With D'Antoni gone and a listless Blazers team to beat, Anthony goes out to 'play hard' and 'have fun'
9:57 am Mar. 15, 2012
An overflow crowd of reporters, the kind that had greeted Jeremy Lin during the height of his astonishing run through the month of February, gathered in the Knicks media room on Wednesday evening to hear a statement by owner James Dolan, who reportedly backed Carmelo Anthony over the Knicks' now-former coach, Mike D'Antoni, leading to D'Antoni's resignation.
Dolan entered the room a few minutes after 6 p.m., with the Knicks scheduled to play the Portland Trailblazers at 7:30, a game they would win, 121-79. He was flanked by Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald, and the coach charged with replacing D'Antoni on an interim basis, Mike Woodson.
Dolan, clearly uncomfortable, spoke from notecards during his three-minute speech. After roughly two minutes devoted to rote statements about having parted company with D'Antoni on good terms, Dolan got to the point he wanted to make.
"I want to be clear," Dolan said, seemingly annoyed at himself for needing to look down at his notes so often. "I believe in our players. I believe in our talent. I believe in their commitment to get the team together, and to get this right. I believe that we have the talent and the characters to succeed."
Dolan then thanked the fans for their commitment to the team, and ended his remarks with the kind of sentiment that would have sounded ridiculous just a few weeks ago, with Knicks fans, and much of the basketball-watching world, in the throes of the Jeremy Lin craze: "I just want to end by saying that the season is not over, and that this team can still be the team our fans hoped it could be."
For this last part, no notes were required.
Dolan didn't stick around to answer questions, or even to hear what his general manager or new coach had to say. The unspoken implication: Dolan is in charge, now and forever, and everything else is commentary. Both men stepped carefully around addressing the reasons for D'Antoni's departure. All they, or anyone else in a position to know anything about the circumstances, would say is that it was ultimately D'Antoni's call.
The fans certainly had their theories, based on ample discussion in the media yesterday afternoon about star forward Carmelo Anthony's unwillingness to play within D'Antoni's system. And to be fair to Anthony, that system was a particularly poor match for what Anthony's game has been to this point. Perhaps it was asking too much of a collegiate champion, U.S. Olympian and longtime N.B.A. standout to change his game for any coach, let alone one without a contract beyond this season. But fair or not, it hadn't happened, and D'Antoni was gone.
The atmosphere in the Garden during warmups seemed appropriately confused. The same arena that had taken on a playoff feel during the Lin-inspired winning streak, even against sub-standard opponents, looked like it was settling in for an exhibition game, despite the fact that the Knicks needed deperately to win simply make the N.B.A. playoffs.
Gone were the many Lin signs, though Lin's 17 was still the jersey number of choice for the fans, with Anthony's 7 a close second (and the rejuvenated Amar'e Stoudemire running a distant third). But the party was over. A game against the Blazers in March felt like ... a game against the Blazers in March.
The introductions were done in Spanish to celebrate Hispanic Heritage night. Felipe Lopez, the one-time high school superstar at Rice, who entered St. John's with enormous expectations he failed to meet, was the man charged with announcing the players.
As usual, Landry Fields got cheers, Tyson Chandler got fewer cheers than he deserved, Amar'e Stoudemire got plenty of love, and Jeremy Lin got the most by a good margin. But Carmelo Anthony, the savior just a year ago, got mostly boos.
Fortunately for the Knicks, the Blazers didn't show up. Really, there's absolutely nothing to take from the results of the game moving forward. New York won't face Portland again, and it is impossible to believe they'll have another opponent so inanimate.
But the first half provided a possible roadmap of what Woodson intends to do differently. Gone was the constant motion on Mike D'Antoni's system, almost overnight (but not quite; presumably, they ran it at practice that morning). The starting five meshed well together, with Anthony taking 11 shots, making six of them, to score 15 points. Anthony also displayed his passing skills, adding four assists. The Garden ran over to Anthony's side quickly enough, where they will presumably stay as long as he performs as he did Wednesday night.
Amar'e Stoudemire, even without the pick-and-rolls that helped him to dominate in D'Antoni's system in both Phoenix and New York, still got his. Woodson mentioned finding Stoudemire posting up, something the power forward is not known for, but several times in the early going, Jeremy Lin found him underneath, and he scored. In the first half, Stoudemire had 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting.
In essence, this was what the Knicks had in mind when they first paired the two stars; It was the first time they'd really had a chance to see what that team would look like. Jeremy Lin was a much quieter on-court presence without all the motion, but his six assists in fifteen minutes showed he was still at ease distributing the ball. It's simply that he was, at least last night, just a point guard.
The second unit all played around seven minutes in the half, with Baron Davis spelling Lin for nine, and put up perfectly respectable numbers, with nineteen points, five rebounds, and six assists between them. New York led, 55-29. Portland wasn't even there.
It didn't become any more of a game in the second half. The Knicks starters only logged another 8-9 minutes total, while the bench players continued to beat a dead team. J.R. Smith finally found his range, hitting seven of his thirteen three-point attempts in the second half. Put another way, it was the kind of half when J.R. Smith could take 13 three-point shots without anyone minding.
The Knicks as a whole shot 14-for-22 from three-point range in the half, collecting 35 assists on 43 field goals overall. Novak was 5-for-6 from long range in the half.
The fans cheered, although not like they did during the streak. The Garden crowd can certainly recognize an effortless team like the Blazers when it sees one; such teams called the Garden home for much of the last decade.
After the game, that overflow media pack that had parsed Dolan's words just hours earlier entered the same room to hear Mike Woodson explain how a team that had lost six straight managed to win by 42 points, just by changing coaches.
"I just think anytime you lose a coach--a lot of players on this team were attached to Mike," Woodson said from the podium, speaking more slowly than the fast-talking D'Antoni. "My whole thought process when I was asked, would I take the job, was to make sure that they understand that I am in their corner, I'm going to do everything possible to help us win basketball games. That's my job."
The other Knicks players, many of whom came to New York specifically to play for D'Antoni, went to great lengths to praise him. Jared Jeffries, the underrated defensive and rebounding stalwart who D'Antoni once defended at a press conference by calling his play "what is good about America," seemed emotionally distraught as he talked about D'Antoni's departure.
"I've always said, he's a selfless coach," Jeffries said in response to a question about why D'Antoni left as he stood in front of his locker, still in Knicks warmups. "He wants what's best for his players and his team, and he thought this was the best thing for us."
But the real catch of the night was going to be Carmelo Anthony, and reporters massed around his locker, nine and ten deep.
On a day filled with misdirection, Anthony eventually strode into the room and wearily sat down in a chair across the room from his locker, while the group of reporters barrelled toward him as one.
Asked to summarize the day, Anthony said, "An unfortunate day," without exactly sounding like he thought it was all that unfortunate.
"From a basketball standpoint, we had a lot of fun on the court," he said. "We haven't had fun like that in a long time."
Across the room from Anthony, on a whiteboard that during D'Antoni's tenure had been overflowing with information about defensive matchups, particular sets and plays, and other detailed information, read, in the upper right-hand corner:
He certainly got the memo: Anthony seemingly couldn't get through a sentence without talking about how much fun he had.
Anthony repeatedly denied having anything to do with D'Antoni's dismissal. And then, when asked how he changed his game under new management, his answer, and what it said about his effort under D'Antoni, was telling.
"I just came out, there was a lot going on today, so I wanted to come out and, from the beginning of the game, play hard, from the tipoff," he said. "I felt clear in the mind. I just wanted to win this game so bad tonight. It was a big game for me."