2017-12-25 20:08:03
On Pro Basketball: The Vibe Is Better for the Knicks, but There Are Perils Ahead

20:08, December 25 154 0

“No negativity,” said Walt Frazier, dressed in his Christmas best as he rode up a Madison Square Garden elevator before the Knicks’ holiday matinee on Monday. “It seems like everyone genuinely likes each other.”

That is surely significant progress for the Knicks, even if there are some disturbing similarities between where they are now and where they stood during the 2016 holiday season.

Back then, the Knicks were bouncing around the playoff cutoff line as they moved toward the halfway point of the season. A year later, the same situation applies, but with the Knicks confronting a schedule that will have them play 14 of their next 17 games on the road.

On Christmas Day a year ago, the Knicks’ record fell to 16-14 with a loss to the Boston Celtics, a game in which Carmelo Anthony made a costly turnover in the final seconds. After that defeat, the season quickly fell apart.

The current Knicks stand at 17-16 after a 105-98 loss on Monday to Philadelphia, a disappointing result that — shades of last year — included some very sloppy play by several players in the final minutes.

And while nobody wants to believe this is déjà vu — or whatever phrase Frazier might come up with from his broadcast dictionary — the coming road games appear very large and menacing at the moment.

“It’s just a challenge for the team,” Coach Jeff Hornacek said after Monday’s loss. “We’ll be out there seven, nine days, maybe we get on a groove on the road. We’ll keep plugging away and we’ll see.”

Last year, the Knicks lost eight of their next nine games after the Christmas defeat, a miserable stretch that would further expose the underlying battle between Anthony and Phil Jackson.

Neither of those duelists is around anymore, and neither is particularly missed. Jackson has been replaced as team president by Steve Mills, a less-entitled sort with a considerably thinner portfolio. Anthony has joined the Oklahoma City Thunder, and made them no better than before his arrival.

The Knicks are definitely a more harmonious group now, yet that is no guarantee of future success. They have been awful at times on the road this season, with a 2-10 mark, and their schedule this fall was front-loaded with home games because the Grammys and college basketball tournaments will fill up long stretches at the Garden in the next few months.

A moment of reckoning may be imminent.

For now, though, the Knicks’ record remains respectable and everyone is still operating in the holiday spirit. There were hugs in the corridor before the game on Monday and a heartfelt huddle led by Kristaps Porzingis. Then came a tough loss caused in part by missed free throws, lousy coverage of inbounds plays, sloppy turnovers and a deadly five-second inbounds violation with just over a minute left.

Porzingis missed five free throws, hit only 6 of 19 shots from the field and was not himself in the lumbering, physical game.

“Teams are trying to force me to take shots I don’t want,” he said afterward. “As the game slows down for me, I will be able to see the right pass or the right shot. I’m still learning and developing, learning from my mistakes.”

Despite such setbacks, this team is embraceable. Enes Kanter, in particular, has become something of a frontman for the team’s unexpected competitiveness. “Kanter Claus,” as he was called on Monday, regaled the crowd with a pregame speech and then put up 31 points and 22 rebounds.

It was the first 30-point, 20-rebound game by a Knick since David Lee had 37 points and 20 rebounds in April 2010.

“People have been sending me texts, congratulating me,” Kanter said afterward. “But I’m not going to text them back. Doesn’t matter. New York wants to see the playoffs.”

Kanter, who was acquired in the Anthony trade, is a tough guy apparently having a great deal of fun in New York, and his skirmish earlier this season with LeBron James endeared him to both Knicks fans and teammates. He would like to bring that sort of attitude with him wherever the Knicks play.

“We need some energy from the bench on the road,” said Kanter, who has also been forceful in his criticism of the government in Turkey, his homeland.

A fair argument can be made that these Knicks are hurting themselves with their .500-ish record, that it could keep them from winning when it counts, in June’s draft lottery. But there are no real guarantees as far as that is concerned. Even the 76ers, who have landed two draft jewels in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, are struggling and below .500 for yet another season.

As the Knicks provide at least some reason for hope, there is also evidence of a thaw between the team and the local news media. That relationship has become difficult at best over the years, and sometimes outright adversarial. But the Knicks have made an effort to lower the barricades that faced any reporter hoping to gain reasonable access to their players.

None of this, of course, will help if the Knicks proceed to drop eight of their next nine games, just as they did a year ago. Fresh antagonisms will surely be bared. And if that happens, the Garden will feel more familiar: filled to the brim with fans who aren’t quite certain why they bothered to pay the money.

And that elevator ride before the game will feel a lot longer.