"Jeremy Lin Returns Night" is perhaps the worst night of the year for Knicks fans. It's Friday the 13th, it's anti-Christmas. Whether you still love Lin and hate Dolan for letting him leave, or you hate Lin and believe he betrayed the Knicks, these nationally televised games are an unwanted barrage of montages and discussions that do nothing but reopen old wounds.
Perhaps no team in the NBA matches up better against New York than the Rockets. Even last season, when the Knicks were a much better team, Houston annihilated them in their two-game series, winning both games by an average of 20.5 points.
On this night, nothing went the Knicks' way—Dwight Howard even shot 5-of-8 from the free-throw line, for God's sake! James Harden shot 18 free throws—10 in the fourth quarter alone—a fact that did not go unnoticed by Carmelo Anthony.
The only chance the Knicks had of pulling out this win was by crossing the streams, Ghostbusters-style, and bringing in Chris Smith for the final half-court heave.
But it is important for Knicks fans to come out of this game with a sense of perspective. No, they didn't win. No, they didn't get the continuation call. But they played Houston far better than they did last season, and they are finally looking like a competent basketball team.
Andrea Bargnani: L'uccisore di Dwight (The Dwight Slayer)
Before Thursday's game, the idea that Andrea Bargnani could outplay Houston center Dwight Howard was considered something of a joke; maybe one of your buddies saw the matchup and quipped "Uh-oh, Bargs is on Dwight tonight. Dwight better watch out!"
Well, the joke was on the entire basketball world, because Bargnani not only hung with Howard in this game, he actually outplayed the former Defensive Player of the Year. Howard had his way in the battle for defensive rebounds, naturally, but Bargnani destroyed him on offense.
|Dwight Howard vs. Andrea Bargnani|
You read that right: Howard made one field goal. One. Uno, as they say in italiano. And Bargnani made up for that one Howard field goal with this shocking block of Howard in the post.
If anything, the Knicks lost this game because they went away from Bargnani down the stretch; 11 of his 12 field-goal attempts came in the first three quarters. Considering how hot he was, that kind of fourth-quarter neglect is inexcusable.
Some Good, Old-Fashioned Knicks Basketball
Thursday's game marked the second time in two nights that the Knicks played like...well, the Knicks. They were outmanned up front and often met resistance from Howard when they tried to bring the ball into the paint, so the Knicks returned to their 2012-13 offense, relying less on isolation and more on ball movement and threes.
The plan worked like a charm. The Knicks hit eight of their 20 three-point attempts and moved the ball so well in the second and third quarters that even Melo found himself unguarded behind the arc on occasion.
The Knicks also won the turnover battle by committing just nine turnovers to the Rockets' 18. New York still leaves far too many shooters open, but at least they've begun winning these turnover battles as convincingly as they did last year.
Must Improve: Felton, Stoudemire, Attention to Detail
Of those nine New York turnovers, five of them came from embattled point guard Raymond Felton. If Felton is hurt, then he needs to rest. If he isn't hurt, then Mike Woodson needs to find someone who can play better, because right now Felton simply is not playing like a starting NBA point guard.
Another struggling player who needs to be kept in check is Amar'e Stoudemire. Amar'e missed most of the preseason, and the Knicks would like him to play his way into shape, but their margin for error has been so slim—and Amar'e so terrible—that it really hasn't been worth the effort to play him at all.
Amar'e only played a shade over five minutes in this game—all in the first and second quarters—but look what happened.
In a close game, even five first-half minutes from Amar'e can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
These playing-time issues are just some of the details that need to be worked out by Mike Woodson and his staff. His players are making dumb mistakes—Felton's foul of Harden behind the arc, Melo's unforgivable off-the-ball play at the end of the game, a whole host of poorly timed double-teams leading to open threes—and the coach doesn't seem to be able to correct any of them. This is a veteran team, a team that should not be making these kinds of mental mistakes.
Tough Road Ahead
The upcoming schedule does not do the Knicks any favors. They will play four of their next six games on the road—including three out west—and one of those two home games is against the undefeated Indiana Pacers.
But perhaps the Knicks can take advantage of these few games on the road, where they have a winning record this year. It took a few games—and the loss of Tyson Chandler, their defensive linchpin—but the Knicks are finally starting to play some quality basketball.
If New York can come out of this tough stretch at .500, they might have a chance to make some noise in what has proven to be a weak Atlantic Division.