Commentary

Woody better get creative in Game 2

Knicks job is his to lose -- so interim coach has to find a way to hang with Heat

Updated: April 30, 2012, 2:43 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

MIAMI -- Mike Woodson was preparing to step into a driving rain and onto his team's idling bus when he assured a reporter that he did not fear the consequences of defeat, and that he was quite comfortable in his own postseason skin.

On the day after the New York Knicks came undone, physically and mentally, their coach saw sunlight slicing through the ominous South Florida clouds. "Good things always happen to people who do the right thing," Woodson said Sunday, "and I've done the right thing."

Woodson built a winning program in Atlanta, and as head coach of the Knicks he saved the season from the dysfunctional workplace relationship between Mike D'Antoni and Carmelo Anthony, who staged a brutal playoff series of their own before the star player prevailed in a star player's league.

[+] EnlargeMike Woodson
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyMike Woodson had no answers for Erik Spoelstra in a brutal Game 1 blowout.

So on his way out of practice and toward an AmericanAirlines Arena loading dock, Woodson rejected the notion that his team's embarrassing Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat might've signaled the kind of blowout first-round series that could jeopardize a coach's standing with his employer.

"I'm really secure in what I do on and off the floor," he said. "Everything is good. … I'll be all right. If I don't work, I'll be fine."

Yes, Woodson will be fine. Even if the Heat sweep the crippled Knicks out of their misery, some losing NBA team will look at Woodson's 18-6 regular-season record, look at the way his players defended, look at the way his franchise player responded down the stretch, and offer him a chance to be its head coach.

Of course, Woodson doesn't want just any NBA job. He wants this job, the Knicks' job, and there's still a better chance than not that he'll get it.

Glen Grunwald, official GM, and Isiah Thomas, unofficial consultant, are former Indiana teammates and current friends. Bob Knight, their old Hoosiers coach, is on record saying his former player, Grunwald, would be making an "idiotic" decision if he didn't bring back Knight's other former player, Woodson.

As it is, the interim guy has the Knicks' attention and respect. Just as Patrick Ewing publicly and successfully campaigned for his interim coach, Jeff Van Gundy, to be named the full-time guy way back when, Anthony has endorsed Woodson, whose 18-6 in relief of D'Antoni looks a whole lot better than Van Gundy's 13-10 in relief of Don Nelson.

Yet Woodson isn't out of the woods, not entirely. As clearly as Anthony was outplayed by LeBron James in Game 1, Woodson was outcoached by Erik Spoelstra, acting on direct orders from Pat Riley, of course.

Spoelstra has the built-in advantage in talent and experience, as his core of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh reached last year's NBA Finals. Miami is expected to win this series in five, six at the most, meaning there's no reason to throw a parade for a 2-seed that protected its home-court advantage through one game.

But even with Tyson Chandler sick, the Knicks had no good excuse for being so thoroughly dominated by James and a defensive game plan that neither Anthony nor Woodson had any answers for.

Game 1 was long gone by the time Iman Shumpert collapsed in the middle of the third quarter; his knee injury, devastating as it was, had no impact on the end result. Miami's strategy of fronting Anthony with James or Shane Battier, while sending backside help on lobs over the top, was the chief reason the series opener devolved into such an ungodly Knicks mess.

Woodson never adjusted to the adjustments the Heat made after Melo dropped 42 on them in the Garden. His offense remained stagnant, predictable, one-dimensional, and helpless against the spirited defense designed to stop it. Spoelstra had a plan, and all Woodson had was his worst day of the year.

Sunday, on his walk to the bus, the losing coach was asked if he got mad at himself while watching the film. "No," he said. "You've got to find ways to help your team, and that's what it's all about. You've got to go home, study and try to figure out a better way. That's all you can do."

Soon enough, Woodson was talking about his first playoff series as a head coach in 2008, and how his young Hawks lost the first two games in Boston by a combined 42 points.

"That was a long plane ride back home, I'm telling you," he said. "But somehow we won Game 3 and that gave us life. We ended up forcing a Game 7 that we lost, and the Celtics went on to win the title. So in this series, I just don't want my players to get down."

It's a lot to ask for. Chandler is touch-and-go for Game 2; Baron Davis' back hurts; and Shumpert's youth, athleticism and defensive tenacity amount to irreplaceable parts. By the time Jeremy Lin's surgically repaired knee is strong enough to join in, this series could be over.

Meanwhile, James appears ready to go on a bloodless playoff tear.

"You've got to play a perfect game here to beat this team," Woodson said.

The coach does know how to win in the postseason -- he scored two first-round victories in his final two seasons in Atlanta. But he was swept in the second round by Cleveland one year and by Orlando the next, with the margins of defeat contributing to his demise (all eight losses were in double figures, and the Magic beat him by 43 in a Game 1 at home and by 30 in a Game 3 in Atlanta).

"I'd still say Mike is as good as any coach in the league," said Knicks assistant Jim Todd, a longtime Woodson ally. "People say he's a defensive coach, but he was a 10,000-point scorer in this league. He knows what to do offensively as much as he does defensively.

"Of course I think they should keep him here. He holds guys accountable, he's always prepared, and players like to play for him."

With one phone call, Phil Jackson could make all of that moot. John Calipari, the baron of the bluegrass? After he won the national title, the Kentucky coach told an associate this of the Knicks job: "I'll come if they give me 10 percent of the team."

Cal was joking … the associate thinks.

In the end, nobody knows where the Knicks will turn in the event of a Miami sweep that follows the Game 1 script. But right now, this is Woodson's job to lose.

If he doesn't want to risk losing it, he'll come to the gym Monday night with a more creative Game 2 plan.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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