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GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Two years of destruction and demolition are behind them, and the centerpieces in the rebuilding of the New York Knicks will be unveiled for the home crowd Wednesday night for the first time.
And what coach Mike D'Antoni made clear Tuesday on the eve of that opener was this: That main centerpiece, Amare Stoudemire, will not be forced to play out of position at center when the ball goes up at Madison Square Garden for the first time this fall.
Instead, rookie Russian center Timofey Mozgov will be manning the middle for the restructured Knicks in the home preseason opener against the Boston Celtics after D'Antoni gave every indication Tuesday that Mozgov has earned a semi-permanent spot in the starting lineup.
|Timofey Mozgov could be the Knicks' starting center when the regular season tips off.|
In other words, the job is Mozgov's to lose.
"He's playing well, and he picks things up extremely fast. I know there's going to be rough spots ahead, but I just like his attitude and his effort, and then we'll see what happens," D'Antoni said. "He might have more rough spots than what I hoped, but we'll work through it. He does a lot of good things, and we'll see over the next six, seven, eight games how it goes with him, and then we'll see what happens."
Mozgov's debut could come against none other than Shaquille O'Neal if circumstances permit, but O'Neal's availability for Wednesday night game at MSG was in question after Boston coach Doc Rivers said O'Neal would be held out of Tuesday night's exhibition game against Philadelphia because of a hamstring issue.
In any case, Mosgov's spot in the starting five provides a good jumping-off point as we list five things to look for in the Knicks' preseason home opener:
1. How do you say 'foul magnet' in Russian?
Mozgov drew 10 fouls in 34 minutes in the Knicks' two exhibition games in Europe, and he comes from an international basketball culture in which moving screens, blatant holding violations and Oakley-esque physicality are all routinely shrugged off by the officials. In the NBA, incoming foreigners are often watched extra closely by the referees for violations of that sort, and three of Mozgov's fouls thus far have been for moving too quickly after setting a screen, or for setting a screen too forcefully.
D'Antoni recalled Tuesday how Yao Ming had to go through a painful learning curve during his first lap through the NBA, but the coach said Mozgov is a fast enough learner that he should be able to adjust with relative quickness. One trick of the trade he'll need to master immediately: Never complain about a foul. History has shown that when rookies gripe, it only makes the referees pick on them.
2. How does Stoudemire adjust to life after Steve Nash?
Stoudemire has been spoiled over the past six seasons, playing alongside the point guard who has arguably been the NBA's best passer over the course of this past decade. The man now entrusted to get him the ball in position to score (dunk) is new point guard Raymond Felton, who has been playing in Larry Brown's pass-a-minimum-of-three-times offense for the past two seasons.
The gambling-type passes that would earn Felton a quick hook in Charlotte will now earn him high-fives in D'Antoni's system, and it remains to be seen how easily Felton can adjust his game to a high-octane system. The Knicks certainly do not want to watch Stoudemire have to earn more than half of his points through post-up isolations.
3. Who is going to bring some offensive firepower off the bench?
The safe answer here is Anthony Randolph -- unless you factor in how much Randolph has struggled with his shot selection and decision-making over the early course of the preseason. In fact, D'Antoni has praised Randolph more for his defensive versatility than anything else, and Randolph will have to earn his points through aggression on the offensive boards and being in the proper position when Stoudemire or one of the Knicks' taller wing players (Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari) draws double-team coverage in the low post.
The battle for backup minutes at the wing positions is a three-way race between Roger Mason, rookie Landry Fields and Bill Walker, and one of those three will remove himself from the equation over the course of the final six exhibition games. The contributions of backup center Ronny Turiaf will be contingent on how much foul trouble Mozgov gets himself into, and the Knicks and their fans have learned over the past two years to expect nothing whatsoever from Eddy Curry, who is out of shape and injured (hamstring) yet again.
4. Can Gallinari be any more than a one-trick pony?
The Italian forward made 186 3-pointers last season, more than anyone in the NBA except Houston's Aaron Brooks (209). The Knicks have worked with Gallinari on his low-post game during training camp, wanting him to be able to use his height (6-foot-10) to his advantage against the smaller defenders he'll usually be facing.
"You don't want to get him out of what he does best, so there's a fine line there," D'Antoni said. "I don't think anyone ever said to Reggie Miller, 'We really want to see you drive more.' So he's got to find his game, and he needs to rebound, play defense, run the floor, and he's doing some pick-and-rolls that he's pretty good at.
"So the biggest flaw he has now is he doesn't post up real well, and we would love for him to be able to post up. But we're not going to take three months to teach him. He's going to have to do that in practice, and little by little, once he gives us confidence he can do that, then obviously we'll call those plays and get him in the post more.
"He's 22, so he'll develop that. I just don't want everyone [to say], 'You've got to do more than just shoot.' Now he's not thinking about shooting, he's thinking about putting the ball on the floor. And now you have -- as you say in Italian, he's not fish, he's not meat, you don't know what he is. He's got to have a game, and his game right now is catch-and-shoot, and catch-and-rip if they're out on him."
5. Will they rebound? And will they defend?
Opposing teams attacked the Knicks' interior with abandon last season when 6-foot-9 David Lee was New York's biggest presence inside, but there should be less of that this season with Mozgov and Stoudemire starting on the front line, backed up by Turiaf (more of a banger than a shot-blocker) and Randolph (more of a shot-blocker than a banger).
With Chandler and Gallinari starting, the Knicks will have length at four positions, and in Felton they'll have a better on-the-ball, physical defender at the point than they had last season in Chris Duhon. But the learning curve for them collectively on defense could be steep, in large part because of their unfamiliarity with each other.
On the boards, it's mostly about effort -- which was woefully lacking in their second game in Europe when the T-Wolves outrebounded them 62-35.