This is supposed to be the toughest part of the Knicks' schedule, a run of 10 straight games all against Western Conference teams. It began, however, with a stunning win over the Spurs at the Garden on Tuesday night.
It continues Friday in Phoenix, where Amar'e Stoudemire will get to make a triumphant return as the Knicks head out to the West for a four game trip, their second tour of the season. Things are much different now than they were in mid-November, when the Knicks stumbled out to Denver to kick off a four-game trip that had many of us wondering if Mike D'Antoni would make it back as head coach.
It was a dangerous trip, but instead proved to be a turning point for this team. A hard-fought defeat in Denver, which made it six-straight losses and a 3-8 start, was followed up by a much-needed win in Sacramento. Then came Raymond Felton's big night against Golden State and then Amar'e Stoudemire's dunk-off with Blake Griffin in Los Angeles.
The Knicks came home with three straight wins that turned into a five-game winning streak to get back to the .500 mark. After a momentary set-back loss to the Hawks, the Knicks then reeled off seven straight and haven't looked back.
The win over San Antonio gave the Knicks an 8-5 record against Western Conference teams this season. That also includes impressive wins over the Thunder (Dec. 22), Nuggets (Dec. 12) and Hornets (Dec.3). The last time the Knicks finished the season with a winning record against the West was -- you guessed it -- 2000-01. The team was 16-12 that season against the West and 48-34 overall.
That 2000-01 season has become a benchmark for many of this season's accomplishments. For instance, the Knicks earned their 20th win tonight, on Jan. 4. It was the quickest they have gotten to 20 wins since 2000-01, when they won No. 20 on Jan. 3.
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* - Wilson Chandler's game is talking so loud lately. It's screaming in a way it seems he never would, though, as he revealed on Twitter, he must have some sort of a temper because he apparently kicked his X-Box out of commission the other day. I also liked seeing him give that cold stare at the Pacers bench when he drilled a corner three with them screaming in his ear in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
Then came the 31 points against Richard Jefferson and the Spurs. He and Shawne Williams had the Spurs running from corner to corner trying to contest those threes while still helping down on Amar'e. But Wilson's game has evolved so much this season, well beyond settling for jumpers. He's driving and slashing and, best of all, finishing.
The tattoo that drapes across the front of his chest reads, "God Bless the child who can hold his own." Wilson isn't really the swagger type. But confidence? It's clearly at an all-time high.
"Yeah," he said when I asked exactly that.
And how does that feel?
"It feels great," he replied. "It has a lot to do with the coaches and my teammates. They talk to me every day. I have to attribute a lot of it to them."
Is it also attributed to the fact that you almost don't have to think as much out there when you play but you almost know more of what to do and instead just react?
"Yeah," he said. "I know where my teammates are and I know where Ray's going to give me the ball most of the time. Then it's just them telling me to keep shooting."
Where does that confidence come from?
"It's just from being around these guys for so long and now just believing in each other," he said. "They believe in me and I believe in them."
And I believe we're watching a young player grow right before our very eyes.
* - As expected, Mike D'Antoni went with his small-ball lineup for most of the game, especially down the stretch. It's almost amusing when you think about how D'Antoni decided to start Ronny Turiaf at center in the absence of Danilo Gallinari as almost a way to pacify those of us who keep pounding the size issue. Turiaf may start, but when it matters most, Mike is going to do it his way and, really, you can't argue with the results when the team is 20-14 and just beat the best team in the NBA. After seeing how it forced the Heat, Magic, Celtics and Spurs to adjust, I am extremely curious to see how this works against the Lakers on Sunday.
* - Raymond Felton says he doesn't read anything we write, but someone certainly made him aware of Tony Parker's comments earlier this week that the Knicks were his top choice as a free agent if the Spurs didn't come through with the contract extension he signed earlier this season. Felton physically dominated Parker with 28 points (10 of 17 shooting) and had seven assists without a single turnover in 36:57. Parker had 26 points and six assists to lead the Spurs, but Felton played with some serious jam. He downplayed any significance to his opponent. "I'm just trying to win," he said. "I don't get into that individual stuff." But he does seem to have some big games against some players who have been linked to the Knicks, such as Chris Paul. Felton had 17 points and 13 assists against Paul (17 points, 10 assists) in the win over New Orleans On Dec. 3. Makes me curious to see what he does against Deron Williams when the Knicks are in Salt Lake City next Wednesday.
* - Looks like Landry Fields hurdled that "rookie wall" in this game. D'Antoni acknowledged that Fields had started to look worn down recently and playing him a season-low 13 minutes on Sunday against the Pacers was "just to give him a little break." But Fields came back with a vengeance against the Spurs with a team-high 40:01 and 13 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals and a blocked shot. Note that the Knicks went to him on the game's first possession with a back-door alley-oop that they often run for him at the start of games. It's an excellent strategy because most of the people who are matched up against Fields to open a game have never heard of him and, therefore, are less concerned with him and focused on helping off on Stoudemire. It's an easy two and a way to get the rookie settled in.
