This isn’t a rivalry, and it’s too early to consider tonight a big game. Most likely, the Celtics will run away with the Atlantic Division this year, regardless of what happens tonight.
But it sure is fun to have the Knicks relevant again. And it sure is fun that they’re returning to relevance with a team that’s, well, fun.
It isn’t often that a regular season game is met with as much hype as this one, especially a regular season game that includes one team that hasn’t made the playoffs in six seasons. But this is New York City we’re talking about, the land of hype. If the New York City hype machine can make Sebastian Telfair seem like the best point guard ever, it can certainly make a 16-9 Knicks team seem like a true contender. Especially when that Knicks team has storylines everywhere.
Amare Stoudemire is grabbing the majority of the headlines, but this Knicks squad isn’t a one-man band.
Lets start with Landry Fields, the rookie who has already shattered expectations. Landry Fields isn’t as exciting as Blake Griffin (is any mere mortal?), but he’s overcoming steep odds to produce a rookie season Hollywood couldn’t have even scripted. From second-round pick to November’s Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, Fields has come a long way in a short time. And his success is coming the right way; he’s all about grit, heart, unselfishness, and team play.
Fields’ story goes a little like this: you take a coach’s dream player; erase some of the dream’s skills (but not nearly all of the skills); force him to play his college days in the relative obscurity of today’s Stanford Cardinal, where he is ridiculously underrated; watch him be drafted in the second round; then see him become a fan favorite, and also a pivotal piece in New York’s quest to rebuild a contender. His story is not even real life. Except, ya know, it is.
Raymond Felton, too, has surprised in New York. There was a time (and it was only a month or so ago) when people doubted whether Felton could be Mike D’Antoni’s point guard. He didn’t excel in the pick-and-roll, wasn’t exactly pass-first and got off to a slow start in The Big Apple. Then, umm, he started to play the best basketball of his career. If the season ended today, Felton would be averaging career-bests in points, assists, and shooting. He’s still not Steve Nash reincarnated (is anybody?), but Felton is actually making a case for the All-Star game. If you guessed that before the season, you would have either been A) Felton’s family member, B) hammered, C) high as a kite, or, more likely, D) a hammered member of Felton’s family who was also high as a kite.
Wilson Chandler is another emerging player at D’Antoni’s disposal, and Chandler is learning how to piece together his impressive physical talents. Hell, he’s even learned how to shoot. He’s improved to the point where at least one scribe wonders whether the Knicks would be better off keeping Chandler, and their assets, rather than trading for Carmelo Anthony. Kelly Dwyer even called Chandler a “near-Carmelo.” That may be stretching it — if I’m Donnie Walsh, I’d trade for Carmelo any day of the week, and twice on Sunday — but still. Chandler has made New Yorkers smile.
I still haven’t mentioned the Knicks piece (non-Amare Division) who I am most intrigued by: Danilo Gallinari. He’s 22 years old, folks. He’s a 6’10″ shooter. And he’s already averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds per contest. When I was in college, and Gallinari was but a rookie, the Knicks held training camp at my school. I was a ballboy, and so I got to watch the practices. Gallinari couldn’t practice (his back was bothering him), but he shot around after one of the sessions. He made almost nothing but swishes from the three-point arc for about half an hour. Probably missed five times in thirty minutes. Then he switched hands, and started shooting with his strong hand. The first half hour, all those makes, had been with his left (and off) hand. I shit you not. He then proceeded to repeat his absurd shooting performance with the right hand.
I knew nothing about this kid, except that he was a highly-touted foreigner who’d just been selected in the lottery. But when you see a 6’10″ player drill shots from all over the floor, with both hands, it opens your eyes. When Mike D’Antoni called Gallinari the best shooter he’s ever seen, I understood where he was coming from. I still haven’t gotten over seeing him shoot that one day in the Skidmore College gym. The man could not miss, with either hand.
Has The Italian Stallion fulfilled all his promise? No. In some ways, he’s regressed this season after a big step forward last year. But, I repeat, he’s 6’10″ tall. He’s 22 years old. And he’s even kind of tough, despite his haircut.
These Knicks are actually quite enjoyable, and they have the New York City hype machine behind them, and so tonight’s game has taken on the feeling of an important one.
It’s not. It’s not a rivalry either. Just listen to the Knicks. (New York Post)
“We’ve got to make our mark first before we start any rivalries,” said Stoudemire, who is going for his ninth straight 30-point game after eclipsing the franchise record in that category Sunday. “We’re really just getting started, starting to regain some respect here as a team. We’ve got no room to start rivalries right now.”
Added D’Antoni, “We haven’t done anything yet. We’ll wait till we do something and wait till we threaten them. I don’t think they’re taking a whole lot of threat, this team is. We’re not there yet, but that would be our goal, to be that.”
But — rivalry or not, big game or not — we should enjoy tonight. Even if these Knicks aren’t true contenders (and I still strongly doubt they are), it’s nice to see them matter again. And it should also be nice to see two streaking teams collide, in what was supposed to be a boring December game.