After missing the opportunity to do an exchange with Seth of Posting and Toasting before the first Knicks versus Spurs game, I was looking out for an opportunity to make up for that grievous error. And early in December, after New York's big win over the Heat in Miami, I decided to reach out and make amends. The following conversation began December 7th, and was completed just last night.
You guys have had a few up and downs already this year, but you're sitting at the top of the Eastern conference, playing great defense and sitting on a winning streak of five in a row. In deference to TOAO Bob Dylan; Seth,
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be away from home
To drop the Heat like a stone
And throw Miami-haters a bone?
It feels so strange. I mean, it feels terrific, but it's so off-putting to see the Heat look that helpless against the Knicks. Twice! And you're right to mention that they didn't just do it with the three-point shooting (did you say that or am I just projecting on you? Oh well ;) they contained LeBron as best they could and kept Bosh and Wade away from the basket. It helps that the Heat couldn't hit anything, of course.
Do you have any idea what this feeling is like? For your team to surprise you with its dominance? To feel bewildered and uneasy about success? YOU SPOILED BRAT. Sorry I'm yelling.
Do I know the feeling? Yes.
Am I a spoiled brat? Hmmm. Do you feel like one?
Am I an uneasy? Well that one is a no, for sure. After a while, it seems that you find a way to get somewhat used to the success. Or at least that's the way that I've responded during the regular season at least. But I certainly understand the temptation toward uneasiness as that is the way we all felt about the Spurs' sudden ability to score the ball when Pop switched styles two years ago. When success comes suddenly and from an unexpected direction, the first response is to distrust it and wonder if it will dissipate as quickly as it appeared.
I remember watching week after week, continually wondering whether the mirage would ever vanish and leave us staring blankly at the team we had known up to that point. And all of the players having shed their can-do-no-wrong glory assumed their more familiar humdrum game, staring back at us as if to say, "I have no idea how we did it, and I couldn't tell you what it is we need to do to get it back." Yeah, having the feeling that your team has just been playing with lightning they found in a bottle that somebody else had used to catch it -- that's scary. But my guess is that somewhere around the 40-game mark you guys will feel a bit more secure in trusting that the way the Knick's have been playing is for real and repeatable. Then you'll be able to start looking forward to the playoffs.
Yeah, sorry, I don't know why I started this by shouting at you. I need to stop answering emails in the middle of the day. That's good, helpful news. Thank you. How are the Spurs? How are folks feeling about the Spurs? I saw that Bucks game but other than that it seems like it's been a quiet week. Are Spurs people restless? Relaxed? Regular?
Right now, with the way they are continuing to win even though they've been bit by the injury bug, I've got to admit I'm feeling pretty good. I mean, they are playing with out any small forwards right now. They played the Miami Heat to a near standstill without the big 3 plus Danny Green. They came back from a double-digit fourth-quarter lead against the Memphis team that's such a bad matchup for them. They're currently the league's best first and fourth quarter team. They're in the top 10 in efficiency for both offense and defense. Pop is experimenting on both ends, trying out different techniques and tactics to find more weapons to use once the playoffs roll around so that we don't suffer the same fate we did last year against Oklahoma City.
And Tim Duncan is playing like he's five years younger than his birth certificate says. What's not to like?
So how are you feeling about your team's season?
The Knicks are good. They're first in the East as I write this, which is not a spot they've occupied this deep into the season since I've been a fan of the team, which is almost my whole life. I don't really know what to do with myself. Now, you're a fan accustomed to rooting for a team near the top of the league, and one that's sitting up there right now without having made much "noise". I've called you a spoiled brat for this before, which wasn't nice, but seriously, does one begin to take such excellence for granted at some point? Do you every worry about the Spurs? Has this particular quarter-season of excellence stood out in any way compared to the litany of other excellent stretches you've enjoyed? Does this even feel excellent to you? It's just funny to me that my team is first in the East and I'm over here bewildered and instinctively terrified that it's all going to come crashing down while Spurs fans barely bat an eyelash at a superb start. Or at least it seems that way to me. I could be so wrapped up in my own excitement that I'm overlooking enthusiasm elsewhere.
I don't know whether to bristle at your perceived lack of "noise" during a year where the Spurs have already made more mid-season waves then the last five years combined. First, Popovich went toe-to-toe with the commish in the whole Restgate debacle, then Tim and Tony had their Halloween picture blown up out of all proportion, and now Stephen Jackson has been fined by the team for calling out Serge Ibaka when San Antonio hasn't even played the Thunder since the first of November. I mean, the team is bristling with street cred and thuggish-ness like never before. Haven't made much noise, hmph!
