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Friday, October 12, 2007

Knicks Run Past Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv, 112-85

The New York Knicks won their preseason home opener 112-85 over Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv. Although the game ended up being a blowout it was actually a competitive contest until early in the third quarter. Jamal Crawford led the Knicks with 16 points, Zach Randolph had 15 points and seven rebounds and Stephon Marbury had an uncharacteristically efficient 13 points on 4-7 shooting plus five assists and no turnovers. Former NBA players Vonteego Cummings (21 points on 6-10 shooting), Marcus Fizer (18 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) and Terence Morris (12 points on 6-9 shooting, nine rebounds) led the way for Maccabi Elite (Elite is the name of the team's primary corporate sponsor, not an arrogant adjective attached to the team's name). Three of Maccabi Elite's top players did not play due to injury, while the Knicks were without the services of Eddy Curry (shoulder injury) and Renaldo Balkman (foot injury). Newly signed Allan Houston will be joining the Knicks shortly as he begins his comeback attempt.

The game was telecast by NBA TV using an MSG Network feed and commentators Mike Breen and Walt Frazier did an excellent job explaining some of the unique circumstances surrounding this event, the first time that an international team has played against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Breen pointed out that the game was not part of the Knicks' season ticket package; tickets were sold to the general public, with the proceeds benefiting Migdal Ohr (the Hebrew words for tower of light), an Israeli charity that provides assistance to 6,500 orphaned, impoverished and underprivileged Israeli children. The resulting crowd was not necessarily anti-Knicks--New York jerseys could be seen throughout the stands--but one that was definitely pro-Maccabi Elite, so for the Knicks' players there must have been a strange feeling at times of not exactly being at home but not exactly being on the road, either. As for the mindsets of the two teams, Frazier said that for the NBA players this is a time to work on their conditioning and prepare for the upcoming regular season but for Maccabi Elite this is an opportunity to measure up with an NBA team and see where they stand. Frazier compared this to when his old Knicks teams used to play preseason games against ABA teams in the 1970s, a subject that I discussed with his teammate Earl Monroe earlier this year.

Despite being shorthanded, enduring a 12 hour flight and playing with NBA rules instead of FIBA rules, Maccabi Elite stormed out to a 15-5 lead. The Knicks did not make a field goal until Marbury's layup at the 7:00 mark. New York trimmed the margin to 25-20 by the end of the quarter. Late in the first quarter, Breen--who has previously mentioned his experiences as a referee--did his typically outstanding job of explaining some of the changes that fans will see this year in terms of how NBA games are officiated. He praised the NBA for adopting a rule that all flagrant two fouls--which result in automatic ejections--will now be subjected to mandatory on the spot video review; sometimes a play may look like a flagrant two from one referee's angle but the video may show that the contact was not quite that severe. Breen also noted that a new point of emphasis is to not allow the move in which a player starts on one foot, hops and lands on that same foot--Frazier wryly called it the "Patrick Ewing move."

The Knicks led for the first time in the game after Nate Robinson's three pointer at the 10:12 mark of the second quarter made the score 27-25. Maccabi Elite never tied or led again but they kept the margin at less than 10 points until Crawford's layup put the Knicks up 51-40 with 1:21 to go until halftime. The Knicks led 53-43 after the first 24 minutes, turning the game around by pressuring Maccabi Elite into committing 13 first half turnovers while only turning the ball over four times themselves (Maccabi Elite finished the game with 24 turnovers compared to just 11 by the Knicks). During halftime, the Knicks honored Coach Red Holzman, running a video tribute to him that was accompanied by a recording of Frank Sinatra singing his classic song "Winners." At the end of the video, these words came on the screen: "613 wins...Two World Championships...A lifetime of memories...Thanks Red."

The Knicks opened the third quarter with a 9-3 run and the game was not competitive after that point. What did this game tell us about the Knicks? Obviously, no sweeping conclusions can be drawn from this victory but there were a few positive signs for the New York faithful. Marbury demonstrated good judgment with his shot selection and passing and he put forth more effort at the defensive end than I have ever seen from him. Crawford claims to have put on 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason; he still is lean but his upper body does look more developed and he used that extra size to drive to the hoop instead of settling exclusively for long jumpers. Randolph was very productive in limited minutes. Mardy Collins (10 points in 15 minutes) came on strong at the end of his rookie season and seems to be picking up right where he left off. Nate Robinson (12 points, five assists) also had a nice game. It remains to be seen whether the Knicks can play this way against NBA competition on a night in, night out basis. Also, Curry will have to be worked back into the mix once he is healthy and it will be interesting to see how Marbury and Randolph react to that; all three players are used to shooting the ball a lot but Curry should be getting the most field goal attempts on this team because he shoots a great percentage and he operates underneath the basket, drawing double teams that break down the opposing defense.

Breen repeatedly said that there are no great teams in the East but that the battle for the last two or three playoff spots could be very intense because teams 6-13 in the conference will probably be pretty evenly matched (he never identified who he expects to be teams 14 and 15); I made a similar observation near the end of my Eastern Conference preview. It is possible that the Knicks could emerge from that group and claim a playoff spot but I still think that they will come up a little short; team chemistry and team defense have been this team's downfall in recent seasons (along with injuries) and these are still areas of concern for the Knicks.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 AM

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