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A MEDIUM-SIZE ROOM ON THE FIFTH FLOOR of Madison Square Garden was filled with some 40-odd reporters—including several from some Chinese outlets—for Woodson’s pregame press conference before Monday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Knicks had lost their first game under Woodson on Friday, after a 5-0 start, but came right back with an emphatic win the next day. Woodson was no longer undefeated as Knicks coach, but 6-1 was nothing to sneeze at.
But before Woodson stepped to the podium, a Knicks P.R. official announced some potentially catastrophic news: Star forward Amar’e Stoudemire, who had just begun to find his groove and carry the team after what had been a poor season, had a bulging disc in his back and would be out “indefinitely.” Since then, the likely prognosis has been changed to at least a month out, but possibly the rest of the season. Either way, it was a severe blow to the Knicks prospects and, by extension, Woodson’s chances of becoming anything more than the interim head coach.
Making matters worse, starting point guard Jeremy Lin was declared out for that night’s game with a minor knee injury.
Woodson walked into the press conference in a black sweatsuit. An imposing 6-foot-5 in his playing days, he now cuts a more aged, regal figure, with a shiny, bald head and tidy beard. At 54, his long limbs have stiffened and his posture has slackened around a small paunch.
He sat down, and assumed his default expression: Head back, eyebrows arched. What do you want me to say?
He basically said the only thing he could: “Obviously [Stoudemire is] a big part of what we do. All we can hope is that it’s not as serious as it may be and that he has a speedy recovery.
“But it gives us as a team, and me as a coach, the opportunity to look at other guys like Josh [Harrelson] and Jerome [Jordan],” he said, referring to two reserve big men. “And they gotta step in and fight. You can’t look back. And we just gotta continue to play and try to win games. So I’m kind of excited about what’s ahead of us and anxious to see how we perform.”
D’Antoni’s speaking style was rapid-fire and inflected with an up-and-down Appalachian accent. His demeanor was goofily affable. By contrast, Woodson’s speech is slow and drawn out, and his mien is stoic, bordering on severe.
“Right now we gotta take it a game at a time, a practice at a time, a film session at a time,” he said. “I mean, that’s what it’s all about right now. And guys that are in the room gotta be ready to play.”
The Knicks took the court with a starting five that hadn’t played significant minutes with each other at any point this year. This was unfortunate, because they were playing a Milwaukee Bucks team against whom they are competing for the final playoff slot. The Knicks entered Monday night’s game with a 1.5-game lead, but little breathing room because of Stoudemire and Lin’s injuries and upcoming games against strong Orlando and Atlanta teams.
They looked predictably disjointed, particularly on defense, where they left Milwaukee journeyman Mike Dunleavy open to shoot for 24 first-half points.
During games, Woodson paces the sideline with a lumbering gait, with his hands behind his back and one hand holding the other wrist. His large shaved head angles forward from his body, and he glowers, his expressions providing a running register of the minor screw-ups of both his players and the referees.
The Bucks took a 52-47 lead into halftime, and things were looking pretty bleak: If the Knicks were in a dogfight with the Milwaukee Bucks, they stood a slim chance of catching up to Philadelphia for the three seed. Or they could lose to Milwaukee outright and miss the playoffs altogether, just as if Linsanity, and the post-D’Antoni winning streak, had never happened.
But the Knicks found their footing on defense in the second half and limited Milwaukee to 38 points, good enough to gut out an 89-80 win.
It wasn’t pretty. Milwaukee is simply not as good as the teams the Knicks are about to face in the crucial final stretch of the regular season. And the win came at a cost: Anthony, who will be counted on to pick up the slack for Stoudemire and who had carried the Knicks for much of the game, re-tweaked a groin muscle, a recurrence of an injury that kept him out for two weeks earlier this year.
But Woodson was in a relatively good mood in his post-game press conference. It was his kind of win, more about effort than aesthetics.
“Defensively, we gotta be there every night the rest of the way out,” he said, actually smiling for a moment. “And tonight I thought they answered the bell, big time.”
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