If you're talking about what the team does on the court, who they've beaten, how well they played, and whether the press is bothering to take any notice of them -- well, by that measure you are absolutely correct about the Dome of Silence hanging over the Alamo City. But in that way, it's the same as every other year and nothing that Spurs fans aren't used to.
Now to your actual questions: I think that anyone can get to the point where they take for granted just about anything, if given enough time with it. That said, everyone has their own amount of tolerance to certain things, and my brand of fannish-ness is one that tends to constantly take a moment out to revel in the incredible feats my team is able to pull off. That way, it always feels like excellence to me. I mean, tell me you can look at this and refuse to be impressed:
It's human nature to grow accustomed to the status quo, but I think it's in the nature of a fan to always worry about the team. And the up-and-down nature of the NBA season lends itself to a constant pulse-checking of their fortunes, all the while mentally measuring your team against whoever it looks like they'll meet in the playoffs. So, no, there really isn't a time when a team gets so good that anxiety about their chances is a thing of the past. Even during last year's 20 game win streak, there was a surreal air about it all. And I'm sure that most of us felt that we needed a pinch to make sure that we were really awake.
One more reason to always be present during the Spurs season, is the over-arching knowledge that Father Time is stalking the Spurs. Tim Duncan may be continually turning back the clock as he has early this season, but in the back of our minds we know that it can't go on forever. All evidence to the contrary, there just has to be an upper limit to what the human body is able to do in staving off old age, and since no one is looking forward to that moment, it gives a sense of rarity and preciousness to even routine moments.
This season is standing out from the rest in some interesting ways. Popovich, not content to sit idly by after the way Oklahoma City streaked past the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, has made good on his preseason statement about making tweaks to the offense and defense that would make them a tougher out, come this year's playoffs. Zach Lowe has already written about their offensive changes, and on defense they're sending guys to contest those mid-range jumpers that they've always invited offenses to take, while still being committed to denying chances at the rim and three-pointers. At first, the defensive changes looked as though they would screw up one is always been one of the main strengths of the Spurs: defensive rebounding. But lately that seems like it's being dealt with.
Kinda how the Knicks are dealing with their schedule. Seriously, did you have any idea that Raymond Felton was capable of this kind of play? Are you always looking over your shoulder wondering whether Carmelo's selfless play is here to stay? Where do you come down on the A'm'a'r'e' question? And it sure looks like you dodged the Jeremy Lin bullet perfectly, doesn't it? (Yes, you really should click on that last link.)
Yeah, that Father Time...he may be looming, but he's taking his time in San Antonio. I mean, Tim Duncan's just not being fair right now.
As far as the Knicks go, yeah, I honestly did expect Raymond Felton to play like this. I've come to regard Felton as the kind of guy who can be quite an effective player when motivated and quite a toxic player when disgruntled. When he showed up at Summer League looking like half the jiggly, moody man he was in Portland, then gave MSG one of the more pissed-off, eager interviews I've seen in a while, I suspected he was ready to have a big year. I also knew how much he loved playing in New York and saw him play some All-Star caliber weeks (some bad ones, too) during his half season here. That said, it's not like Felton's played GREAT. He's had some outright revolting games where teams invited him to shoot and he just devours the invitation. He's been solid, though. I've always loved his toughness, and he's got a nice rapport with his teammates here. On top of that, the Knicks' other ballhandler, Jason Kidd, is someone Felton respects and defers to when the situation calls for it. Given Felton's personal pride, I'm not sure that'd be the case with other running mates. I don't know about "dodging a bullet" with Lin (at least not the way Remo did it), since I still think Lin projects to be the better player over time, but I'm now convinced that the guys on this team respect Felton and respond better to his presence. He commands the team without infringing on anybody's egos. It's kind of silly that things like this matter among professional adults, but the Knicks deserve credit for recognizing that. Given the way Gregg Popovich and the Spurs operate, it's hard to imagine something like this ever being a concern in San Antonio, but maybe I've forgotten something.
Regarding the Amar'e question...it's a question. I see plenty of room for him in this rotation. Kurt Thomas is getting minutes, Rasheed Wallace is getting way too much usage, and the Knicks are often stuck with weird, small lineups when someone's in foul trouble. Like everyone, I have my worries about Woodson trying to wedge Amar'e back into heavy rotation with Melo AND Chandler on the floor. If this group continues to succeed, though, it's hard to imagine Woody having the nerve to warp things significantly abruptly. And I don't think Amar'e will make a stink one way or the other. But yeah, as long as its in relative moderation, I see plenty of time for Amar'e to keep the Knicks pick-and-roll game alive when Chandler is off the floor, or to draw double teams with Melo is off the floor, and to be honest, I still have hope for units that include all three of 'em. Injuries and unrest marred a lot of their time together last season. I'm excited for Amar'e to return, provided he's healthy enough to provide something vaguely resembling his usual play.
