Remember the month of January, a time when the New York Knicks knew how to play basketball?
The calendar, on March 10, says January existed 40 days ago. It might as well be 400 days, because the Knicks’ season has become interminably long. Since that point in the season when the future of this organization actually seemed promising, the Knicks have become a slow-motion disaster.
Tuesday night in Denver vividly underscored the in-season decline of a franchise the NBA desperately wants to succeed. If the Knicks held any remaining aspirations of turning this season into something meaningful, those visions dissolved into the thin Rocky Mountain air.
Inside the Pepsi Center, the Knicks came face to face with the team that made Phil Jackson lose what final shred of patience he possessed.
On Super Bowl Sunday, another Denver team took the spotlight, but the Nuggets started that day by beating the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Less than 24 hours later, Derek Fisher was gone as the head coach of the team. The same coach who had the Knicks playing so well in January — sweeping a road back-to-back in Atlanta and Miami, and coming within one made jumper of being the only NBA team to win in San Antonio this season — was abruptly gone, before the All-Star break even arrived.
Jackson claimed that the playoffs were a goal for this season. He inserted Kurt Rambis as head coach with the intent of making a push after the break. That goal was never realistic, but if any early-March game possessed a certain degree of potent symbolism for the Knicks, this was it.
Denver was the opponent which exhausted Phil Jackson’s patience. Denver was the last opponent Derek Fisher coached against in the Big Apple. How the Rambis Knicks handled this reunion in the Rockies held up a mirror to the organization. Almost one month to the day after Fisher’s exit, New York had a chance to show if it had learned how to play the Nuggets… and to exhibit the kind of basketball the Zen Master is expecting.
The Knicks not only flunked; they flunked even as their foremost star produced a gleaming stat line. The reality behind the numbers could not be more revealing.
Carmelo Anthony produced a high-level offensive game on Tuesday, checking off the various boxes of an efficient, potent performance.
50-percent field goal shooting? Check.
Double-digit free throw attempts, all of them made (11-for-11)? Check. Check.
30 points or more? Check — right on the number.
What did that performance get the Knicks? Only 94 total points and a 16-point drubbing at the hands of the Nuggets, an organization which has a more concrete plan for the future. Carmelo Anthony’s skills are not and have never been disputed. How he fits into a team concept — how he does or doesn’t improve the players around him — has always been the puzzle. Given the accumulated miles on a body which started playing NBA basketball at the age of 19, just how much can Melo offer to the Knicks — not only as a recruiter for potential free agents, but as a player free agents would want to play with (something which ties into his recruiting ability)?
When prospective free agents study the Knicks as a potential landing spot, they’re going to look at Tuesday’s loss and notice the toothless nature of New York’s defense, which forced only six turnovers. The Nuggets were 6-of-21 from 3-point range, and still won going away. The low turnover count was part of the reason for Denver’s uncomplicated stroll to the win column. An offensive rebounding percentage over 20 was another pillar in the Nuggets’ winning effort. The Knicks, on the other hand, rebounded only 6 of their 42 missed shots, putting them just under 15 percent for the night.
It was a familiar story: Carmelo Anthony putting up great stats on an island, surrounded by a whole lot of nothing, especially at the defensive end of the floor. Denver accumulated 99 shots to the Knicks’ 75. When a team is minus-24 in field goal attempts, it either needs to shoot the cover off the three-ball or forge a huge advantage at the foul line. The Knicks hit only 6 of 18 triples — zero points gained there — and topped the Nuggets by eight at the line, 22 makes to 14.
Not enough — not even close.
Phil Jackson had seen enough of Derek Fisher when the Nuggets ran past the Knicks on Super Sunday. After this not-so-super Tuesday in Denver, what does New York do now — with Melo and on a general level?
The lack of a clear answer is itself a damning and alarming commentary.