A baffling loss in Toronto on Friday night left the once-sizzling New York Knicks suddenly in need of a spark.
In the wake of the 17-point defeat against one of the league’s worst clubs, New York’s impressive five-game win streak no longer seemed so remarkable. And the talk that these new-look Knicks — thriving under interim head coach Mike Woodson — could be an under-the-radar championship contender looked as silly in practice as it sounded in theory.
Enter Big Max.
That would be Max Cayard, the Knicks’ manager of player security. A hulking man who looks like he could play O-line for the Jets when he’s not busy protecting basketball players, Cayard approached veteran big man Tyson Chandler on the plane ride home from the Great White North with a few ideas for how to inject some confidence back into the Knicks locker room.
"Big Max told me to break my ring out today," Chandler said Saturday after the Knicks’ 101-79 bounce-back rout of the Detroit Pistons, referring to his NBA championship ring, which he won with the Dallas Mavericks last season — and break it out he did.
Perched on Chandler’s left hand both before and after Saturday’s game was the hulking piece, a mammoth collection of diamonds — one worth an estimated $40,000 — featuring the words "World Champion" engraved prominently on the face. Chandler, naturally, didn’t have to flaunt the ring for his teammates to take notice.
"He didn’t really say too much; he just wore the ring around," rookie guard Iman Shumpert said. "And if you don’t get motivated by that, then I’m sorry for you."
But just in case anyone missed the massive boulder on Chandler’s finger, Cayard and Woodson also helped put into motion a plan to add some extra motivation to the Knicks locker room in the form of some championship décor.
When the Knicks players filed in at halftime Saturday, each found a simple black poster with an image of the Larry O’Brien Trophy hanging above his locker — a constant visual reminder of where New York wants to be and how far away from that goal the Knicks currently are.
"We just want to get our focus back," Chandler said of the posters. "There’s been talk among the staff and among us that we’ve got to know what we’re fighting for."
Whether it was the ring or the posters or maybe just the lingering embarrassment of a loss to the lowly Raptors, the message clearly got across. And the Knicks on Saturday looked more like the team that won five straight games by an average of 18.6 points per game than the one that shot 37.6 percent from the floor Friday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Amar’e Stoudemire led New York with 17 points on Saturday, and Chandler added 15 points and 17 rebounds as the Knicks held Detroit to 36.8 percent shooting in the victory that was never really close.
"On the flight back home (from Toronto), we felt like we let one go," Chandler said. "We felt like we didn’t come out with the energy we needed to in that game. We wanted to come out tonight with a purpose and get back on the right track."
The win, of course, didn’t exactly come as a surprise. Detroit entered Saturday night’s game 16-31 overall, having lost four straight games and five of their past six. Furthermore, the Knicks already had crushed the Pistons twice this season — a 103-80 road win on Jan. 4 and a 113-86 home victory on Jan. 31, both routs occurring before Linsanity was even a thing.
But recent history suggests the Knicks are a team that can struggle to regroup when they’re dealt an unexpected blow, so the win was important nonetheless.
That remarkable inconsistency was on display when the Knicks followed up a 10-3 end to February with an 0-6 start to March, one that eventually led to head coach Mike D’Antoni’s resignation. And the biggest question Woodson’s Knicks have faced since he took over as interim head coach is whether or not they truly are any different — any tougher — than they were before D’Antoni walked away.
The key to evaluating this New York team isn’t witnessing how truly awesome it can be when it is playing well — and it can be breathtakingly good. It’s more about discovering whether this incarnation of the Knicks can be introspective in defeat and truly learn from their losses, a trait we have yet to see, despite what happened against Detroit.
Saturday night’s rout would seem to suggest they are on their way to getting over that hump, but one win over a pushover Pistons team isn’t exactly a sign they’re out of the woods just yet.
We’ll know better after this week — one that features matchups with potential playoff teams in Milwaukee, Orlando and Atlanta — whether the demons that haunted D’Antoni’s Knicks also will derail Woodson’s quest to guide this talented team to its full potential.
The first test for the Knicks will be Monday night when the Bucks visit Madison Square Garden.
After their home loss to Indiana on Saturday, Milwaukee dropped 1 1/2 games back of New York for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
But the Bucks are still just a game back of the Knicks in the loss column, and the result of Monday night’s game could prove huge for both teams over the season’s final month. The Knicks lost 100-86 on Jan. 20 at home and 119-114 on March 9 in Milwaukee. A loss Monday would guarantee a season series win for the Bucks, giving them the tiebreaker should the teams finish with identical records by season’s end.
And much like the Knicks’ seven-game win streak in February, their most recent run of six wins in seven games is merely enough to keep them in the playoff race.
You’d never know it based on the hype and the proclamations that New York could be poised for a playoff run — a notion only furthered with the latest addition to the team’s locker-room furnishings — but the first order of business before said playoff run is making the playoffs at all.
"We want to continue playing the way we’ve been playing, but as far as that game goes, it’s a very big game for us," said Carmelo Anthony, who had 15 points Saturday. "We need that game, and we’re going to go out there and do everything in our power to get it."
Saturday night’s win was nice, but it said very little about who this Knicks team is now and who they can be going forward. Of much greater consequence is the road ahead and what happens next.
"We’re trying to make a run here," Stoudemire said. "We’re trying to do something special."
And though the symbolism of a teammate’s championship ring and a few new posters may not help, they certainly can’t hurt, either.
"This is why I play basketball," Shumpert said, motioning toward the poster above his locker. "I just grew up watching Jordan win it over and over. That’s everybody’s dream, that’s every kid’s dream, and I’m glad I’m in a locker room that’s chasing it."