Commentary

Championship contender? Bah humbug!

Knicks might still be there in June, but Christmas win shines spotlight on their flaws

Updated: December 25, 2011, 7:07 PM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Carmelo Anthony put on the kind of show Broadway has been starving for from its basketball inhabitants for far too long. The box score showed that Amare Stoudemire wasn't too shabby, either. But once the game ended, officially putting a New York Knicks victory in the books, we learned a few things that raise concern.

Yet again!

A victory is a victory. So nobody should rain on the Knicks' parade after they pulled out a 106-104 season-opening victory over the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. The truth, however, is that folks will try. Primarily because the Knicks continue to be who we thought they were, which isn't saying much right now.

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce, Spike Lee
AP Photo/Kathy WillensPerennial All-Star Paul Pierce of the Celtics was in street clothes, messing around with Spike Lee, and yet the Knicks needed two late free throws to win?

They're erratic and inconsistent on offense. They're inept on far too many more occasions defensively. Essentially, they provoke exuberance from competitors like Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who said: "This is a game we could've easily won. Don't think we don't know this.

"You'll see us again down the line," he said, while cursing under his breath because of two technicals called against his team by veteran official Joey Crawford in the fourth quarter.

More to the point, forgive me for surmising that such rhetoric from the Knicks' primary Atlantic Division foe should not instill confidence. In fact, it validates more reasons for concern.

Consider that the Knicks came down to the wire against a Celtics team without star forward Paul Pierce, who's still nursing a heel injury that happened weeks ago. And how about the fact that point guard Rajon Rondo still managed to register 31 points, 13 assists and five steals in the game?

Couple it all with the Knicks giving up 35 points in a third-quarter when they were outscored by 18, yielding 51.3 percent shooting for the game and 20 points and 11 rebounds off Boston's bench by Brandon Bass, and how do you think New Yorkers are suppose to feel today?

"We've got some work to do," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said afterward. "We had some good moments, some not-so-good moments, before we ultimately clamped down on them when we had to in the fourth quarter. There's a few things to fix and we'll definitely work on doing just that."

He'd better, if the Knicks are going to be anything we're hoping they'll be.

Once everyone finishes opening their presents and celebrating a day full of NBA games, reality will set in, highlighting obvious deficiencies for any so-called championship contender:

• The Knicks' leader in assists was Toney Douglas with a grand total of four. Collectively, they had just four more assists (17) than Rondo.

• Anthony was their leading rebounder with eight. Somehow, Tyson Chandler had just three rebounds in nearly 37 minutes on the floor.

• Rookie Iman Shumpert had 11 points, but it was on 3-of-13 shooting before a sprained MCL sidelined him for two to four weeks. And the rest of New York's bench combined for four points -- a total that rabid Knicks fan Spike Lee could reach on his own if asked.

"We needed this," said Stoudemire (21 points, 2-for-2 on 3s), who resembled Celtics sharpshooter Ray Allen for most of the afternoon, with the number of jump shots he tossed. "It was good to get this with the crowd, in the season opener, on Christmas Day. It's good to give folks something to look forward to, and wins usually do that."

But here's hoping it doesn't leave the impression that the Knicks, who surrendered more than 105 points per game on 47 percent shooting to opponents last season, can continue to play this way and accomplish much, because there's no way that will happen.

There's a reason Doc Rivers was so conspicuous in his disgust at Crawford after the game. Like everyone else, he's heard all the talk about the Knicks, their championship aspirations due to Chandler's arrival and how they appear to be a legitimate point guard away from Eastern Conference supremacy, at least.

"I didn't like the techs. But like I told folks, we were as soft as we could be in the first quarter," Rivers said. "That wasn't a true testament of who we are. But Rondo changed the game for us. The best part of the game for us, I thought, was Rondo just attacking the basket. This is the Rondo we want. Getting to the free throw line. Taking shots when they're open."

Evidently, that works for the disciplined Celtics. It can't work for a still undisciplined Knicks team.

When the final buzzer sounded, despite the obvious talent of the Knicks -- and Melo's ascension as the obvious go-to guy with the game on the line -- this bunch is still devoid of a true identity.

Stoudemire dribbling erratically and launching jumpers will not work. Neither will rookies like Shumpert launching shot after shot in 22 minutes before he went down.

But Melo closing the deal is precisely what we expected, along with the game-high six blocked shots Chandler registered.

"You want to open the season with a victory," Chandler said. "With expectations being what they are, from the fans and from ourselves, you really wanted to start things right."

Chandler's alluding to the final outcome. Clearly, not the parts that led up to it.

If there's a lesson to be learned from any Knickerbocker, that would be it.

Stay tuned.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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