(Long Island, NY) Every game is an uphill battle for the New York Knicks. After a dismal season a year ago and an offseason full of off the court issues (i.e. – the Isiah Thomas sexual harassment lawsuit trial), a new season can either be the cure or more poison for a troubled franchise.
Dropping the season opener in Cleveland and squeaking by the weak Timberwolves at home did not tell us anything. The first early season test came on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden versus the Denver Nuggets, one of the Western Conference’s potent teams and the opponent in perhaps the Knicks’ ugliest game last season.
It was on December 16, 2006 that a blowout loss at the Garden became an black eye on not only the pitiful Knicks, but on the NBA, as well. In the closing minutes of Denver’s 123-100 victory, a brawl broke out
that began when Knicks’ rookie guard Mardy Collins fouled J.R. Smith hard on a fast break. The Denver guard retaliated, and then Nate Robinson and star Carmelo Anthony joined the fray, resulting in suspensions and accusations that Thomas had given Anthony a verbal warning prior to the Donny brook.
So an inter-conference match-up in the third game of the season took on a different meaning. The sellout crowd of 19,763 was vocal during pre-game introductions and very supportive of the blue and orange from the opening tip-off. Both Anthony and Smith were serenaded with a chorus of boos each time they touched the ball.
Maybe the team is clearly better than a year ago, or they just fed off the crowd’s energy on this night. Either way, it is hard to explain how the Knicks responded after being down by 13 points in the second quarter, 10 after three, and 10 again during the final stanza.
When the final buzzer sounded and the happy crowd filed out towards the chilly Manhattan night, the scoreboard showed a 119 to 112 final, advantage – Knicks. Jamaal Crawford led the club with 25 points,
which included going three for five from downtown, and sees the win as a stepping-stone for bigger and better things.
“This is a game that we could look back on for confidence,” the eighth-year guard out of Michigan said in the victorious locker room. “We have confidence that we can play with anybody, even if we get down by 10 [points].”
Thomas, although happy with the win, realizes that his team is still figuring out where they are. “I think we have the type of players collectively, when they come together, can be a pretty good basketball team and we are working towards that,” the head coach said. “We are not there yet. We have a long way to go.
“We are still a relatively young team in terms of the age of the guys,” he continued. “If we can keep these guys together for three or four years, they can do a lot of good things. This upcoming season, we have a lot of room for growth.”
One of the players Thomas was referring to was second-year forward Renaldo Balkman, who had 11 points, four rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes off the bench. On one particular play at the beginning of the third quarter, Nate Robinson found a streaking Balkman for the jam to cut Denver’s lead to five, causing Nuggets’ head coach George Karl to call time out.
His impressive play did not go unnoticed by his head coach. “I thought Renaldo came in and changed the game for us, “said Thomas. “He can do so many things for you. His ball handling ability, his shot-blocking ability and his ability to defend on the perimeter. He is a special kind of athlete. He was huge for us.”
Crawford added, “He brings so much energy,” referring to Balkman.
Although he was playing in Portland last year and was not a part of the brawl, offseason acquisition Zach Randolph seemed to get right into it and scored his third consecutive double-double with 22 points
and 17 boards. The forward also took an errant Nene elbow to the face to be the second player to draw blood on the evening. Allen Iverson had his lip bloodied after tight defense by Stephon Marbury near the
baseline, so this was by no means a game with light emotion.
Even someone who has just arrived such as Randolph sensed that he was a part of something special. “It was a big win for us,” he admitted afterwards.
Especially after being shown up last December.