I found it hard, it’s hard to find,
Oh well, whatever, Nevermind . . .
Was anyone else feeling nostalgic last night? Was anyone else hearing grunge chords in their heads and itching for an all-night tournament of NBA Live on a Sega Genesis?
Was anyone else peering at the Knicks bench looking for a short, balding man in a rumpled suit?
This 82-79 win in Philadelphia was a better throwback than any replica jersey could pretend to be. All that was missing was John Starks head-butting someone on the other team.
As for the workhorse putting the game away at the foul line in the fourth quarter, images of Patrick Ewing morphed into Jeremy Lin.
And as they shouted a jubilant “How ’bout those Knicks?!” — even more ’90s nostalgia, calling to mind Jimmy Johnson’s “How ’bout them Cowboys?!” — from the visitors locker room at the Wells Fargo Center, the topic of discussion was an element that laid the foundation of past eras of greatness.
And it made me wonder: Has this team finally found its identity?
“It was our defense that kept grinding,” Mike Woodson said, “and eventually won us the game.”
Let’s table the discussion about why, because it’s quite obvious at this point. A coaching change shook up the bottle and all Woodson had to do was twist the cap.
“I’m not surprised because I’ve always seen it in this team and we’ve had stretches when we’ve looked like this,” Tyson Chandler said of this five-game winning streak, which includes three wins over teams with winning records and two of them on the road.
And then there’s that old friend, Defense, who has returned as the guest of honor. On its arm is the beautiful thing known as Hope.
“When we play defense like this, we can beat any team in the league,” Chandler said.
It’s a belief that was absent earlier in the season. The Knicks were notorious frontrunners, but could not wear the label of resilient. This is why Woodson, who had a front row seat as the top assistant, remained skeptical after blowout wins to begin his tenure. But then came an impressive road win to sweep a challenging back-to-back, home-and-home with the Indiana Pacers.
After beating the hard-working 76ers in a crucial Atlantic Division game, Woodson’s eyes were wide.
“I’ve learned that our guys are not going to buckle,” Woodson said. “They’re going to continue to stay strong and keep pushing.
“I honestly believe they think they can win every game now when they step out on the floor. I know it’s still early, we’ve got to take it a game-at-a-time. I’ve got to keep pushing, my staff and I, for them to continue to play at this level.”
The defense, which has held teams to 86.6 points per game since Woodson took over, was absolutely stifling to start the game, as the 76ers missed their first 14 shots from the field. They struggled to get into their halfcourt sets against the Knicks pressure.
“I love the way we came out for this game,” Chandler.
The finish was equally impressive, as Lin overcame a poor shooting start (missed 10 of his first 11) to pour in 16 points in the fourth quarter and hit 10-of-10 from the line, while the Knicks defense clamped down again. Andre Iguodala blew a fast break layup with 2:02 left that could have cut the Knick lead to 74-73. Credit Carmelo Anthony for hustling back — 10 days prior he let Iguodala escape for a pair of fast-break dunks with little effort to chase — and disrupting Iggy’s attempt.
Anthony also snared a big rebound off a three-point miss by Lou Williams with 33.9 seconds left and the Knicks protecting a five-point lead.
“This is a great character-building win for us,” Melo said.
One could say that, for some, this entire stretch has been about character building.
And perhaps this team has finally found its identity.
RETURN OF THE MACK
For most of this season, Amar’e Stoudemire‘s notorious “immortal swag” had been mortalized. But at the All-Star break he did reveal changes he was making to shed some muscle weight and get the pop back into his legs. He suggested we all “stay tuned.”
Against Elton Brand and the 76ers, Stoudemire’s show went from a sitcom back to an action thriller.
“My rhythm’s back, my strength is back, my timing’s back,” Stoudemire said after he had 21 points, with several monster dunks and strong drives. “I’ve been off the whole offseason, rehabbing my back and not playing contact basketball for six months. That’s the most I’ve ever been away from the game. Ever. Since I was a little kid. I feel great now.”
Perhaps the most impressive play of the night wasn’t his above-the-rim work on offense, but a play on defense that put his athleticism on display. With 4:12 left in the game and the Knicks holding a six-point lead, Stoudemire chased down Brand and spiked a dunk attempt at the rim.
“I saw him trying to outrun me there and he had a step on me,” Stoudemire said. “So I tried to catch him and block his shot from the back. That was a big, big block for us.”
Brand usually gives Stoudemire a tough game, mainly because of his power and mid-range ability. He had 10 points and 10 rebounds at the half, but Stoudemire held him scoreless in the second half.
“I wanted to take on the challenge of guarding him in the second half and put an end to his scoring,” Stoudemire said, “and I was successful doing that.”
This is when you know Stoudemire is locked in. He’s always been able to provide offense, but it has been the other end of the floor where Amar’e has struggled, especially in pick-and-roll defense. Chandler’s presence has been a major help in covering many of his mistakes, but the effort continues to be made in helping Stoudemire improve as a defensive player.
“He’s also starting to key in defensively in what we’re trying to do out there,” Chandler said. “He looks a lot more comfortable right now.”
M.I.A.: MELO’S SHOT
While Stoudemire seems to be finding his groove, the Knicks are still waiting to see Carmelo return to form. He struggled once again with his shot (5-for-15) and had just 10 points and is now shooting 38.8 percent from the field during this five-game winning streak.
A lot has been made of Melo’s vastly improved effort level on defense since the coaching change and he continues to make great passes. But this guy is a scorer. It is alarming how much he is struggling to do the one part of his game that is supposed to be a strength.
“I’m not concerned about my shot or anything like that,” he said after the game. “I’m just trying to do the little things to help us win.”
The talk of Mike D’Antoni’s departure leading to an offense centered around Anthony was completely wrong. Since Woodson took over, Melo is averaging 13.4 field goal attempts per game — his season average is 17.6 FGA per game — and scoring just 14.2 points per game. He is averaging 5.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, however, in that stretch.
The shooting touch is the main issue and it has even impacted him at the foul line, where he is 14 for 23 (60.9 percent) in the last five games. He is an 80 percent shooter from the line in his career.
Is it a residual effect of offseason surgery on his elbow? Or a lingering effect of the wrist sprain he suffered early in the season?
“I don’t know,” he said. “As far as my wrist, I don’t feel anything. Maybe it’s something minor, but I don’t really feel anything.”
WOODSON IN GOOD COMPANY
Woodson’s connection to the franchise’s greatest coach, Red Holzman, goes back to his rookie season with the Knicks in 1980, when Holzman was in his second stint running the bench. Now Woodson has another connection to Red, as he matched the best start after a coaching change — and as we all know there have been many — in franchise history.
Woodson’s five straight wins equaled Holzman’s 5-0 record after he took over in early in the 1978-79 season for Willis Reed, who was fired after an 8-9 start (and when new leadership in the Madison Square Garden hierarchy wanted a change).
Holzman’s team didn’t finish the season strong, as they sputtered to a 31-51 finish. But by the 1980-81 season, he had the Knicks winning again with a 50-32 record. On that very young, exciting team, which featured Bill Cartwright, Ray Williams and Michael Ray Richardson, Woodson appeared in 81 games that season off the bench and averaged 4.7 points in 11.7 minutes per game.
After the season, Woodson was traded to the Nets for Mike Newlin, as the Knicks front office tried to bring in veteran scoring. The team also passed on signing Williams and acquired Maurice Lucas instead, then added injury-plagued veteran Paul Westphal. The Knicks lost whatever juice they built the year before and went 33-49. Holzman retired from coaching after that season.