NEW YORK – While all eyes may have been on former coach Mike D'Antoni and his new team the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night, it is his former team the New York Knicks who have found the right formula.
The superstar wants to be more than just a scorer. The role players are committed to being good defenders and better teammates. The old guys play the game with an old-school mentality. The coach holds everyone accountable for stopping his man, no matter who he is.
Yes, these Knicks are doing everything it takes to be a contender.
"We're playing for something, guys," coach Mike Woodson said. "We're trying to stay at the top, we're trying to win our division, and host first round at home."
The Knicks used to have similar lofty goals, but that was long ago. Expectations had fallen so low that when the Knicks finally won a playoff game last spring, snapping an NBA-record, 13-game postseason losing streak that lasted more than a decade, streamers rained down from the Madison Square Garden rafters as if they were celebrating a championship, instead of just avoiding a sweep in a first-round series.
Miami eliminated New York a couple of nights later, and the Knicks spent the offseason building a team they felt could compete with the Heat on the court, even if not in the headlines and highlights.
Woodson was given the job full-time after replacing Mike D'Antoni on an interim basis last March. He told Carmelo Anthony to come back in better shape, sent Amare Stoudemire out to expand his game, and asked for veteran players to fill the numerous holes that were on the roster.
But for me to be able to go out there and say today I'm going to lead my team, I'm going to defend, I'm going to help out, I'm going to sacrifice something out there on the basketball court, that was my motivation.
- Carmelo Anthony
The Knicks were ridiculed when they assembled the oldest team in NBA history, adding players such as Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas before Woodson lured the 38-year-old Rasheed Wallace out of a two-year retirement. But look around the locker room, Wallace said Sunday following an 88-76 victory over Indiana. Tyson Chandler and Camby have been Defensive Players of the Year, defense has always been Woodson's specialty and some of the newcomers' strength, so apparently the Knicks knew what they were doing.
"It's just a matter of time before everyone buys into it, and once we all do, it's going to be hellacious," Wallace said.
At 7-1, the Knicks are off to their best start since winning their first seven games of the 1993-94 season. The 1990s Knicks were beloved in New York, a rugged team built around Patrick Ewing that worked its way toward the top one defensive stop at a time.
But the Knicks got away from that under Isiah Thomas, who kept adding scorers such as Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Eddy Curry while never grasping how to build a team. Former president Donnie Walsh and D'Antoni cleaned up the mess, but neither stayed long enough to finish the job, and D'Antoni and Anthony couldn't make things work last season before the coach resigned.
Anthony seems dedicated to doing more this season, defending bigger players while sliding into the power forward spot in the injured Stoudemire's absence, even diving into the second row trying to save a ball he had batted away in a victory over Philadelphia.
"With the team I have, everybody knows I can score the basketball, that's a no-brainer," Anthony said. "But for me to be able to go out there and say today I'm going to lead my team, I'm going to defend, I'm going to help out, I'm going to sacrifice something out there on the basketball court, that was my motivation, especially coming off of last season and the season before last. To approach this season as a new beginning for me. My focus is extremely high right now."
Woodson's response to Anthony's defensive light going on?
"He's supposed to play defense. I mean, he's no different from the last guy that comes off the bench," Woodson said. "Everybody's supposed to play defense. I mean it's not just the star. If you're committed and you're all about team, you're supposed to play defense when you're out there. Everybody. It's a team effort."
D'Antoni never had the proper roster for his system, and Larry Brown and Thomas had mismatched ones before him, but Woodson seems perfect for this group. Thought to be just a placeholder until the Knicks made a run at Phil Jackson or some other big name last summer, he's gone 25-7 in the regular season, and the players seem loyal to him and his values, a welcome change after the Marbury-Brown, Marbury-Thomas, or Anthony-D'Antoni soap operas.
"He's implemented principles and that's what we're going to stand by throughout the year," Chandler said.
There will be rough patches. The Knicks will have to fit Stoudemire in at some point when his knee is healthy, and though the old guys haven't looked old yet, check back in the spring. Still, hard-nosed defense and unselfish play have been a winning formula around here before, and the Knicks are seeing the benefit of getting back to it.
"I think we believe in one another. I don't want to say it's a surprise," Kidd said of the Knicks' success. "I think with the knowledge and the understanding of the game and the principles that Coach has put out for us, I think guys have picked it up quickly and it's kind of fun as you can see."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.