NEW YORK -- The "new" New York Knicks, as they referred to themselves during an elaborate opening-night ceremony, had everything going for them Saturday night. It was the first time the team was unveiled before the home crowd, marking the completion of the first phase in the biggest toxic waste excavation in the city's history.
There was the standard rousing ovation for a famous patron sitting courtside, in this case, the revered Michael J. Fox. Boxing announcer Michael Buffer handled the player introductions with his usual flourish, and a resounding, "Let's get ready to roundbaaaaaaaaaaall!" Also filling Madison Square Garden were spontaneous chants of "Dee-fense," and, "Let's go Knicks" in one of the few NBA arenas where fans don't need prodding from the scoreboard or P.A. announcer to cheer.
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But in the end, it appears the atmosphere remains a little ahead of the product -- and that there is much work still to be done for team president Donnie Walsh, who sat at the scorer's table during warm-ups as his improved yet incomplete vision for a basketball team took the floor.
Three hours later, needing a basket to tie with 14.3 seconds left, the Knicks had Amar'e Stoudemire -- but alas, not Steve Nash to make him Amar'e Stoudemire. They had Raymond Felton running the pick-and-roll and desperately trying to find a passing lane, but no shooters capable of opening up those lanes.
And so Stoudemire got the ball on the left block and attacked the way he was forced to attack all night in his home debut: in isolation, on the drive. And it was an old-time Knick, Marcus Camby, who got in the way. Camby stripped the ball, which went out of bounds off Stoudemire's thigh -- as correctly judged via instant-replay review -- and the "new" Knicks debuted with a familiar, old result: a loss.
"We were right there," said Stoudemire, who had only four of his 18 points in the fourth quarter as the Knicks lost to the Trail Blazers 100-95. "We had a chance to win it, so we feel good about this opportunity. We still know we can improve and get better."
There were positive signs, including Wilson Chandler's 22 points and 16 rebounds off the bench -- the kind of performance that could soon find him in the starting lineup instead of Danilo Gallinari, whose shooting woes continued with a 2-for-9 performance. (Gallo isn't doing a very good job of playing trade bait; he's 5 for 24 in three games.) Landry Fields, a second-round pick hardly any teams had in the top 100 on their draft boards, continued to impress with 11 points, eight rebounds and infinite court savvy. Bill Walker was the closest thing the Knicks had to a floor-spacer with back-to-back 3-pointers that gave the Knicks a nine-point lead, 92-83, with 5:32 left. On consecutive nights, the Knicks lost to two playoff teams from last season, including NBA finalist Boston, by a combined eight points. That's progress.
But there were shades of the old Knicks, too: only 16 assists on 37 field goals, a reasonable attempt at perimeter defense that nonetheless allowed the Blazers to shoot 49 percent, and the squandering of that nine-point lead.
"I think we all saw we have enough to win," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We've just got to clean it up and do a better job."
|Because Amar'e Stoudemire doesn't have the help he had in Phoenix, the Blazers have a pretty good idea what he'll do. (Getty Images)|
"They're packing in the lane, and it's tough for me and Amar'e to get any chemistry going," said Felton, who had 16 points and five assists but couldn't get the ball to Stoudemire in scoring position late in the game. "As soon as I come off the screen-roll, the whole team is sucking in."
Stoudemire, the biggest star to wear a home jersey at the Garden since Patrick Ewing, got the proper star treatment before the game. As he has done since he showed up unannounced in July to persuade D'Antoni and Walsh to make him their superstar, Stoudemire relished every minute of it.
But he also got the star treatment from the Blazers, who remembered quite well how to defend Stoudemire from their first-round playoff series this past spring. In preparing for the season opener against the Suns, Blazers coach Nate McMillan was reminded of how big a threat Stoudemire was as he watched video breakdowns of that series, which Phoenix won in six games. Sources said the Blazers came into the Knicks game with one important reminder about Stoudemire fresh in their minds.
The Blazers knew Stoudemire as a player prone to turnovers in the post because he lacks the patience to pass the ball out and re-post -- especially since he catches the ball most often on pick-and-rolls and is facing the basket. If he had put his head down on the catch and driven into traffic with the Suns, with such complementary weapons as Jason Richardson and Nash, then that tendency certainly would be even more pronounced with the less lethal Knicks. Sure enough, Stoudemire had six turnovers Saturday night -- some of them on shaky passes from Felton, but most on strips as Stoudemire was driving, including the last one that sealed the game for Portland.
"It was out of bounds on me for sure," Stoudemire said of his final turnover. "I didn't know if there was contact on the initial drive. Sometimes Camby puts his hand on you to kind of stop you from driving and then goes for the blocked shot. I think everybody knows that now in the league, except for maybe the officials."
So aside from earning his first fine as a Knick, Stoudemire showed glimpses of his potential as the team's Plan B after LeBron James went to Miami. At the same time, the inability of one of the game's most ferocious finishers to finish the game illustrated what's still missing.
"I am who I am, and Steve Nash is who he is," Felton said. "I'm going to play my game, and Steve Nash is going to play his game. ... I'm not trying to match anybody."
Nash isn't going anywhere, so for a while, the atmosphere will remain ahead of the product. If nothing else, the Knicks can look forward to Carmelo Anthony walking through the door -- on Dec. 12, if he's still on the Nuggets.