- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Mike Woodson finally gave his employer a credible reason to fire him. Before the final, frantic seconds of basketball inside Madison Square Garden on Monday night, a decision to replace Woodson as head coach of the New York Knicks would have been one without much merit.
No more. What was unfair before the Washington Wizards beat the home team on a stunning coaching breakdown became fair game the moment Carmelo Anthony ripped off his white headband, fired it to the Garden floor and headed down the tunnel a loser once more.
Now it's up to James Dolan, an owner with a long history of struggling on his hirings and firings. If Dolan decides it's time to take his chances on an interim coach now, before he chases John Calipari or Tom Thibodeau or whomever in the spring, hey, Woodson just gave him the green light.
The coach watched the Wizards take a 102-101 lead on an uncontested layup from Bradley Beal with 6.9 seconds left, watched his team fail to give the one foul it had to give.
"And then I didn't call the timeout," Woodson said of the Knicks' embarrassment of a final possession, "so I've got to take the heat for that."
Yes, he most definitely has to take the heat for that. In the huddle after Beno Udrih missed a crucial free throw, Woodson instructed his players to commit the foul to make an indecipherable mess of whatever Xs and Os Washington coach Randy Wittman had drawn up. That the Knicks didn't bother listening to him amounted to another piece of evidence that they've literally tuned him out.
Pablo Prigioni had suffered a hairline fracture of his big toe and joined Raymond Felton on the disabled list, leaving Udrih to defend a player he's ill-equipped to cover. Udrih forced Beal to go to his left, but in doing so opened up a lane wider than the gap between the Knicks and the top of the Eastern Conference. The closest help defender under the basket, in his usual seat, was the ruling Dolan himself.
"There was absolutely nobody there," Beal said.
"I think they got lost," said his teammate, Marcin Gortat. "I don't they were on the same page defensively because Beno sent him baseline. I don't know what they were trying to do."
For good reason: The Knicks didn't know what they were trying to do, either.
"We just have to do a better job as players in that situation," J.R. Smith said, "to take the foul."
Only what happened next could not be blamed on the five men on the court. Well, technically, instead of waving for Udrih to inbound the ball his way, Anthony could've turned to an official and jammed his left fingertips against his right palm in the universal sign for stop the damn clock!
But in that previous huddle, Woodson never told his players to call timeout in the event of a Washington score, a fact Anthony confirmed. And yet Woodson had an opportunity to make that disconnect moot by doing what any coach with three timeouts remaining would naturally do when the opposing team takes a one-point lead in the final seconds.
Call one himself.
"I probably should have taken it, the timeout, there at the end," Woodson said.
You think? Woodson had two choices:
1) Huddle up his team, draw up a coherent plan for Melo, and advance the ball up the court for the much-preferred inbounds pass without a single second bleeding off the clock.
2) Watch Melo dribble up the floor without any plan at all, clock running all the way, as a pair of Wizards hounded him into an off-balance, 25-foot runner in traffic that had as much chance of going in as Smith's kid brother, Chris, has of solving the crisis at the point.
Against the grain of common sense, Woodson chose Door No. 2.
"I should've reacted a lot sooner once the ball went through the bucket," he said, "so that's on me. ... It happened so fast."
It was an honest explanation, and a terrible one at the same time. Woodson is a veteran NBA coach, a guy who's seen it all, a guy who built the Atlanta Hawks into a consistent playoff team and who managed to win 54 games with last year's Knicks.
Woodson has been a better coach than his predecessor, Mike D'Antoni, as in much, and he comes across as good people, too. Over the first 23 games of this miserable season, 16 of them defeats, Woodson deserved the benefit of the doubt at least until Tyson Chandler returned.
But now, with Chandler on the verge of rejoining the lineup? Now, after his incomprehensible failure to give his team its best chance to win a home game against the 9-13 Wizards?
"We were supposed to call a timeout, we didn't, and we lost the game," said Anthony, who was told Woodson had admitted the whole thing was his fault.
"If he said it's his fault, then it's his fault," Melo said. "There's no need for me to talk about that or make excuses for it."
Surrounded at his locker in the aftermath, Anthony said he threw his headband out of shock and frustration. "I couldn't believe we lost the game tonight," he said.
Asked if he was fretting over Woodson's status, Melo responded, "As far as I'm concerned he's secure right now. I haven't heard anything. Nothing to discuss, so he's our coach and we're rolling with him."
On the grease board nearby, someone had written the following pregame instructions: "Play Smart. Play Hard. Play Together. Have Fun." With his team at 7-17, Anthony didn't look like a free agent-to-be who was having any fun.
Even a summer reunion with his dear friend D'Antoni in Los Angeles might be preferable to this. But Monday night was about Woodson's future, not Melo's.
If Dolan sacks his man, nobody can really blame him now. Woodson has lost nine of 13 games in the Garden this year, and No. 9 was the kind of keeper that left everyone asking this one question:
Did the coach of the Knicks just get himself fired?
8dEthan Sherwood Strauss