Maybe Mike D’Antoni was the sole reason for the malaise, as just one game into the Mike Woodson era the Knicks came out like world-beaters and dominated a listless Trail Blazers team, 121-79.
D’Antoni, who supposedly resigned on his own accord early Wednesday morning, oversaw two separate six-game slides in a season of which the Knicks (19-24) had high expectations. But while coach and players allegedly butted heads behind closed doors these past weeks (a charge Carmelo Anthony denies), the Knicks slid from a No. 6 seed to out of the playoffs heading into Wednesday night’s game.
The Knicks began the game as the No. 9 seed, percentage points from the No. 8 seed Bucks. But as the first game of Woodson’s interim-tenure began, the Knicks had a different look to them. Carmelo Anthony was hustling and sharing the ball. Baron Davis and Jeremy Lin weren’t so foolish with the turnovers. The role players shook their recent doldrums. And even Amar’e Stoudemire seemed lively in step.
While Anthony tried to distance himself from the claims that many say he got D’Antoni fired, he offered that everyone was shocked and saddened to see the coach go.
“Nobody saw it coming. I talked to coach Mike briefly at shootaround and I didn’t sense anything,” Anthony said. “My hat goes off to coach Mike. We had a wonderful relationship and matter of fact I’ll talk to him after this. Maybe send him a text.”
He then said he understands that as a star player, when a coach gets dismissed, a lot of blame will be cast in the star’s direction. But Anthony took the high road and didn’t wallow in the criticism. He also denied there was a rift between him and D’Antoni.
“As far as [rumors], it is what it is when it comes to that. That’s something that I can’t control,” Anthony said. “As far as the blame put on me, I don’t sit here and complain about that. I’m just one guy on the team. … But there’s no bad blood between myself and Mike D’Antoni or any of the guys on the team.”
Anthony added that guys will rally around one another, and following a team meeting he felt that everyone’s resolve was all-in.
“It was an unfortunate situation. Today was a tough day and long day for everybody. We had a team meeting before and guys said what they had to say. We know we can’t do it without one another. This is the time we’re in the bunker together,” Anthony said, adding the starters took upon themselves to come out aggressively. “We wanted to come out and respond and play [defense] and have fun. We set the tone early on both sides.”
Anthony spearheaded the offensive assault as he tallied 16 points, including 15 in the first half on 6-of-11 shooting. He added seven assists as well. Anthony, who many believed was at the epicenter of D’Antoni’s strife, wasn’t alone in dismembering the Blazers (20-23). Stoudemire finally awakened from his season-long slumber, as he posted 17 points and eight rebounds. He shot 8-of-10 from the field, including a torrid 7-of-7 start in the first half.
Point guards Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis also played under control and were intricate in getting their teammates into the right spots as they combined for 16 assists and just seven turnovers (Lin had six of them). J.R. Smith led all reserves with 25 points, including seven 3-pointers, while Steve Novak (six 3-pointers) and Iman Shumpert added 20 points and 14 points, respectively. The bench erupted in the fourth quarter, via a barrage of 3s, but that was when the game was already out of reach.
Speaking of a barrage, that’s exactly what Anthony endured all day, mostly via social media outlets. Anthony’s teammates, however, came to his defense. Most vocal in support was Tyson Chandler. Widely seen as the heart and soul of the Knicks, Chandler took a leadership role and backed his star teammate.
“Carmelo took a lot of criticism from every angle and I think it was unfair criticism. There always has to be a scapegoat and someone to blame and in this situation it had to be Carmelo,” Chandler said. “But I don’t think it’s right. We’re all NBA players in this locker room and we’re all to blame.”
There will be plenty of blame to go around if this switch in head coaches doesn’t right the ship. Woodson knows that better than anyone.
“I’m trying to win games. I know I’ll be held accountable and I’m going to make sure that they hold themselves accountable,” said Woodson, adding he thinks tonight can be the needed spark plug. “We’re trying to stay in the playoff hunt. We have to win at home, first off. We’ve struggled this year winning games at home, so we had to respond … especially on this tough day.”
The Knicks’ performance tonight must be secretly tough on D’Antoni, who was probably watching from afar wondering where this intensity was while he was in charge. Wednesday night’s effort was exactly what D’Antoni wanted to get out of them all season. For reasons known only to the players, they played with a renewed passion and energy that was severely lacking during the skid. They led by as many as 33 points in the third quarter and coasted to the win.
“Tonight was a different system and everyone felt comfortable out there,” was all Anthony said when asked to compare and contrast the two offensive philosophies. Woodson’s post-up offense is a far cry from D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” offense.
But however the Knicks put the ball in the hoop going forward, the clock is now ticking for Woodson. The veteran coach knows the Knicks’ fickle following – and Woodson’s bosses – will have a keen eye on whether the team can make up lost ground.
» Whether Melo will ever admit it or not, it was evident just from watching his body language that he truly enjoyed Woodson’s emphasis of isolating his two stars and allowing them to be more creative in one-on-one situations. Anthony said he had to placate his game more towards D’Antoni’s system, while Woodson’s offense plays to his strengths: “I had to sacrifice earlier in the season when coach [D’Antoni] wanted me to play point-forward and we were still trying to figure it out. Then I got hurt and Jeremy Lin came out overnight and put us back to a .500 team and got us playing great basketball. So when I came back I had to sacrifice my game for the Mike D’Antoni system and I had no problem with that.”
»Stoudemire also sounded like he’s going to enjoy Woodson’s offensive philosophies more: “He’s definitely going to come to me and Carmelo more within the offense. He feels like we’re the two best scorers in the league and wants to take advantage of that. Defensively it’ll be the same aggressive methods. He’s pretty firm about what he wants from us and we’re ready to accept the challenge.”
»Woodson said the team is very deep – almost to a fault – and that guys better be ready when their number is called because there’s no telling when they’ll get called again: “This is the first time since I’ve been a head coach in my long career that I’ve had this many players where I can turn and pick and choose. Normally I’d play only nine players and nine is pretty much stretching it. But we’re deep enough where I tell guys to cherish the minutes they get and make the most of them because if they don’t I might not come back their way.”
»Chandler sounded as if he would miss D’Antoni the most: “It was a disappointment. I grew fond of coach. I talked to him in the summertime when he knew I wanted to come here as a free agent and everyday we talked. But I understand what he was going through and that he was going through the tough times, so I respect his decision in that he felt like this was best for the team. He sacrificed himself because he knows how much potential this team has.”
Chandler added that as much as he hates to say, maybe it was time for a change: “I won’t say [a coaching change] was necessary for this team, but sometimes a team does need change. Sometimes it takes something like this to shake a team up. It’s time to wake up now.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.