By Sherman Johnson
Last night’s scene at the Garden was wild, truly wild. Orthodox and non-secular Jews alike turned out in full force to check out Maccabi Elite play the Knicks and it was jammed packed. Maccabi is not only the premier squad of Israel but also the first, originating straight outta Tel Aviv. The near-capacity crowd was unusual for a pre-season opener and marked the first ever meeting between the two storied franchises. Maccabi is the first and most successful club in the history of the country with 47 championships and 5 European Cups, second only to Real Madrid in the latter category.
Five out of the 14 players for Elite were American, including guard Will Bynam
who was a teammate of Stephon Marbury’s at Georgia Tech, and was also featured in the documentary series “Preps: Chicago Hoops” with Eddy Curry. Forward Marcus Fizer was a lottery pick by the Bulls along with Curry and Jamal Crawford. Fizer is a big broad body like Curry only not as tall and imposing. Curry didn’t play and neither did Bynam, which is a big deal because Maccabi got blown out and could of used Bynam’s help. Vonteego Cummings, the 6-3 rookie outta Pitt lead the way with 21. Fizer followed with 18 points and 12 rebounds.
The Knicks didn’t need Curry because they dominated behind Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph’s semi-strong play. All five of the starters finished in double figures but Randolph was really the one to watch. Randolph looked outta shape and started off sluggish tanking his first three shots (all flat-footed jumpers on the wings around the foul line) and getting muscled inside by Fizer. It was only in the fourth quarter that he started to gather steam, connecting on a variety of give and goes from Marbury, slashing runners across the lane, and trailing on a few fast breaks for some easy layups. Randolph’s tepid performance proved that he can create his own shots and pretty much score any way he wants from within the charity stripe.
Unfortunately he also showed that he needs a lot of work on his conditioning and defensive play. A lot more questions remain about how he’ll fit into the frontline with Curry outta commission (right labral tear). After all, Curry is one of the main reasons why Randolph is in New York. Zach had seven rebounds but they were of the uncontested variety and his defense wasn’t impressive at all. His work off the pick and roll needs work (Curry’s does too) if the frontline is gonna hold it’s own this year.
The same is true of the backcourt. Marbury and Crawford (2 steals) played pretty hard for a preseason game, pressuring opponents on the full court press and even fighting over a lot of picks but it was against an opponent that wasn’t even up to par. Last season the backcourt got killed on penetration, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against quicker more intrepid counterparts. Offensively they looked great but it was a lot of what went on last year: Stephon penetrating only to crib an easy layup and Crawford launching fallaways from another area code (even though he nailed a couple of them). Nate Robinson scored 12 points and had 5 assists to go along (Marbury and Crawford dished out 5 & 4 respectively) but he still struggled to keep his game under control. He launched some horrendous shots but was once again impressive on the offensive glass, outjumping taller opponents for 5 rebounds. His defense wasn’t that aggressive though.
David Lee looked pretty good. His playing time will undoubtedly increase with Curry out for a minute and most likely having to take awhile to adjust. Lee finished with 14 points and 4 rebounds and in general hustled more than anyone else out on the court. Quentin Richardson was appalling and he played the most. Outside of a couple of assists and steals he didn’t look like he really was trying to apply himself. At one point in the fourth quarter he caught a breakaway at midcourt off his own steal and lined up for what would’ve undoubtedly been a killer cram only to lose the ball in midair. Everybody in the stadium fell out, including Marbury who was on the bench with his towel over his head in embarrassment. Malik Rose and Jared Jeffries both looked lost and weren’t really effective. Their combined 8 points and 7 rebounds, like last season, is cause for concern and will probably be a source of consternation this season. Fred Jones and Mardy Collins both made considerable contributions. Jones went 4 for 4 from the floor (2 of 2 beyond the arc) while Collins went 5 for 7 from the field.
The Knicks are deep at the one and two spots, and with Allan Houston announcing his return they COULD be tough up front, PROVIDED they make a concerted effort to stop opponents up front. Crawford not only can create shots for himself but for others as well. Coupled with Marbury they could be THE tandem. The same goes for Curry and Randolph but it’s hard to draw any solid conclusions with Curry out and indefinite. Randolph’s interior passing leaves something to be desired and he definitely will need to work on his defense, particularly off the pick and roll. The Knicks started off slow against Maccabi early on, trailing by 10 at one point. They could’ve added on to the Garden with all the bricks they were throwing up. They went up by 10 by the end of the half when Crawford, Marbury, Randolph and Collins started to ignite.
The third quarter was when they really blew it open going up 16 and by the fourth when they upped it to 30 it was obvious they had too much talent for Maccabi to even compete. The guards compensated for the lack of production down low (with the exception of Randolph) but beyond demonstrating that the backcourt can blow it up on occasion the big question remains what’s gonna happen when Curry returns. Will he and Randolph live up to the expectations? Randolph will undoubtedly free up some space for Curry inside but will the later be able to dominate coming off an injury? If not, who besides Randolph will step up to compensate for the black hole in the middle?