Gone are the days when visiting teams from overseas treated games against NBA clubs like a championship match.
Indeed, it was the New York Knicks with everything to prove in Thursday night’s game against Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv at Madison Square Garden, before an overwhelmingly pro-Maccabi crowd.
Speaking an hour before the game as he laced up his black and orange sneakers, Knicks forward Quentin Richardson said New York wasn’t in a position to take any game off.
“Our focus has to be to win. Regular season, post-“, Richardson said, smiled and corrected himself, “pre-season games. We just have to win.”
In the end, they did, by a comfortable score of 112-85.
After a season that featured a late-season collapse from almost the day head coach and general manager Isiah Thomas signed a contract extension, to an ugly sexual harassment lawsuit against Thomas that cost the Knicks $11.6 million, winning has been in short supply for New York.
Even the supposed feel-good story, the comeback of longtime Knicks standout Allan Houston, is tinged with the failure of recent years. The Knicks signed Houston to a maximum-salary deal, then watched his health fail while his contract handcuffed efforts to bring additional players in to replace him.
Meanwhile, Maccabi is just one year removed from a Euroleague championship—a short-season tournament of the top European teams. The team has easily the most devoted following in Israel, and a record of success that makes the Yankees look like the Mets, winning 47 of 54 Israeli League championships. In fact, the team had a streak of 22 straight championships from 1970-1992 stopped in 1993. They haven’t been denied once since then.
And even the gap between European teams and NBA teams has narrowed considerably. Maccabi, for instance, defeated the Toronto Raptors in 2005 (though the Raptors came back to rout Maccabi in 2006).
When a reporter challenged longtime Maccabi guard Derrick Sharp as to whether Maccabi had a chance prior to tipoff, Sharp shot back with, “As good a chance as they do.” When the reporter asserted that a Maccabi win would be at least a surprise, Sharp responded, smiling, “Why a surprise? We have seven NBA players on this team.”
Early on in the game—technically a charity exhibition to benefit the Migdal Ohr village for disadvantaged children in Israel–fans were left to wonder whether the Knicks had even that many. Maccabi forward Marcus Fizer had several early hoops inside, while the Knicks’ inability to rotate out on jump-shooters–a bugaboo of the team last season–helped Maccabi to a 15-5 lead after five minutes of play. The first “Maccabi” chants rocked the Garden, which arguably hadn’t been so spirited since Patrick Ewing was dealt.
But the Knicks battled back, moving away from settling for jump shots, and taking advantage of a substantial size difference. After Vonteego Cummings hit a three-pointer to extended Maccabi’s lead back to 20-10 with 4:11 to go in the opening quarter, the Knicks tightened up the defense, and pulled to within 25-20 after one period.
New York continued to assert its dominance inside in the second quarter, scoring the first nine points of the period to take a 29-25 lead. A Derrick Sharp three-pointer stopped the run, and the teams traded baskets for much of the remainder of the half. But a late cold snap from Maccabi allowed New York to extend to a 53-43 lead at the half.
The second half featured what figures to be New York’s main strategy offensively this year—dumping the ball into the middle, and letting newcomer Zach Randolph and the returning Eddy Curry (currently injured) score as often as possible. And against Maccabi, it worked. Fizer drew his third foul late in the first half, and Maccabi did not have another wide body to battle inside. With only former Maryland standout Terrence Morris, a wiry 6’9”, in his way, Randolph went wild.
A text message on the Gardenvision scoreboard indicated at least some split loyalties in the crowd, “Am yisroel chai go big Randolph!”
New York extended to as much as a 24-point lead before a late Maccabi run cut the deficit to 83-67 after three quarters. But a 17-2 New York run to start the fourth quarter made the score 100-69, and removed what suspense remained. Seven Knicks finished in double figures in scoring. Cummings led Maccabi with 21, while Fizer had 18 points and 12 rebounds.
It remains an open question as to whether the Knicks can continue to stay as disciplined (just 11 turnovers) or as successful (48 points in the paint through three quarters) against NBA opponents.
Certainly, after it was all over last night, it felt just like most recent Knicks games: the majority of fans went home unhappy after watching their team get routed.