Three million years ago (all right, 1973), before team fundamentals became extinct, the Knicks and Lakers ruled the basketball world. They met three out of four years in the NBA Finals, boasted eight of the NBA’s Top 50 players between them, and were responsible for some of the great moments in NBA playoff history—from Jerry West’s 55-foot heave to a cortisone-filled Willis Reed limping on to the court for Game 7.
I grew up in New York during those heady times, when Saturday nights at the Garden were hotter tickets than Ali-Frazier bouts, when “hit the open man” epitomized unselfish ball movement, when the City was basketball Mecca, home to playground legends and NBA championships. Then Willis retired, Walt Frazier was traded, and Earl The Pearl got old. With apologies to the Van Gundy and Riley eras, the team hasn’t been the same since. Not trying to go old-school on your asses, but if you were too young to know what I’m talking about—it was breathtaking ball.
There hasn’t been a meaningful Lakers-Knicks game since the Watergate break-in, but last night’s was as entertaining as it gets. Having at last come out from the poisonous cloud of the Isiah Thomas Administration, the Knicks under Mike D’Antoni are quickly becoming Phoenix East. D’Antoni has done a bravura job of maintaining team chemistry in the face of violent upheaval, losing top scorers like Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford to trades, Cuttino Mobley to health-enforced retirement, and Stephon Marbury to permanent banishment. The coach has settled on a seven-man rotation that’s playing hard and with heart, two words not heard around Knicksland since the days of John Starks and Charles Oakley.
Of course, the Knicks scoreth, and the Knicks giveth up: Ranked third in offense, 29th in defense. Not good, but fun to watch.
The Knicks came in at a decided disadvantage, playing the second of a back-to-back after a tough loss in Phoenix, but the heavily favored Lakers were missing Pau Gasol (strep throat) and have been off their game for awhile now, scoring unimpressive wins over the likes of the Minnesotas and the Sacramentos, and having their manhood—or at least, their refusal to play defense—questioned on a daily basis.
The nostalgic fan in me can’t help but smile at the sight of Phil Jackson and Walt Frazier exchanging hugs and old war stories in the hallway, two ex-Knicks reliving the glory days. Then it’s on to business. The Knicks locker room is loose and chatty. No longer dominated by the sullen specter of Marbury, who would view the press around him like an enemy that had shot at him, they’ve taken on more of D’Antoni’s regular guy, accessible personality. First up is a quick chat with Quentin Richardson.
SLAM: Has the team turned a corner since a year ago?
Quentin Richardson: We’re just trying to stay focused on winning games. We don’t think about last year much at all.
SLAM: How much fun is it to play this kind of up-tempo offense? Are you guys really shooting in seven seconds or less?
QR: We’ve been having a lot of fun with it; everyone gets to share the ball, touch the ball, it’s been good. Coach preaches to take the first good shot available, cause you may not get another one. He tells you to have confidence in yourself as long as you take shots you’re working on in practice and he knows you can make. If we take shots out of our character, he’s going to say something.
SLAM: Will things be better when the Marbury situation is resolved?
QR: We’re just trying to stay business as usual; just try and win games. We don’t focus on stuff we don’t have any control of.
Then it’s on to Tim Thomas, thrilled to be back for his second tour of duty in New York, and why not? The only time the man has thrived is under the D’Antoni system, which may be the only system that encourages a 6-10 forward to jack up a three if he’s got the open look.
“You can’t even compare what I went through the first time here with now,” he says. “It’s a whole new system under Mike. You play to your strengths. He allows you to go out and play a fun style of basketball.”
As for defense, “It’s just a matter of focus and concentration. Getting up and down, you can lose focus on defense, you’re trying to outscore people. As of late, I think we are doing a better job of thinking defense first.”
Al Harrington and Nate Robinson are changing in a nearby stall. Both are heavily tatted, back and front. They look like super-heroes. One of Harrington’s tattoos reads, “I Do It For The Love.” I never get a chance to ask him what it means. All right—I’m afraid to ask.
