A win in game two of an 82-game season doesn’t mean much to teams with championship pipe dreams and the unrealistic optimism associated with the beginning of the NBA run.
James Dolan made a move as bold as his NY attitude and gave Phil Jackson full reign of the show and turned the bench leadership over to Phil's protégé, former NBA champion Derrick Fisher.
The first major crossroads was deciding whether or not to re-sign Melo (actually waiting to see if Melo would re-sign with them). Then, as they attempted to clear cap for free agent runs in the future, they had to scrounge up somewhat competetive talent to place around him.
New York fans are prepared to wait a couple of years for Jackson’s plan of action to start reaping rewards. The “win now” attitude that infests New York sports has been replaced with finding silver linings in defeat, as Knicks fans attempted to do when they got walloped by the Chicago Bulls on opening night of the 2014-15 NBA season at Madison Square Garden in front of a celebrity-filled audience.
In the streets, where the heart of the fanbase resides, every city projects from Soundview to Pink Houses was prepared for the Knicks to be no more than a footnote in LBJ’s first game of his fairy tale return to Cleveland.
There was relentless social media and TV promotion. The atmosphere was electric as Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons performed and the TNT crew invaded Ohio to chronicle an NBA jump off for the ages. Comedian Kevin Hart was in the house. It was a star-studded extravaganza. The commercials were even more over the top, and so was LeBron being that he was mic’d up by TNT, and you know he is one of the best actors in the business.
It was the return of the King. If LBJ had any regrets for the way he pooped on Cleveland, he was going to rectify it with a magnificent re-introduction.
The prodigal son left, conquered many a nation by winning two shiny balls with “The Big Three” in South Beach; and has returned home to save his beleaguered city, whose basketball relevance has suffered an unshakeable pain since he bounced.
The reasons LBJ left, the ill-advised manner in which he departed and the success he had with Miami is water under the bridge at this point.
Owner Dan Gilbert weathered the storm and kissed as much black ass as necessary to save face and get LBJ back in the fold. After all, being the most hated man in Cleveland kind of makes being the richest man in the city less glamorous.
With LBJ, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in the fold, most prognosticators have picked Cleveland to win it all. At the very least, they have them going to the Eastern Conference Championship. The Knicks, on the other hand, are expected to be bad. Dolan’s dysfunctional basketball empire is in the midst of an overhaul. The only heads we know that will make the cut going forward is Melo, who signed that fresh free agent pact in July, essentially marrying himself to the concrete jungle for the remainder of his prime years.
He hitched his wings to 11 rings and a respected point guard who acts as an extension of the philosophies of his former coach and mentor. Everyone involved understands that it’s a process. Sometimes, you have to burn it down to build it back up and as much as NY fans are against this approach—now’s the time to reinvent the Knicks.
One To Grow On
The Knicks certainly weren’t expected to beat Cleveland as they did on Thursday by a score of 95-90, spoiling LeBron’s return and putting a damper on the raucous festivities and celebration that surrounded this regular season game.
It may not mean anything to Knicks haters and defectors, but to Knicks fans in search of any ray of hope, a win against LeBron James means everything. The way the Knicks were able to perform obviously shocked everyone from the announcers to James himself.
Maybe it was the emotion of the moment that caused King James to have one of the worst games of his career. The Knicks-killer scored just 17 points on 5-of-15 shooting from the field with eight turnovers. It was just the second time in his illustrious career that he pumped in less than 20 points and had eight or more turnovers. Nothing was working, not even his famous rosin toss had the same reaction, but it’s hard to pick up where you left off with a girlfriend you cheated on and left. It takes time.
It’s obvious that Cleveland’s new Big Three have some work to do in developing chemistry, trust and nailing down the specific roles each needs to play in order for the team to become championship caliber. Let’s not forget first-year coach David Blatt has never coached in the NBA before on any level. There’s adjusting and learning to be done on his part as well. He also has to gain the respect of his squad. It’s a process.
