101-83. This was to be expected.The Cleveland Cavaliers destroyed the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, leaping out to a 19-point lead that ballooned to 30 early in the fourth quarter before settling, thanks to decorum and bench-emptying, at
The Knicks entered Sunday having lost six straight and eight of their last 10, inhabiting the dank depths of the NBA cellar at 10-44, and without even the puncher’s chance of Carmelo Anthony, who has, at long last, shut it down. The Cavs, on the other hand, soared into MSG, having won 15 of 17 since the roster-remaking deals that imported former Knicks Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert and kickstarted Cleveland’s rise up the Eastern ranks. When one team is playing for the No. 1 pick and another’s playing for a No. 1 seed, this sort of outcome isn’t surprising.
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But seeing something coming doesn’t mean you can’t be disappointed when it happens. Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson — just three weeks removed from terming his first full season in control of the Knicks an “experiment [that] has fallen flat on its face” — was displeased enough by Sunday’s game to lob a couple of cryptic 140-character bombs:
Each NBA game is an opportunity for players to show their “best” nature and please the basketball gods . . . and those who know what “It” takes.
Today’s game vs Cavs gave bb gods heartburn and those that know what “it” takes/means a smh.
That’s not entirely true, Mr. Jackson. (Woo.) You’ve got to imagine that the basketball gods enjoyed this nice Cavs trip, beginning with a Mozgov swat of a Tim Hardaway Jr. layup, which LeBron James corralled and began to push up the court before throwing it ahead after one dribble to a streaking Smith, who took one bounce of his own before soaring in for a double-clutch two-handed slam:
The same goes for Smith and Shumpert hooking up on this sweet alley-oop, which called to mind a connection with fellow now-former Knick Pablo Prigioni that represented one of J.R.’s finer moments in New York:
“I even told [Smith] in the timeout, ‘Thank you for the price of admission,'” Cleveland coach David Blatt said after the game, according to Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press. “That was special and really nice that it was here in New York.”
Sound interior defense, throwing the ball ahead to create early offense, opportunistic cutting, the ball barely touching the floor … there was plenty to enjoy. It just didn’t come from any Knicks. Or, at least, any current Knicks.
“They’ve given us everything we’ve asked, and more,” James said of Smith, who finished with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting, four assists, three rebounds, two blocks and a steal, and Shumpert, who added four points, seven assists and five rebounds, according to Joe Vardon of Northeast Ohio Media Group. “We love them. I know I do. I love them and I’m happy to have them on board.”
The feeling’s mutual for the former Knicks wings, whom Blatt called “a godsend” before the game, and who each struck notes of appreciation for both past and present, according to George Willis of the New York Post:
“I look at it as a place you can always call home,” said Smith, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2013. “It was very emotional to play in front of family and friends, people you built relationships every day with: the usher and the people who push the button for you in the elevator — the little people — that was my main focus.” […]
“We have a different chemistry on this side than we had with the Knicks,” Shumpert said. “We get out on the break, we run, we throw lobs. Everybody is just having fun and everybody is together. When you have that you have a lot of positive things going.”
And when you don’t … well, woof.
Days like Sunday make Jackson’s work thus far in dismantling and rebuilding the Knicks roster look especially shaky. Not only did Smith and Shumpert show out, but Tyson Chandler (shipped out in June as Jackson began his teardown) and Amar’e Stoudemire (bought out at the conclusion of the 2015 NBA All-Star Game at MSG) each contributed to the Dallas Mavericks’ 11-point home win over the Charlotte Hornets. And while New York’s ex-pats looked strong for teams with title aspirations, the players the Knicks received in those deals — veteran Jose Calderon and rookie Cleanthony Early from Dallas, journeymen forwards Lou Amundson and Lance Thomas from Cleveland — didn’t exactly evoke the days when the Garden was Eden.
“Funny we’re in the situation we’re in,’’ Smith said Saturday, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. “Tyson in Dallas playing well, me and Shump here playing well. We weren’t the fit they were looking for. Hopefully they find it.’’
That is, of course, an overly simplified version of the way things went. By the ends of their tenures in New York, none of the three players were operating at the level they’ve reached in their new settings — Chandler seemed burnt out after having spent so much time as the Knicks’ defensive failsafe without much help or much hope of getting rewarded on offense; Shumpert alternately battled injury and confidence issues for most of his final two years in Manhattan; J.R. had, well, lots of different issues.
None of them, by themselves or collectively, were the problem with a Knicks club that went from Atlantic Division champs to 37-45 in one year. But none of them, by themselves or collectively, seemed likely to be the solution, either, which is the kind of thing that leads ownership and front offices toward rebuilding.
It falls to Jackson, now, to find the solution that will pull the Knicks out of the doldrums. He has staked the team’s future on the belief that that answer includes Anthony, the player the Knicks select with their lottery pick in the 2015 NBA draft, and the players they sign using their heaping gobs of future salary-cap space to fill out the roster with “total basketball players” capable of holding their own defensively and contributing within the systemic context of the triangle offense.
That kind of rebuild is painful even when it presents occasional glimpses of that hoped-for better tomorrow. When it doesn’t, and when the guys you got rid of remind the fans of just how much they’re missing, well, heartburn and head-shaking soon follow, no matter what kind of paychecks you’re taking home.
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