* - Gregg Popovich is always a great interview, at least before the game (afterward he was quite annoyed with his team) and he'll offer up some very useful quotes for stories and columns. But he was uncharacteristically vague when Berman asked him to explain why the Spurs decided to move on from Roger Mason Jr. last summer. "We went in a different direction," he said. Why? "Just because," he replied. "Things happen. Changes get made all the time." Not exactly a misty-eyed appreciation for a player who had his best years as a pro under your tutelage.
* - Pop did address the suggestion that small market teams have a harder time attracting free agents. "I don't think people go to a place because they'll get more endorsements," he said. "If we have horrible players and we suck, then maybe nobody's going to want to go. But they're not going to say, 'Ooh, I don't want to eat tacos in San Antonio. I'm not going there.' . . . I don't think they do that. I think they go to where they have a chance to win." For the record, they do have some great tacos in San Antonio. We'll be there Jan. 21 and I can already taste the fresh guacamole.
* - Remember that stuff RJ said about how New York isn't any more important than other markets in the NBA? I asked him why he hated New York and he laughed and re-iterated his point: "I just believe it's good when any franchise has success . . . I said what LeBron did in Cleveland, what those guys are doing in Miami, whenever an organization gets a jolt it's great. They were trying to say that New York is better in some way and I was just like it's good for the NBA whenever there's a jolt, not just one particular team. Like the NBA needs certain franchises to play well in order to succeed."
But what about the fact that New York is the biggest market and, therefore, success here is just naturally a bigger deal for anyone from an exposure and financial perspective?
"I think the NBA has had record numbers on ratings, they've had record numbers on ticket draws, we've had record numbers of revenue, so I think that pretty much answers your question," he countered. "We're still getting record-breaking numbers in different areas. Obviously it would help to have a great team like New York or a great city like that, but at the end of the day, if you're still breaking what you were doing every year consecutively, obviously other teams are doing something right."
So clearly he thinks the current CBA system is good and doesn't need to be changed.
"Yes," he laughed. "We do not need a new CBA. I've been saying that, too, but they don't believe me, either."
* - Before the game, I found myself engaged in a spirited debate with the Garden's longtime clock operator, Rodger Murray, and Spike Lee, who sparked the conversation when he approached Murray about that mildly controversial Dec. 15 loss to the Celtics. Lee told Murray that Paul Pierce's game-winner went through the net with at least six-tenths of a second left on the clock and the Knicks lost out on a valuable two-tenths of a second. This was vital because it may have allowed enough time for Amar'e Stoudemire's three-pointer to count, to give the Knicks a well-earned win.
Murray immediately defended the management of the clock and said the NBA never reviewed it or called him about it. Murray also pointed out that he didn't work the clock that evening, but he had the utmost confidence in his partner who was working that night. Murray, by the way, is also a veteran high school referee in the PSAL who has been working games since Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland were high school stars. This is a man who knows, and abides by, the rules.
This is also a man who has been the clock operator at MSG for 28 years. When he revealed this bit of information, Spike, who was devastated by the loss -- and annoyed at the sight of Pierce doing a home-run trot around the Garden court -- smirked and said, "You want to make it to 30?" He and Murray then shared a loud laugh.
As we said in the original post about that game, which included a still photo and video of Pierce's shot, the NBA does not have any rules regarding official review of the clock on a made basket. During the timeout following Pierce's shot, Mike D'Antoni did ask the officials that night to check the time and make sure it was accurate. The officials told D'Antoni it was accurate, but they did not go to the scorer's table to review it on the replay monitor. Why? Because, by rule, they're not required to do so.
We think it should be a requirement. Not that we need anything more to slow up the NBA game, but perhaps the league should consider a rule that states that if a timeout is called after a made basket in the final 10 seconds of regulation (and overtime), the time should be reviewed to make sure it is accurate to when the ball clears the net. This would at least fix some of the human error that could negatively impact the result of the game.
* - If you really read this far, you're truly a Fixer. So a few weeks back a fan tells me on Twitter that his girlfriend says whenever Amar'e Stoudemire dunks on someone, it shouldn't be "posterized" but "Stoudemized." I mentioned this idea to Stoudemire and he liked it. I tweeted such and others seemed to like it too. So at the Garden tonight I notice two women walking by wearing blue T-shirts with what appears to be a Knicks logo on them. But instead of the word "Knicks" it says "Stoudemize". In the ball, it says, "Me." So the shirt reads, "Stoudemize Me."
I have to say that one is really tip-toeing the line, even for me.