Blatt has a thick international coaching resume that dates back to the early 90s and he coached Maccabi Tel Aviv from 2010-2104 before getting the Cavs gig and all the pressure and glory that comes with coaching the NBA’s prized possession.
They will be a much tougher draw for the Knicks the next time around. In fact, expect these teams to be moving in complete opposite directions by May.
The Triangle Offense
For now however, Fisher, Jackson and Melo have to be happy with the continuity and unselfishness the Knicks flashed as they try to grasp the complexities of the vaunted Triangle Offense.
On TNT, Shaquille O’Neal, who won three ch’ips in a row with Jackson and Kobe Bryant as centerpieces of The Triangle, had some good stuff to say about the Knicks’ progression.
“The Triangle’s about knowing what you’re supposed to do, but also cutting hard to get people open,” Shaq said. “Passing and cutting…old school Tex Winter basketball. If you pass and cut you create opportunities for your teammates...and they were doing that very well at times tonight.”
Even if you want to dismiss the Knicks’ victory as an aberration, when expectations are as low as they are in NY, any sight of progress is commendable and notable. Melo was the top scorer with a game-high 25 points, but he made an obvious attempt to get other players involved. Explosive guard Iman Shumpert seems to be rejuvenated in this offense and healthier. JR Smith had 11 pts and seven assists (that’s not a typo). His game seems to be maturing under Fisher’s guidance and Phil’s influence.
Any way you slice it this game was a godsend for any Knicks fan’s morale. No one is calling this squad a playoff team, but when a Knicks team assists on 30 of 37 buckets and refuses to fade out in the fourth quarter against a loaded squad featuring three All-Stars—that’s a telling sign about the “brand of basketball” that D-Fish is going to put out on the court.
It’s a different formula, but in crunchtime the Melo isolation of old is still the team’s most deadly and dependable weapon as the $125 million dollar man exhibited when he iced the game with his patented step back jumper from the corner over a flailing LBJ with 25.9 second left. The dagger gave NY an insurmountable 92-87 edge.
Another curious observation is the type of shots the Knicks were taking. In recent seasons, the Knicks have relied heavily on their perimeter shooting and the trey. On Thursday they shot 54 percent from the field and hit a lot of mid-range jumpers and moved the ball to create penetration and easier shots.
The percentage was the franchise’s highest in a road opener since 1995. It’s clear that the principles of The Triangle are being embraced and the squad’s "team" attitude is refreshing as they are respecting the principles and trusting the past history of the offense. That alone is an encouraging sign for Knicks fans that are diseased and brainwashed by years of ineptitude and naturally waiting for the bottom to drop out.
Building a championship caliber team takes time – as LeBron knows all too well. He didn’t just hop to Miami and win it all. That first season was full of new experiences, chemistry issues and evaluation. The reason why they were able to take that next step was because they had foundation. Pat Riley was running the show and Erik Spoelstra was an extension of Miami's hardware-heavy President and Dwayne Wade was already the World Class championship ring-rockin’ cornerstone of that franchise. The Spurs have thrived off a similiar continuity in personnel and philosophy.
What we are witnessing is the laying of the Knicks' foundation. The style of play and the spirit and intensity they will bring to every game. Youngsters point guard Shane Larkin (9 points, 5 assists, 5 steals) and forward Quincy Acy look like high-energy defensive bulldogs. Contributing youth, pride and hunger is something NY fans are looking for.To actually see it in motion is what's up.
On the other hand, an early season loss doesn’t mean a thing to Cleveland.
“That’s what’s so great about this league you can play as bad as I did tonight and you are able to just bounce back and rekindle,” James said on NBA TV after the game. You can come back and just take it from there. So everything’s a learning experience in life. You just take it and learn from it. “
For NY it’s a lesson in legit hope and something to build on as the Knicks shape a new identity and slowly climb back into the NBA mix.