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Knicks among NBA teams rising from the dead
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Well, it's difficult to smother most bad teams for an entire season. There are enough games to allow teams that seem more brutal than necessary to have a few blind-squirrel moments. And after suffering through some early season's gratings, the New York Knicks are leading these blind squads toward relative resurrections. Please note that rising from the NBA dead can be a phenomenon affecting specific coaches and players, too.
But we'll begin with Coach Mike D'Antoni and his lame-duck-sniping Knicks, who currently sit at a chilly 14-20. But considering that they began 1-9, this 13-11 run might make Knicks fans downright optimistic. The current 6-3 surge includes three wins in the last four games, with — it figures — the only setback in this last stretch provided by the John Wall-dreamin' New Jersey Nets.
New York currently checks in at 10th in the Eastern Conference (mediocrity, gotta love it!), just 1 1/2 games removed from owning a playoff spot.
The aforementioned surge includes a come-from-pretty-far-behind (13 points entering the fourth quarter) victory over the hotshot Atlanta Hawks. Even more noteworthy was the catalyst for this rally, none other than Nate Robinson, the smallest professional shooting guard on the planet. In case you hadn't been following the Knicks, Nate was required to bury his 5-foot-9 frame on the New York bench for 14 consecutive games. By bury, we mean a no-subbing, zero minutes for 14 games.
D'Antoni said Robinson was benched to help him focus on winning. Nate's agent announced that his client wanted to be traded, a public declaration that's against regulations.
Anyway, after sitting out the first quarter vs. the Hawks, Nate was summoned and promptly poured in 41 points — including 11 in overtime — to return as New York's temporary hero. The Knicks followed that win with a triumph over the Indiana Pacers; Robinson only went 2 for 6 and finished with six points because rising from the dead can tire out a guy's shootin' arm.
Although the winner of their last four games has scored in triple digits, the Knicks had experienced a seven-game stretch that featured neither team reaching 100 points. The offensive efficiency hasn't made that much of a nose dive in that time, which means D'Antoni's Knicks are playing at a pace that better suits their limited talent. For now, New York is registered at eighth in possessions per 48 minutes (94.2) after finishing second with more than two extra touches per game last season. That's a pretty significant downshift for D'Antoni, who now seems to understand that putting your team in position to win sometimes means tweaking your system.
The Knicks also are helping themselves by securing defensive rebounds at a clip that puts them ninth in the league, 12 spots higher than they finished last season.
A team brushing off even more dirt is the Toronto Raptors, who have won six of seven and now sit at 17-18. How have the Raptors — whose most recent triumph came at the expense of the San Antonio Spurs — done it? Well, even though they still rank last in defense efficiency, they have given up an average of only 89 points in those last seven games, 16 fewer than their season average. The pace has remained the same, so the recent success means the Raptors really are stopping dribble penetration, pumping cutters, closing out and contesting shots.
The main reason for this whopping defensive-efficiency upgrade is the absence of injured point guard Jose Calderon. Without Jose, who couldn't guard a bear in a phone booth, most of the minutes are going to defensive-minded Jarrett Jack. Another factor is the rise in minutes for small forward Sonny Weems, who takes time away from matador Antoine Wright.
One team that has defended for most of this season is Larry Brown's Charlotte Bobcats. We would refer to them as Michael Jordan's Bobcats, but we're not sure MJ has seen them play. The Bobcats, whose third-ranked defense has been consistent this season, are 14-17, with four wins in their last six games. The most recent victims were the Miami Heat and — drum roll here — the Cleveland Cavaliers, both on the road.
In the win over the Cavaliers, LeBron James and Mo Williams combined to make 23 of 38 shots against the Bobcats, who held everyone else to 12 of 35.
With marksmanship as our segue, let's go to Memphis, where the Grizzlies' 6-of-7 run puts them at 16-16 on the season. They won't even be required to forfeit any wins just for supplying a stipend to O.J. Mayo.
For clues explaining why the Grizz are rollin', look no further than historically maligned power forward Zach Randolph. Zach, who's always been a numbers guy (we'll try using that expression without irony) has been giving Memphis 20 points (on 51-percent shooting) and 11 rebounds per game. But in the last seven, he's gone for 27 and 16, while making 57 percent of his shots.
After sending Randolph to Memphis, another Los Angeles team is giving its fans a reason to grin. Yeah, that would be the deadly Clippers, who have three wins in four games. While still awaiting the debut of Blake Griffin, the Clips have taken down the limping Boston Celtics and Portland Trail Blazers. Sometimes the key to better defense is a wounded opposition.
With last rites all but screamed out in Chicago on behalf of beleaguered Coach Vinny Del Negro, the Bulls ran off four consecutive victories. It was reported that Vinny — who had never coached on any level until he was hired to lead the Bulls before last season — was a goner just as soon as a suitable replacement was found. Then point guard Derrick Rose started attacking the basket more often and getting to the free-throw line; he averaged 21 points in the four-game run. Rose then went to the line once against Oklahoma City and the Thunder defeated the Bulls.
With the Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, Clippers and Golden State Warriors on the schedule over the next couple of weeks, the Bulls may not need to find another coach — or a priest — for a while.
Another guy seemingly on NBA life support was Allen Iverson, who has returned to Philly just in time to help the Sixers win three of their last four games. A.I., who bounced in Memphis after whining about his role as key reserve, has provided an average of 16 points in those four games. But at 10-23, it will take more than Lazarus to get this team into the postseason.
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