- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Mike D'Antoni was asked by a reporter on Tuesday if he was embarrassed by his basketball team, a counterfeit contender that had just lost to the 4-17 Cavaliers, and the coach recoiled from the question.
D'Antoni claimed it was too harsh a word to capture his true feelings, and maybe, just maybe, he was telling the truth. But if he hasn't been embarrassed by his own Los Angeles Lakers, D'Antoni surely has been embarrassed by Mike Woodson's New York Knicks.
Right up until Thursday night's tipoff at the Garden, Woodson's predecessor likely will swear he's happy for the guy known around the league as Woody, the trusted voice on the bench D'Antoni abandoned in March when he couldn't persuade Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks to play with any of the passion they're playing with now.
Only human nature being what it is, D'Antoni can't possibly be thrilled that his former assistant is making him look bad, as in really, really bad. Woodson is 34-11 since taking over the Knicks, 19-1 at home, numbers that mock D'Antoni and those forever apologizing for him.
At least one franchise that gave the thanks-but-no-thanks treatment to Phil Jackson survived it unscathed.
Woodson is on the books for up to $12 million, or half the value of D'Antoni's deal with the Knicks, and yet he has gotten twice the return out of his team by doing the two things any coach needs to do in pursuit of a parade:
(1) Inspire his superstar to play at the highest possible level; and (2) inspire his team to play hard on the blue-collar side of the ball.
They say defense wins championships for a reason, though D'Antoni has made a career out of trying to debunk the theory. His Knicks were in tear-down mode in Years 1 and 2, but plenty of coaches have endured painful periods of salary-cap purging without watching their undermanned teams allow opponents to run layup drill after layup drill (see Doc Rivers, Orlando Magic, 1999-2000).
D'Antoni's freewheeling offense was supposed to attract big-name recruits like you wouldn't believe, but the first star the Knicks landed didn't want to play for him again (Amar'e Stoudemire forgot about their desert dustups in Phoenix once the $100 million offer came in), and the second star the Knicks landed was one D'Antoni didn't want to coach (Jim Dolan finished off the Melo deal with Denver).
Out of left field Jeremy Lin tried his damnedest to save D'Antoni, but D'Antoni wouldn't be saved. One of the game's best offensive minds couldn't or wouldn't tweak his system to accommodate one of the game's best offensive talents, Anthony, and the Melo-or-me standoff met a predictable end.
Anthony is much better at his job than D'Antoni is at his, so the Knicks had no choice long before D'Antoni made the choice for them. Rather than work out the problem with Anthony and fight to salvage a team that was 18-24, and 46 games under .500 in his three-plus seasons, D'Antoni did what coaches always say their players can never, ever do.
He quit. Rolled over and played dead. And nine months later, it's easier picturing his successor winning the NBA title than it is picturing him surrendering the way D'Antoni did.
Woodson is no Zen Master ("I'm not in Phil's category," he admitted), but the burden of trying to win New York's first title since 1973 doesn't have him hiding behind any skyscraper. "It's not something I'm afraid of, or scared of, or going to run away from," he promised.
Once upon a time the Knicks traded Woodson, their first-round pick in the 1980 draft, after his rookie season, traded him to New Jersey without so much as a phone call from Red Holzman. It's going to be a lot harder to get rid of him this time.
Anthony is playing MVP-caliber ball in part because Woodson has moved him to take a Ray Lewis approach to defense (or something approximating that, anyway). The Knicks are a tough and tenacious lot, in part because their Hoosier-born-and-bred coach was a tough and tenacious graduate of Bob Knight's school of very hard knocks.
"So when I got to the pros," Woodson said of his Indiana experience under Knight, "there wasn't a damn thing a coach could say or do to me that could rattle me."
In his early years as head coach in Atlanta, Woodson was never afraid to get in Josh Smith's face during heated exchanges in practice. He's not looking for confrontation with Anthony or the other big names in New York, but he's not necessarily looking to avoid it, either.
D'Antoni? He preferred to jump the likes of Landry Fields. Woodson doesn't do much barking over mistakes on the offensive end, where he believes in letting his players make or miss. But a blown defensive assignment will draw a sharp rebuke of Melo, J.R. Smith, even Tyson Chandler, reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
So Woodson's Knicks embrace the all-for-one, one-for-all cause that didn't define D'Antoni's Knicks and doesn't define D'Antoni's Lakers. And while some would argue that Mr. Seven Seconds or Less could've used Woodson's on-court yoda, Jason Kidd, on his side last season to navigate the remaining 17 seconds on the shot clock, who's to say D'Antoni wouldn't have had a sub-.500 record with the Hall of Famer-to-be?
D'Antoni couldn't score enough points with Anthony on his team, and now he can't score enough points with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard on his team. Magic Johnson is ripping him for extricating Pau Gasol from the low post ("That makes no sense," Johnson said), and Bryant is so baffled and discouraged by the 4-8 record under D'Antoni that he sent out yet another love letter to Jackson after the Cleveland loss. ("I had a head coach who always kept calm and always focused on the X's and O's of things, and I learned from that," Bryant said very much in the past tense.)
Now the defensively challenged Steve Nash, who turns 39 in February, is supposed to permanently save D'Antoni, just like Lin temporarily saved him last season. Good luck with that. But if the point guard does work wonders with the Lakers after returning from his broken leg, maybe people will finally realize that Mike D'Antoni was the product of the Steve Nash system, not the other way around.
Meanwhile, D'Antoni talks about his team throwing away possessions and "playing very uninspired basketball, offensively and defensively," before reminding himself he's the one paid handsomely to make sure that doesn't happen.
Woodson has no such worries. His players give away nothing, even after they get to bed at 5 a.m. at the end of a grueling road trip and rise in time to beat Denver for their fourth victory in five nights.
The Knicks are no mortal lock to beat the Lakers at the Garden on Thursday, and no lock to win it all this season or any season. But this much is already certain:
Unlike his predecessor, Mike Woodson isn't overmatched by the marketplace or the magnitude of the challenge that is the Knicks. He might lose his job someday, only not by rolling over and playing dead.
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