Malik Rose lies in the middle of the room, stretching his knees. Why is it the guys who play don’t stretch, while the guy who doesn’t have a prayer in hell of playing is splayed out on his back for twenty minutes?
Notes from the Knicks whiteboard: “Kobe—trap—get ball out of his hands!” And, “Run on all possessions!” Well, yeah. I’m beginning to wonder if I can be a coach in this league.
On the Lakers side, there are no instructions on the whiteboard, just diagrams. Kobe Bryant makes a rare pre-game appearance, and the usual mob descends. He says the Lakers biggest challenge is trying to get back to where they were last year. Asked about the possibility of LeBron coming to N.Y. in 2010, he laughs: “I’m not even going there.”
About the Knicks, Kobe says, “It’s a team that we have to think about how we match up with them, how we execute… whereas in the past you just go in there and take care of business and get out. But you got to really focus on what they’re doing and what they’ve been doing. It’s drastically different than we faced last year.”
Asked if he’s been more laid back on his teammates this year, Kobe agrees. Odom, eavesdropping, chuckles loudly “You haven’t been in practice with him,” he says.
In the press room, a New York beat writer gives me some stunning news: Stephon Marbury is sitting courtside, having bought a ticket and come to the game on his own. And why would he do that? “I think the guy is a legitimate psycho,” the writer says. Sure enough, when I walk out of the tunnel, there’s Marbury chatting with Spike Lee, an unholy alliance if there ever was one.
Marbury is sitting on the far side of the court, on the Lakers side. A couple of Lakers drop by to tap fists. No Knicks make it over.
The stars are out at courtside: Chris Rock, Gwen Stefani, Leo DiCaprio with Jeffrey Katzenberg.
— A resounding dunk by Harrington get the Knicks off first.
— A Wilson Chandler airball is matched on the other side by Luke Walton. Luke has still not gotten this shooting thing down.
— This is a Knicks team the likes of which the Lakers haven’t seen in years. Their lightning quick point guard, Chris Duhon, spreads the ball around to the tune of 6 assists in the first 12 minutes. They’re jacking up three’s like nobody’s business, and making them – 5-10 overall, with Q Richardson scoring 13 in the quarter.
— The Lakers struggle. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen them without Gasol, and now I remember how flawed they looked a year ago, before the Gasol trade, when Kobe was the only offensive option. The youngster Will Chandler is making Kobe work for his shots.
— Marbury is no longer next to Lee, but in a seat by himself behind the Knick basket, in the corner. He’s glued to his cell phone, either texting or talking.
— Tim Thomas enters the game to a smattering of boos. Can these be disgruntled Clippers fans? Then I remember that Thomas is a big-time Laker killer. Fans probably still haven’t forgotten that three-point shot he hit in Game 5 for Phoenix in ’05, when the Lakers blew a 3-1 lead. Folks – get over it already.
— After his 13-point explosion in the first quarter, Q has quieted down, but the Knicks haven’t. Nate Robinson starts to light it up. The Knicks are running their game to perfection and the Lakers seem confused.
— A rare Vladimir Radmanovic sighting: he plays 4:48 of the quarter and doesn’t score. He will see another five minutes of game time, and will still fail to score. What the hell happened to this guy?
— Andrew Bynum is having a strange night. He continues to get the ball too far under the basket and has to orient himself and find the rim. Even when he finds it, the shots aren’t going in.
— Kobe shoots 1-6 in the quarter, missing easy putbacks. The Knicks go up 65-50 at the half. They’ve made 11 of 23 from downtown. The Lakers are booed off the floor.
Normally halftime is a time to recharge, grab bowls of popcorn from the press room or chill at the computer. Not tonight. Not when Marbury is loitering by his seat, ready to talk. He’s animated, smiling, pretty peppy for a guy who’s been exiled from his own team.
