As Spring Training approaches, New York fully engulfed in basketball…
New York is labeled by most as a basketball town, but this city hasn’t had much to root for on the hardwood during the new millennium. In the twelve seasons since Patrick Ewing’s departure following the 1999-2000 season, the Knickerbockers, for the most part, have stunk up the ‘World’s Most Famous Arena.’
The Knicks have only made four cameo playoff appearances during the stretch, and own a combined postseason record of 3-15. Usually around this time of year New Yorkers are impatiently ready to get their baseball back – especially their Yankees. But not this January.
Other than the Giants, who are owners of two of the prior four Super Bowls, New York’s winter teams haven’t fared as well. The Jets haven’t won the Lombardi Trophy since 1968. The Islanders haven’t won the Cup since winning four straight in the early 80’s. The Blueshirts haven’t hoisted the Lord Stanley since 1994, and the Knicks haven’t won an NBA title since the 1972-1973 season.
This winter the Jets and Giants both missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2003, and hockey finally got underway this weekend. However, as Spring Training is just 23 days away, New Yorkers aren’t eagerly awaiting the smell of freshly cut green grass on the baseball diamond.
For the first time in recent memory New York is in a basketball state of mind, as the Knicks continue to prove themselves as a force in the East, and the Nets are showing their worth playing inspiring basketball for interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo.
Coming off their visit to London, the Knicks headed back to the states with a 25-13 mark, good for second in the Eastern Conference. They sit a game behind the Miami Heat, and it’s quite possible the best has yet to come from this group.
On Monday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, they will welcome their intra-city rival for a fourth and final clash between the two during the regular season. It’s been just over a month since their last meeting, a game the Knicks won easily to move themselves six games ahead of the Nets in the Atlantic Division standings.
The loss was the Nets’ eighth in a 10-game stretch, and at that point Brooklyn dropped to 13-12 overall. Three games later, head coach Avery Johnson was fired, but what a difference a month makes.
Ever since Fordham University alumnus P.J. Carlesimo was given the reins, the Nets have been a completely different team.
“We’re a lot more confident,’’ Deron Williams said of his group. “We’re a different team than last time.’’
They’ll come into Mondays Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee having won eight of nine and 10 of 12. The Nets currently sit three games behind the defending champion Heat for the top spot in the East, while at the same time they are only 3 1/2 games in front of the Celtics, who are currently in the eighth and final playoff spot.
While the Nets have started to heat up, the Knicks have cooled down. They’re just 5-5 in their last 10 games, and 7-8 over their last 15. In the process they’ve watched their lead in the Atlantic shrink to just two games over the neighborly Nets.
Mike Woodson’s roster isn’t whole yet and may never be. Aside from Felton, the Knicks are waiting on veteran big men Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby, both of whom are dealing with chronic left-foot injuries.
The Knicks season, in many ways, has been a study in looking forward: to Stoudemire’s debut, to Shumpert’s, to now Felton and Wallace’s eventual return. But, with Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert just returning to the lineup and their starting point guard about a week away, it’s easy to be optimistic about these Knicks.
Through thirty-eight games, the Knicks have won 25 of them, despite never having anything resembling their full roster available.
“It’s not right to spend too much time stressing about injuries because everyone has them,” Woodson said the morning his team arrived in the UK. “But I know what’s waiting for us when we’re fully formed.”
His group may currently look a bit disjointed as they figure out a way to integrate both Stoudemire and Shumpert, but once Felton returns, the pieces of their spread pick-and-roll attack should slide right back into place.
Meanwhile, across the East River, the Nets are the hottest team in the league, but they are still discovering what will make them successful long term. With the N.B.A.’s second-highest payroll, the Nets are 16-2 against teams with losing records, but they have fared poorly against the good teams – despite recent victories over the Thunder and Pacers.
Prior to the Knicks blasting the Pistons in London, Knick super-fan Spike Lee gave the Nets a little jab when asked by a British journalist what it’s like to have another team in New York. Spike countered: “Who’s the other team?’’ He added that Monday’s game is already in the bag for the Knicks: “That’s a win, too.’’
The Knicks may maintain an edge in the standings, but the debate about which team runs the city is once again gaining steam after the Nets swooned through December and the Knicks breezed through everyone.
But, now the Knicks are struggling with injuries, the Nets have their act together and it seems the topic is still up for conversation. When the two New York teams meet on Monday, neither will look the way it will at the end of the season — the Knicks because the injuries, and the Nets because they are still establishing how good they can be.
However, that doesn't take away from the importance of the game on Monday afternoon. "It's definitely a rivalry game," J.R. Smith said. "We don't like them, they don't like us."
Indeed, a new rivalry is forming, but this newly formed bond doesn't have the history that the Knicks-Heat, or Knicks-Pacers have. In order for this battle of the boroughs to take the next step, the two need Monday's game to be a preview of something bigger.
The fact is, no championships have been won in January, and for the Knicks and Nets to keep the interest of New Yorkers, they will have to continue their good play into the summer -- hopefully culminating in the two crossing paths en route to an NBA Finals berth.