Is this kind of uncertainty familiar to you guys at all? I'm trying to think of a time when the Spurs played really, unexpectedly well with someone missing, such that it raised questions about that player's return. I guess they've been doing fine without Kawhi, but nobody's really doubting his role when he comes back, right? I suppose that could be a type of overreaction unique to the New York media/fanbase.
Well, if you are looking for a recent time when one of the main cogs in the Spurs machine was missing and yet they kept on churning ahead undaunted, I think I can help you out. Last year, Manu broke his hand early in the season (when he was shooting the ball as well as, if not better than, he ever had before) and then when he did come back, he had a couple of lingering issues that kept him out of the regular rotation in till very late in the regular season. All the Spurs did during that time was run off a couple of different 11 game winning streaks, each of which was ended when Pop rested Tim and Tony simultaneously. And that is just the most recent. As a rule, San Antonio has the biggest drop off in win percentage when looking at Manu's splits, which also means that even when Duncan or Parker has had to sit due to injury, they still been able to chug along quite well.
I'm sure that you have to take a lot of different things into account when considering New York's unique media and fan base, but I'm not going to let you off the hook. This is the last time that the Spurs will meet the Knicks regular-season and I'm going to have to ask you this again, mainly because I am so curious about this single development with your team and I think it is the main reason for the dominant season that New York is having so far. Namely, Carmelo Anthony's unselfish play.
I've never had an issue with Melo's talent. I've never had a question about his ability. His commitment to improving himself as far as his overall game is concerned has always been above reproach, in my eyes. His basketball IQ? I'm not going there, but here's where I will go --
He is currently playing in the most selfless, team first, circle-the-wagons-were-all-in-this-together kind of way, that it almost makes me wonder if something "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" happened over the summer. And it's not just that, he's playing defense as part of that team concept and he's doing so with a will. To be blunt, I didn't think he had it in him. In fact, I'm nothing short of shocked. If he continues playing like this, I could actually see you guys giving Miami everything they could handle. But if he loses his laser-like focus that I have seen from him so far this year, then I could see you guys dropping to the eighth seed.
So tell me, Seth, do you see the same thing here that I see? Is his play as different for you watching him every game as it has been for me catching him on the nights that I have? And do you see Carmelo being able to maintain this all year long and into the playoffs?
I see a changed Melo, but only to some extent. He's definitely seizing a greater percentage of opportunities to hit open men. At its best, the Knicks' offense revolves around Melo's abilities to overwhelm single coverage and dish out of help. The former, I think, begets the latter, and therein lies the improvement from last season. Even through injury, Melo's hit a substantial portion of his shots. Makes invite doubles, and doubles invite open looks for others, three-point shooters in particular. To my eye, Melo's been identifying and supplying those open looks more readily than in previous years, but the uptick in shooting accuracy is most striking and generative of the other options. It's certainly not the only thing, but it's the first thing.
Now, those three-point shooters have been cold lately, so when he's been healthy, Melo has looked to isolate and create points on his own, more or less taking turns with J.R. Smith in that approach. It's all the Knicks have had going for long stretches of the past couple weeks.
But yeah, I'm thrilled with Melo's production so far and hopeful he can maintain it. I especially hope New York's shooting corps can recalibrate to lend him some support and get the offense back to where it was (not that the team offense is the issue right now, but it would help). He's less and less liable to defer out of those double teams with each miss by an open shooter, I'm afraid.
Long term, there's nothing for you to really worry about. Steve Novak is a career .435 from three-point land. Jason Kidd, ever since the 2007-08 season, has is a combined .400 (or so) from beyond the arc. Rasheed Wallace, when spotting up, makes a very respectable number of his long balls, and I understand that 35-year-old rookie point guards have historically performed very well in the second half of the season, so Pablo should be just fine as well.
Really, I think you're making a big deal out of nothing here. Yes, I know that you guys are playing .500 ball over your last 10 games, but Melo's been sitting out to get healthy, and you can't really judge the team under those conditions. In fact -- Wait a second, you P&T-types are doing a get together where you will be physically in the same place to watch the Spurs play tonight, and New York is undefeated when such a gathering takes place? This changes everything. I sure wish I had found out about this sooner, so that I could've saved the time trying to make you feel better. I take it all back.
You're on your own.