NEW YORK – For all the star power on the New York Knicks – a roster to resurrect Mike D'Antoni's coaching career – Boris Diaw had come to deliver his old coach a most sobering "this-is-your-life" stroll into a far sweeter yesterday. This system was always so good to Diaw, and now he was manipulating it with shot after shot inside Madison Square Garden. Only, it was the wrong side of the ball, the wrong end of D'Antoni’s flawed basketball belief system.
Forty pounds too heavy, a step and a half too slow, and, still, it was old times for Diaw. Shots everywhere on the floor, easy drives to the basket, and D’Antoni stood ashen as Diaw destroyed him and the Knicks on Wednesday night. The desert mirage of D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns offense had been called, "Seven Seconds or Less," and all these years later that’s how long it took Diaw to pump fake at the 3-point line, drive to the basket and score on the porous Knicks defense.
In the final year of the $45 million contract that his agent Doug Neustadt snookered out of D’Antoni in D'Antoni's brief run as Suns general manager five years ago, Diaw had gone for 27 points and six assists to deliver the Knicks a 118-110 defeat. After one of the most embarrassing losses of D'Antoni's uninspiring run as Knicks coach, Diaw reflected, "It makes me remember the way we played in Phoenix."
Yes, they’ll always have Phoenix. They’ll always have those memories together. And they’ll always have this truth about their NBA careers: Without Steve Nash, nothing was ever the same again.
“There’s no two like Steve in the world,” Diaw said. “You’ve got to be able to adapt. The reactions are made in a tenth of a second – the reactions, the readings. It’s a lot of cuts, a lot of screens. You’ve got to read pretty quickly, and Steve Nash was the best at it.
"He still is, in my opinion."
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The Knicks don’t have a playmaker, and D’Antoni still doesn’t have a team that can defend consistently. D’Antoni has also come to the final year of his contract, the $24 million free-agent booty the Knicks gave him to escape a frugal owner and a GM, Steve Kerr, who tried to tell D’Antoni something he never wanted to hear: Defense mattered, and eventually it had to be important to him.
Back-to-back losses to the Toronto Raptors and Bobcats at the Garden dropped the Knicks to 2-4. It didn’t matter that the Bobcats had been obliterated by 74 points in three straight losses, that 24 hours earlier Cleveland had blown them out and Diaw had gone scoreless and owner Michael Jordan had one more mess on his hands.
"You’re talking about an NBA team," D’Antoni said. "They’re good."
Come on, Mike. Stop it. The Knicks will get over these losses, but this isn’t the way a lame-duck coach needed to start the season in New York. Bad week for the Knicks, but worse in the long run for the coach’s staying power on the job. This is a no-excuse season for the Knicks, and D’Antoni won’t be negotiating a contract extension without winning a round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
This isn’t simply D'Antoni's fault. There are too many holes, and maybe too many parts that don’t fit together. The Knicks are counting on Baron Davis’ back to heal, Anthony and Stoudemire to learn to play together, and a Spartan bench to make serious contributions.
It doesn’t matter that management made D’Antoni hire a "defensive coordinator" for his coaching staff, a term he resents. D’Antoni didn’t want that kind of an assistant when Kerr tried to get him to hire Tom Thibodeau for the Suns, and he didn’t want it here. High-ranking Knicks management officials wooed Lawrence Frank with gift baskets personally delivered to his New Jersey home this summer, a team source said, but Frank took the head-coaching job with Detroit. The Knicks hired Mike Woodson for the job, and it won’t matter unless the head coach decides defense matters in practice, in holding players accountable.
Diaw was living proof that the only thing easier than scoring for D'Antoni's old Suns teams is scoring against D'Antoni's Knicks. Diaw happened to play a season for Woodson with the Atlanta Hawks, and didn’t exactly remember any particular defensive genius.
"When I was playing for him in Atlanta, I couldn’t tell if we were playing great defense," Diaw said with a laugh. "We won 13 games."
Eventually, the Knicks will get on a run this season, win some games, and the Garden will light up. Nevertheless, it was a most unpleasant place on Wednesday night, with the boos cascading down, and Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert trying to get back into the flow after sitting out with injuries. D’Antoni has his star power now, but everything still seems so discombobulated for these Knicks. They’ll score here, but they’ll never score enough with the way they defend.
So, Boris Diaw’s belly jiggled, the ball amazingly kept falling into the basket, and Diaw owed it all to his old coach. This is your life, Mike D’Antoni. Steve Nash is gone, and nothing will ever be the same again.
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