MINNESOTA -- In the quiet of an empty visitors locker room at Target Center, Amar'e Stoudemire was dressing in his corner stall with one eye on Raymond Felton, who was across the room doing the same. They were the only two players left, these two main pieces of the Knicks' rebuild this offseason, and as much as they both have talked about starting a new era for this franchise, they're both standing on the plank over this Great Pit of Carkoon, helplessly waiting to be engulfed.
Stoudemire finally made his way over to Felton, an impulse motivated mostly because he needed some skin lotion, which is odd, since Stoudemire sure got lathered up pretty good by Kevin Love in the second half. The $100 million man then opened a brief conversation with his new point guard.
"My fault, this is on me," he said in a low voice.
Felton cut him off immediately with a dismissive head shake and a "Nah man" and the conversation moved to a whisper before Stoudemire headed back to his stall.
Stoudemire tried to shoulder the blame, which is what you expect out of your marquee player. But really, he should have shouldered it a lot earlier, like when Love, who's vertical is so unimpressive it is almost better identified as a horizontal, was snaring boards and finishing layup after layup to keep that seemingly unstoppable Timberwolves rally alive. At some point Amar'e, even with five fouls, had to do something.
Not to take anything away from Love's historic game, but his numbers were a byproduct of the Knicks' faults. Love was doing absolutely nothing for the first two-plus quarters of this game until the Knicks undisciplined offense set up the night that will forever be written in bold on his resume.
And as much as he was outplayed by Love at the four-spot when it mattered most, this one doesn't go on Stoudemire. Not entirely. This one goes on the two people who have the most control of an offense that is so much more pick-up game than pick-and-roll.
Let's start with the obvious: Mr. Hot Seat, Mike D'Antoni
Worst loss of his Knicks tenure? I wouldn't go that far, or did we already forget the 50-point defeat on the Garden floor to the Dallas Mavericks? This one obviously hurts more because of the blown lead and the opponent. And because this season, unlike the first two, was supposed to come without excuses. This only feeds the Fire D'Antoni Army, which swelled to painful proportions overnight like David Lee's bitten elbow.
But what was so alarming about this loss is something I've been warning you about since the preseason, when some of you Kool-Aid drinkers were chastising me for serving up Haterade: the offense is really, really bad.
And remember, offense is not supposed to be an issue for any team coached by D'Antoni.
We've already beaten the pick-and-roll issue to death, but there's so much more to analyze. Before the game I asked Mike about the apparent green light he has for just about anyone behind the three-point arc, which can lead to major trouble (look at me, posing the harbinger).
He quickly corrected me: it's not for everyone. "You don't want Ronny Turiaf out there," he said.
Hey, how bad could it be?
You also don't want Wilson Chandler out there, either. He's a career 30.8 percent shooter from downtown and, at 6-8 and a solid 225 pounds, he really needs to learn how use his skills to draw fouls, not draw iron. Chandler this season is shooting 5.4 three-pointers a game, more than double last season's rate and, perhaps more notably, slightly more than Danilo Gallinari (5.3), who is actually supposed to be the team's legit threat from three-point range.
Chandler was 2-for-6 from three in the Minnesota game, all of them came in the second half. He was 1-for-4 in the fateful third.
But D'Antoni sees the three as "an awesome weapon" and explained the mathematics in how shooting just 33 percent from three is equal to 50 percent from two. But what happens when you shoot zero percent from three and all of those long rebounds turn into momentum-changing transition baskets for the team you were once clobbering by 21 points in a dead arena?
By appearance, D'Antoni did nothing to stop the bleeding. Quite frankly, I've criticized him in the past for going away from his offensive principles as a coach. This style, the high volume of threes that open up the middle for the pick-and-roll (and vice-versa), has won him a lot of games in Phoenix. But here in New York, it's lost him a lot of games. And last night it lost him a game he should have won.
One would think he might have at least one time out during the third quarter -- wait, one was never called? -- put up the stop sign. At one point I felt like shouting, "Flip the card to the red, Mike!" like I was watching a friend overindulge at one of those churriscaria restaurants.
Afterward, as he spoke, I was thinking rather than Robert Randolph and the Family Band, MSG Network should have played some One Republic: too late to apologize.
"We lost Amar'e to foul trouble and we weren't attacking the rim," he said. "We were settling too quick. No excuses, we shouldn't have done that, but it did happen and we have some work to do."
No one can question this team's effort and sincere willingness to work on their problems. This is a good group, not a bunch of selfish players here to pad stats. But the problem with this team is when they start missing in bunches, they're a runaway train without a conductor. In other words, they need Denzel Washington.
That brings us to the second culprit, who should take note that Dec. 15 -- the date this summer's free agent signees can be traded -- is merely a month away: Raymond Felton.
His stat line suggests he had a strong game, with 22 points and nine assists with four turnovers and two steals in 40:30. For most of the game, he owned Sebastian Telfair (scoreless in 36:50). But the mark of a great point guard, one who is clearly in charge of his offense, is in what he does in crunch time. What he does when his team is in desperate need of a basket.
What he does when the franchise's big dog isn't getting the bone.
Felton went 1-for-7 in the second half (0-for-1 from three) with three assists and five points. Under his watch, the Knicks have blown late leads (Portland, Philadelphia) and the offense has been incongruent. Felton has been all hustle, but no flow. And, again, his main responsibility has to be to feed the beast and Stoudemire, is emaciated.
Think back to when Mark Jackson first arrived. His presence turned Patrick Ewing into a superstar. Why? Because Jackson knew when and how to get it to The Franchise Player. He seemed to make it a personal mission.
Felton knows how to score, but so far he hasn't shown an ability to be the kind of floor general the Knicks -- and D'Antoni -- needs. This team needs someone who can recognize situations and get the offense under control when it starts to stray. And this system, with the perpetual green light and so many open looks from the outside as a result of ball movement and motion, can stray very quickly.
Donnie Walsh is going for hip replacement surgery next week. He may need to schedule another replacement operation in another month. It's not that Felton isn't a good point guard, but it's quite possible he's not the right one for this team, for this offense.
Some may counter that perhaps it's D'Antoni who isn't the right coach of this team, for this city. But despite your frustrations, Fixers, I just don't see a change happening there this early -- if at all -- in the season.
D'Antoni's greatest mistake may have been taking on the challenge of coaching lesser talent. When you look at Kurt Rambis, you kind of see what Phil Jackson may look like if he were to do a similar thing. There are coaches who are like Scott Skiles, and get the most out of his roster, or Doc Rivers, who can manage volatile personalities. D'Antoni is someone who needs talent.
And, without question, who needs someone who can control his offense on the floor.