Why is he here? “I came out here to work and to train.”
Did he come out here to see his teammates? “I just wanted to come to the game.”
“I just wanted to come to the game,” Marbury says firmly.
Did he have any regrets about any part of his situation? “I didn’t create this, so I have no regrets.”
Did he wish he was out there, playing with his teammates? “No comment.”
Does he have another team lined up, in the event the Knicks release him? “The team that I’m going to go to, I think a lot of people will be shocked.”
Not to mention his new teammates.
— An 11-2 run by the Lakers cut the Knicks lead to 6.
— As Kobe cranks it up, the Lakers tighten their D, and the Knick shots stop dropping. With Q Richardson no longer a factor, the load is being carried by Robinson and David Lee.
— Lakers outscore the Knicks 34-23. The tide has shifted. The wheels have come off for the Knicks, who shoot 8-20 and are no longer getting the open looks they got early on.
— Robinson, who’s making one clutch shot after another, on his way to 33 points, commits two costly turnovers. On the last, an errant pass that Kobe picks off for an uncontested layup, Robinson remains stunned on the court.
— On the Kiss Me cam, a guy is booed for not kissing a white-haired woman next to him who’s got him by about 50 years. Under pressure, he finally relents for a smooch. The crowd cheers.
— With 5:15 left, Derek Fisher’s long jumper gives the Lakers their first lead of the night at 103-101, after Bryant’s tying 3-pointer. You can feel the game slipping away from the Knicks. Like a predator who smells blood, Kobe has hit the accelerator.
— Down 109-107, the Knick s go to Lee, who takes the ball in against Bynum. His shot gets blocked, but he grabs the rebound and is fouled. The Knicks’ long-range shooting has all but disappeared, and Q Richardson is nowhere to be seen.
— The Knicks aren’t folding as planned. Robinson’s big-time 3 puts them up 1 with a minute left. It’s the last Knicks lead of the night, as Trevor Ariza converts an alley-oop pass from Odom, Robinson misses a tough runner in the lane with 26.4 seconds left.
— As Derek Fisher shoots what will prove to be the game-winning free throws, Kobe goes over to hug Chris Rock courtside. Only in L.A.
— With 6.4 seconds left, the Knicks have the ball, down three. Q Richardson, an obvious 3-point shooter, is not on the court. Robinson is the go-to guy. He has the ball beyond the arc, near the key, but he waits a fraction too long to launch a 3, and Fisher commits a smart foul, sending Robinson to the line for two foul shots. The Knicks have no timeouts left. Robinson makes both free throws, Fisher makes only one of two on the other end, but the Knicks, with no timeouts left, are forced into a desperation heave to end the game.
— Lakers hold on, 116-114. A moral victory for the Knicks, but a real one for the Lakers.
The Knicks locker room is an obstacle of towels, flip-flops and popcorn, but they’re upbeat in the way that teams are when they’ve taken a superior foe down to the wire. I had asked D’Antoni about Q, and he said he’d had a bad run in the third quarter and wanted to stay with the guys who were playing well. Did Q feel like he should’ve been on the floor at the very end? ”Coach did what he thought was best to win,” said Richardson. “I didn’t even think about it at all.”
As for Robinson, he talked enthusiastically about the Knicks potential to cause problems for other teams, once they jell. He demurred when asked if he was ready to be the go-to guy. “I’m just ready to be a basketball player,” he said. Did he notice Marbury at courtside? Robinson shook head. “I didn’t even know,” he said. “I seen Will Ferrell.”
The Lakers were filled with respect and admiration for the Knicks and what D’Antoni has done for them. “They play at a great tempo and they’re getting the system down,” said Bryant afterwards. “It was the first time we’d seen a team that played that style and it took us a half to adjust.”
While the Knicks fly home, ending their road trip at 2-3, the Lakers hit the road for four games in five nights, a challenge Bryant welcomed. “It’s going to be fun getting out to a hostile environment,” he said.