- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Mike D'Antoni might not make it to Phil Jackson's yes or no in June. If the New York Knicks keep quitting on their coach and their fans like they did Sunday, then D'Antoni's aide, Mike Woodson, needs to move down a seat or two in the coming days and see if he can do any better.
Of course, it would be hard for Woodson or anyone else to do worse. Even Isiah Thomas or Larry Brown, circa 2006, might've inspired better effort and results out of these Knicks than the man who claimed they had championship fiber long before he handed the ball to Jeremy Lin.
In the sobering wake of Linsanity, the Knicks are coming across as a barely interested group of high-profile players waiting for management to make a move. During the third quarter Sunday, when you never could've convinced a novice observer that D'Antoni had twice the talent on his roster that Doug Collins had on his, the Knicks surrendered 38 points and spotted the Philadelphia 76ers a 21-point lead.
So in the dying seconds of Sixers 106, Knicks 94, D'Antoni's fifth consecutive defeat, the fans in the Garden's upper bowl responded with a predictable chant for the coach's head. No, it wasn't one of those full-throttle Isiah chants, but it didn't much matter.
In the postgame news conference, D'Antoni unwittingly began building a case for his own removal. Questioned about the team's defensive and offensive struggles, he said, "It's probably spirit more." D'Antoni conceded that his team "seemed to wither" in the face of adversity and that it treated a two-point deficit as if "the world was caving in."
"We've got to play harder," D'Antoni said, "play with much more urgency."
When a deep and talented team withers and caves and plays indifferent basketball, the coach has to take the hit. It's why he makes a $6 million wage.
"Our whole energy is low," Carmelo Anthony said, and there was no point in blaming the noon start time and the loss of a precious hour of sleep. The Sixers were playing at 11 a.m. on their body clocks, too, and their biorhythms appeared in perfect sync.
On Selection Sunday, the visitors arrived in the Garden as an intriguing mid-major, an overachieving team that has clawed its way into first place in the Atlantic. If the Sixers didn't match the Knicks' starpower, they sure did double up on the Knicks' desire to win.
"That's our recipe," Collins said. "I told the guys after the game that that's what we do. There's going to be teams we play against that have more talent, but we have to hope at the end of the day that our numbers make us a better team."
Right now Collins is 6½ games better than D'Antoni, who was desperate enough to keep Anthony and Amare Stoudemire on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. The coach explained that the reserves had earned the right to stay on the floor by cutting into Philly's lead, even if that lead never dipped into single figures.
Anthony guessed that his boss was saving him for Monday night in Chicago, and he should've guessed again. D'Antoni was trying something, anything, to regain control of a team that looks the way Rex Ryan's Jets looked at the end of last season.
Anthony and Stoudemire are having their worst seasons. Jeremy Lin is no longer the attack-first, think-second point guard who became the feel-good story to end them all. Now Lin is the hesitant rookie quarterback who shot 5-for-18 against Philly and committed six turnovers against seven assists.
But more than anything, the Knicks are taking the call for defensive intensity as a suggestion. They had Tyson Chandler back in the lineup, meaning they had no excuses for why the Sixers made more than half of their 79 shots.
"For whatever reason," D'Antoni said, "we don't seem to overcome any obstacles."
Again, a damning quote. His Knicks are the very worst thing you can be in the NBA: soft.
"We have to do a better job at knowing the importance of games," was the way Stoudemire put it.
Before this depressing turn of events, before the Knicks treated the Garden as just another stop on their miserable road trip, D'Antoni was asked about Philly's no-frills approach. He praised Miami for proving that physical talent and selfless instincts aren't mutually exclusive traits, and praised the Sixers for proving that team ball can make division leaders out of moderately skilled clubs.
"But there is a case, and it should always be a team game," D'Antoni said. "I think Denver made that case, a lot of people's making the case."
Denver. D'Antoni cited the team that delivered him Melo, the team that stands 4½ games better than the Knicks.
The coach never wanted to do the Anthony deal, but it's much too late to turn back now. D'Antoni shouldn't have embarrassed Melo and Stoudemire the way he did Sunday, especially since the trimmed fourth-quarter deficit was more a function of the Sixers losing interest in a blowout than it was of the second-teamers making like the '86 Celtics.
So what now? How does D'Antoni save himself before another two or three losses put the Knicks in Woodson's hands?
He needs to remind Anthony that if Michael Jordan wasn't above playing defense, nobody's above playing defense. D'Antoni needs to order Lin to attack as fearlessly as he did before Melo's return, and then let his teammates play off that creativity and vibe. He needs to keep his rotation at nine after Jared Jeffries returns, and send J.R. Smith to the bench.
D'Antoni also needs to seriously consider moving Stoudemire to the second unit in favor of Steve Novak, in part to give his $100 million power forward some time away from Chandler, the well-meaning big who gets in his way.
On Stoudemire and Smith, D'Antoni would be coaching against the front-office grain, never an easy thing to do. But this isn't the time to worry about salaries, egos or Jim Dolan's preferences, not when D'Antoni has nothing left to lose.
Nothing except his job.
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