- Shaun Powell, ESPNNewYork.com
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ATLANTA -- The last time he coached in this building, his team lost by 14 points, and that was two nights after losing by 30 points and a week after getting groin-kicked by 43 points. The Atlanta Hawks gave up on Mike Woodson in historic fashion in the spring of 2010, laying down and refusing to prevent the most lopsided sweep in playoff history, 101 points separating them from the Orlando Magic.
The Hawks dogged it for Woodson so badly, Philips Arena had to be fumigated for fleas.
So if you apply a little perspective, the Knicks' 10-point loss to his former team wasn't so bad for Woodson and his new crew, gimpy as it was.
"I still have some pieces I can work with," said Woodson, his team patched together by Band-Aids. "I've got to get it done."
Woodson is getting it done, getting the exact opposite effort from the Knicks than he got in his final days with the Hawks, which amounted to a blindfold and cigarette. Just look at the progress since he took over a few weeks ago. With roughly four completely healthy players, none named Carmelo Anthony or Jeremy Lin or Amare Stoudemire, the Knicks rallied hard against a solid Atlanta team after trailing by 15.
Attention and detail is being paid to defense. Melo seems happy, and isn't that what counts? Also, after winning eight of 10 now under Woodson, the Knicks appear to have dibs on one of the last two playoff spots in the East.
"I'm excited about this opportunity," Woodson said.
But while Woodson certainly isn't doing anything to hurt his chances of becoming full-time on the bench, he hasn't removed all doubt, has he? Or did the playoffs start already?
No, they haven't. And that's why the job must remain open, for now anyway. The upcoming decision on who coaches this team needs to be aced, because the Knicks are in no position to cough on this one. Not with this payroll, this superstar and in a city this desperate and deserving of a contender.
Since the Knicks have married themselves to Melo, for better or worse, they must find someone he connects with and respects. That's the only way the Knicks will get their $63 million worth, the money they owe him. You see, smart teams always match superstar with coach. The sixth man's opinion doesn't weigh much. Or even the fourth man. Those players, their egos not nearly as sensitive or massive, will fall in line with whomever. But if the star(s) tune out the coach, everything collapses and then you start over again.
From all accounts, Melo is cool with Woodson, but how long does that last? And are the Knicks willing to stake their immediate future to find out?
Or do they use their mighty resources (as in, cha-ching) and seek more of a sure thing?
Has this winning stretch under Woodson told the Knicks not to bother placing a call to Phil Jackson? Hope not, for their sake. That's just being diligent. Let Jackson decide who coaches the Knicks, either him or someone else. Let Jackson say "I'm too old" or "My body won't cut it" or "Melo is fine but he's no Kobe or Jordan, so no thanks."
Who else? Are the Knicks falling for that John Calipari line about staying at Kentucky next year? Cal was a flop in New Jersey several years back, but he's more mature and knows how to deal with egos, since he grooms them yearly at Kentucky.
And while it's downright difficult to see him trading Derrick Rose for Melo and Stoudemire, what about Tom Thibodeau? He doesn't have a contract beyond this season in Chicago. If the Knicks are serious about playing defense, why not at least chase the best defensive coach in the game, someone who might win Coach of the Year two seasons straight?
Chances are good that none of the above will materialize, but that's beside the point. The Knicks need to start at the top and work their way down, even if their precious pride might get bruised by rejections. Again, all it'll cost the Knicks is plenty of money, the kind that doesn't count against the cap.
They can shoot for the moon, fully knowing that Woodson will be waiting and eager to be their Plan C, if that's what it takes to get back on an NBA bench. And from all indications, he'd be a worthy second or third choice.
After the loss to the Hawks, several former players gave him a squeeze. Joe Johnson was first, because Woody treated the Hawks' star the way he's treating Melo; the ball ran through Johnson. And then came Josh Smith, who clashed with Woody but also credited Woodson for instilling discipline.
And more important, the Knicks are warming up to Woody, too.
"We wanted to win this for coach but we didn't for a variety of reasons," said Tyson Chandler. "We knew how much this meant to him, to come back here, a place where he'd coached for so long. That's what makes it frustrating about this game."
If nothing else, this loss by a Woodson-coached team at Philips was a lot easier to accept than the previous one back in May of 2010 in that epic post-season meltdown. These Knicks didn't pack it in like those Hawks under Woodson. These Knicks were hobbled, and Melo winced his way through a tight fourth quarter, and still grinded it out to make it a game. Even in defeat, Woodson stated his case.
But that case could crumble with a quick out in the playoffs, or even before, if the Knicks don't make it. There is nothing to dislike about Woodson. There just needs to be more to like.
Shaun Powell is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.