Offense generally isn't the problem for Mike D'Antoni. The challenge for him was supposed to be coaching defense. The fact that his team has figured out the defense part but now can't score is the anomaly.
So much so that even after a 95-88 loss to the Spurs last night and a seventh straight game in which his Knicks failed to reach 100 points - a plateau his Phoenix Suns teams often reached in three quarters - D'Antoni seemed quite content with the direction of his team.
"I think that me as a coach, I can tell you I think we're really close to winning a lot of basketball games," said D'Antoni, whose team held the opposition below 100 for the 10th straight game. " . . . I think we are everything we need to be."
They could have been everything they haven't been since March 2007, which would be a team in the coveted top eight of the Eastern Conference standings. Entering the game, the Knicks were a half-game out of eighth.
But after David Lee's finish on the pick-and-roll tied it at 84 with 3:45 left, the Knicks managed only four points the rest of the way and failed on several key possessions.
The most critical came after Manu Ginobili answered Lee's basket to make it 86-84. Chris Duhon was fouled on a drive but missed both free throws with 3:09 left. The rebound was knocked out of bounds by the Spurs to give the Knicks a second chance. On the inbound play, the ball found Duhon open in the corner, but his three-pointer bounced off the far rim.
"That one felt good. I thought it was going in," Duhon said. "It was just a little too long."
Tony Parker scored on an athletic reverse layup to make it 88-84 with 2:35 left, and after Lee missed on a drive with 2:15 left, Ginobili scored on a slash to the basket with 2:12 left to put the Spurs ahead by six.
The Knicks still had a chance when Richard Jefferson missed a jumper with 1:36 left and the Spurs leading 90-86, but Danilo Gallinari's three-pointer was short with 1:22 to go. Parker drove by Jared Jeffries for a three-point play with 1:06 left to put it away for the Spurs (17-11).
Ginobili and Parker totaled all 11 Spurs points after the Knicks tied it. "Down the stretch, they know exactly where to go and how to execute," said Lee, who finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds in 38:35. "They know that from years of playing together and they did that tonight."
Gallinari and Al Harrington each had 19 points. Instead of spending most of his time on the perimeter as usual, the Italian forward drove hard to the basket and drew fouls, going 8-for-12 from the line. Yet despite being one of the team's most effective offensive players on the night, he did not score in the fourth quarter. D'Antoni kept Gallinari on the bench for all but 5:11 of the final quarter mainly because he had four fouls.
The offense barely managed 20 points in the fourth and shot just 8-for-20 from the field (including 1-for-6 from downtown). It was the second straight game and the fifth time in the last seven games the Knicks failed to score 90 points in a game. D'Antoni, who must be bookending the 2000s decade with the Jeff Van Gundy philosophy, would prefer to point out that the Knicks also haven't given up 100 points since Dec. 4.
"We're playing really good defense and that's half the game and it gives us a chance to win against anybody," he said. "And that's kind of the basis. From there, now we've got to get the offense rolling. A lot of it is we're not making shots."
But as far as the playoffs go, with 52 games left in the season, they still have one.