8:50 am Apr. 6, 2012
This has been a season of violently shifting narratives involving Knicks players: Jeremy Lin, marginal pick-up to international phenomenon; Carmelo Anthony, slumping malcontent to team leader; Amar'e Stoudemire, enfeebled has-been to dominant force and then back again.
But there's been one constant: Toney Douglas has been terrible.
As the starting point guard to begin the season, as the player shunted aside to make room for Lin, as the occasional garbage-time contributor, Douglas showed exactly none of what made him a useful piece on the New York Knicks last year.
But that all changed on Thursday night in Orlando, where Douglas played at a level of excellence he hasn't remotely approached all season, while the lifeless Magic, facing their own insurrection, barely showed up in a 96-80 Knicks win.
The emergence of Douglas was a necessity. With Jeremy Lin out, New York had been running part-time under the guidance of point guard Baron Davis, whose play was often good, but whose stamina is so limited as he battles back from a back injury, a current hamstring injury, and enough other aches and pains that he looks like he's degenerating before the crowd's very eyes.
When Davis hasn't played, New York has either used Mike Bibby, whose primary contribution has been to hand the ball off and go stand in the corner in case the Knicks want him to miss a three, and Douglas, who has continued the forced passes, questionable finishes and ill-advised threes that got Jeremy Lin his chance to play in the first place.
Consider that in January, the last month Douglas played regularly, he averaged 21 minutes, with exactly as many assists—a paltry 2.1—as turnovers. He shot less than 32 percent from the field, and less than 25 percent from three-point range. Incredibly, he tried to make it up in volume, jacking up better than four threes per game. He's largely been glued to the bench since.
But New York is out of options. If Davis plays any more, he's liable to end up on the side of the road, leaving the Knicks without a point guard for 48 minutes. So on came Douglas, with the groans heard everywhere that contained both a Knicks fan and a television.
But Douglas was remarkable. In 25 minutes, he shot a reasonable 7-for-12. He only took two three-pointers, making one, and both were open shots. He dished out six assists, setting aside his patented move of dribbling with his head down into traffic and then throwing the ball wherever, in favor of the more effective strategy of finding his open teammates for good shots. And that new strategy also cut the turnovers down to just two.
The result had an effect on more than just the Knicks' performance with Douglas, though New York was plus-22 with Douglas playing. Baron Davis played just 19 minutes, allowing him to save his strength. And Mike Bibby didn't play at all.
It's hard to know exactly what to make of the under-control, effective Douglas. For one thing, even when he was a useful player for New York last year, he really didn't play like he did Thursday— he was simply better at finishing, or his three-point shot went down in vast quantities. He hadn't really run an offense, ever.
And this Magic team has taken quitting on the coach to new and undiscovered heights. Dwight Howard, Orlando's all-world center, reportedly asked the Magic to fire coach Stan Van Gundy. When a reporter asked Van Gundy about this report at a news conference following morning shootaround, rather than plead ignorance or deny it, Van Gundy agreed, saying that he'd heard from management that this was true. An unsuspecting Howard then walked into the mess, denied doing so, while Van Gundy made it clear he had no interest in even pretending he wanted to hear what Howard was saying.
Howard's eight-point, five turnover performance—with all eight points coming once the game was out of reach—was the natural outgrowth of this mess. Orlando has lost five in a row, and seems to be locked in a battle with Philadelphia to see which team can suffer the greater freefall.
Douglas's newfound ability to be useful will be tested immediately, with the Knicks scheduled to play a home-and-home against the Chicago Bulls this Sunday and Tuesday. The Bulls give maximum effort, play strong defense, and it is possible that Douglas was making the same kinds of silly decisions with the ball, but Orlando just neglected to take advantage of them by doing things like lifting their arms or running.
If Douglas has turned a corner, the Knicks will be a team with a floor general for the entire game. If not, it's back to praying that the sputtering Davis can make it all the way home, and that Jeremy Lin is a quick healer.