like it’s 1999, and Matt Barnes takes advantage by drilling a straightaway three as time expires. Knicks lead 84-79 after three. Lee has 25 points and 14 rebounds, Nash has 16 assists.
The Tweet Shogun: “What are you doing?” It’s the question that Twitter asks, and while the website is an offensive foul to my main homie‘s face, the decisions that THE REAL SHAQ must make throughout the evening are interesting.
The Knicks use a pick and roll scheme that throws a lanky defender (Jared Jeffries) on you off of the switch.
“What are you doing?”
Tim Thomas is forcing you to guard him out by the three-point line.
“What are you doing?”
David Lee’s game is a Blackberry that won’t stop getting emails.
“What are you doing?”
Al Harrington is at the 5.
“What are you doing?”
You met with Steve Nash twice at the center circle during the first half to discuss (presumably) strategy while a teammate shot free throws. It’s time to implement that strategy in the second half.
“What are you doing?”
Amar’e uses a rudimentary fake to get Tim Thomas leaning the wrong way before unleashing a dunk so brutal that it’s actually illegal in 57 states. Still only worth two points, though.
Tim Thomas, perhaps shaken from his usual ennui by the force of Amar’e’s (wow, that looks odd) jam, switches over onto Shaq and is actually able to keep the Big Phoenix from getting good position. On the other end, he blows by him (relatively speaking) for a layup. Knicks up 93-87 with 7:40 to go.
Leandro Barbosa flashes in for a finger roll that misses, and the ref winds up calling a foul on an understandably surprised Al Harrington. Even with the help of replay, the only people who saw that foul were the ref who called it and Cole Sear.
Here’s a bad play for the Knicks: Lee drives from the right corner, dishes ahead to an open Harrington in the opposite corner in front of the Suns bench, then turns upcourt, hands raised in the universal “three!” sign. Only Harrington misses badly, the Knicks rebound, and Lee is entirely on the wrong side of the court. The Knicks lose possession, Grant Hill gets an easy bucket, and Lee’s lucky he’s having a hell of a good game.
We’re about at the end, here. The Suns hit some entertaining yet meaningless threes, the Knicks convert at the line, and in the end the Knicks prevail, 114-109. Shaq misses a bunch of free throws down the stretch, but since he hits them when it matters I suppose those didn’t matter. No matter.
The Big Shaqtus Conundrum: A cactus functions off of conserved water. A Shaqtus functions off of conserved energy. Consider the following second quarter sequence: David Lee misses a jumper and grabs what might have been Shaq’s rebound—he’s winded—this one coming on the heels of a second opportunity provided by Jared Jeffries. Chris Duhon penetrates and Shaq applies pressure on Duhon. Amar’e Stoudemire is late on the help and Lee dunks on STAT while getting fouled. The crowd goes bananas. Nate Robinson picks up a tech, which only gives his batteries more fuel.
The Big Shaqtus responds by doing his thing, throwing down two more dunks and making an aggressive move that leads to an offensive rebound opportunity and conversion by Jason Richardson. But by this point, he’s expended so much first half energy, his Shaqtus supply has run low. He’s a different player in the second half, missing easy shots and getting frustrated by the aforementioned schemes. The conundrum is nothing new, but it’s worth analyzing.
(3:22 a.m. and all is reasonably well. Quick hits here.)
In the postgame presser, someone asks Mike D’Antoni whether it’s special to beat Phoenix. “Well, I’m human. It’s nice. But it’s really just satisfying to get a win.” Someone who may or may not write for the New York Times follows that up with a question about what it means to have beaten Phoenix, New Orleans and Boston all in the past 10 days. D’Antoni has an answer for that, too. “You can just feel that we’re getting a little bit better.” Sure can.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Suns coach Terry Porter. Not yet embattled, it has to be a downer to lose to one’s predecessor. “They (referring to his own team) came out and set a good tone, but the next three quarters we lost.” Someone asks about Shaq being unable to finish in close—he even front-rimmed a dunk (with a little help from Gallinari): “We had a lot of guys that couldn’t finish around the basket. It wasn’t just him.”
When the Suns locker room finally opens, Nash is already talking—it’s as if he were answering questions before they were even asked. I had a brilliant pre-game idea to ask him whether Obama’s inauguration would finally be enough for him to become an American citizen, but it seems silly to bother him with trivialities after a tough loss. I just listen instead. And I catch things in the middle, something about taking two steps back. The crowd is large and Nash is quiet. Someone asks about their late-game fade, and whether age played a factor: “Not really sure it’s the age; this is just a tough stretch.” Five games in six nights. Someone else asks about the system, about being beaten by their own style. “We didn’t play up to our ability tonight. You can’t blame the style of play.” His tone never changes. Yet he doesn’t pass up a question. And by the time Shaq emerges from the back, vest buttoned and tie tied, I have to leave.