It seemed like the worst time for a West Coast trip. The Knicks had lost five straight games and now had to jump back three time zones and play four games in five nights. It could have been a devastating trip, but, really, it was exactly what this team needed.
"One thousand percent yet," Ronny Turiaf said. "When you look at it before you get here, you think, 'Man, the schedule is hectic.' But it turned out to be very good for us."
It was something that began in the second half against the Nuggets in Denver and though it was just a little too late to stop the losing streak that night, it carried over the next night in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, back home in New York, the coals were glowing and the spit was ready for when Mike D'Antoni returned. The atmosphere was toxic and headed down a familiar path.
But something happened on the way to the execution: the players kept playing and that schedule that looked so brutal actually presented great opportunity. The Kings are a disaster. The Warriors were playing without David Lee and, apparently, any kind of defensive mindset. The Clippers started three rookies.
And the Knicks started running, moving the ball and, most importantly, hitting shots.
"And then everything started clicking," Raymond Felton said.
From frustration came belief. From belief came trust.
"One thing I can tell is, when Amar'e looks into Ray's eyes or my eyes, we have confidence in the other guy," Turiaf said. "I know we've only been together technically for a couple of months, since July, but it's like a band of brothers that believe in each other and just want to go out and win basketball games. It's a pretty neat feeling to have."
"We pretty much have a bunker mentality," he added, "to where it's just us in this room that matters."
Sounds like the usual happy rhetoric that comes after a cluster of success. But the authenticity can be seen in actions, such as during Tuesday's win against the Bobcats at the Garden, the first game back since the 3-1 trip. Some fans behind the bench were heckling Timofey Mozgov, who had made some mistakes on the court. Stoudemire, according to witnesses, slammed a chair on the bench and said, "Why the hell are they booing Moz? Give him a break."
Mozgov is a perfect example of the this "bunker mentality." Not only does he have the support of Stoudemire, who is always one of the first up off the bench and one of the loudest cheerleaders when he's not playing, but others have stayed in his corner. When Mozgov checked into the game in Charlotte, Felton immediately sought him out to offer some encouraging words as he patted the big Russian's chest.
"So many of the guys have been contributing, that's the reason why we're winning," Felton said. "You can't win with two guys, you win with everybody, all 15. Even guys that's not playing."
As beat writers we've spent much of the last few days looking up all of the "The Last Time the Knicks won . . ." information, but the current team isn't interested in history. In the past, getting back to .500 might be cause for a float in the Thanksgiving parade. But there's far more important missions on the achievement list, such as, you know, making the playoffs.
The winning streak has the team feeling good about itself -- which around here is a rare and often short-lived experience -- but there didn't seem to be a sense of accomplishment after Wednesday's win in Charlotte.
"The good news is we have a five-game winning streak," D'Antoni said. "The bad news is, we're .500. So let's be real and try to get the win on Saturday."
"We're still getting better," Stoudemire said. "I read once in a book that Bill Russell said, 'You'll never have a perfect game, but you can always pursue it. It's always about getting better.
"We have a long ways to go," he then added, "but we've got a great chance to get better and win more games. Winning five straight feels great, but being 8-8 and .500 is something we've got to improve on. We still have a lot of work to do and we're just getting started."
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* - Joe Johnson was the first free agent the Knicks met with, just minutes into the signing period this summer. D'Antoni was in LA leading the sales pitch as one plan -- call it Plan A1 -- was to have Johnson and Stoudemire as an all-star tandem. Stoudemire, who also talked to D'Antoni that night, was on board, but Johnson couldn't turn down the max offer he received from Atlanta. The Knicks desperately tried to convince him to take their offer, which was less than Atlanta's six year, $120M deal.
What would the Knicks be today had Johnson decided to come to New York? For one, they wouldn't have had the money to sign Felton, so Toney Douglas might have wound up the starting point guard. The payroll would have also been locked up for the next five years, which means no flexibility to go after Carmelo Anthony as a free agent in 2011 and Chris Paul or Deron Williams in 2012. They also would have had to let David Lee walk with nothing in return.
Of course they would have two all-star players on the roster and Danilo Gallinari. But would they really be that much better? Johnson is off to a slow start this season (17.8 points per game, shooting 41.8 percent from the field and 28.2 percent from three-point range) and the Hawks (9-7) were struggling with three straight losses until their Thanksgiving win over the Wizards.