Who Needs a Basketball Lesson from the Knicks?

The Knicks were not looking for respect from the Denver Nuggets Dec. 17. That was what Isiah Thomas and his players said they had been after, when the brawl was done—professional courtesy, sportsmanship, proper treatment between competitors. What they’d wanted, they said, was for the Nuggets to honor the unwritten code of basketball.

What they meant was that they were looking for pity. And so, under the eyes of the Madison Square Garden crowd and in front of the cameras that would feed the scene into the cable-news and Internet cycle of sensation, the New York Knicks threw a tantrum.

Thomas warned the Nuggets, ahead by 20 and still pushing the ball in the final minutes, that they should stay out of the paint. It was a funny threat for the coach to be making, because it implied that the Knicks were in a position to control what happened in the paint, under their own basket.

As it turned out, they weren’t. The paint was empty when J.R. Smith of the Nuggets reached it on his way to the basket, after another Knicks turnover. There was no Knick back on defense to block the shot—or even to pretend to try to block the shot while delivering a hard, don’t-come-in-here foul. There was only Mardy Collins, beaten down the floor, hooking Smith from behind with a horse-collar tackle. The rest of the Knicks showed up, late and belligerent, when the play was over.

So much for professional pride. Before the Knicks give any more speeches about the way the game ought to be played, they might want to show that they know how to play the game at all.

Thomas’ warning and the dirtiness that followed were the first signs that these Knicks feel any sense of possession about their home floor at all. Their record at the Garden after the loss to the Nuggets was 4-10, worse than their record in away games.

Ten days before the Denver game, I was in the Garden to see the Knicks play the Washington Wizards. I was in good seats, down low on one end—season-ticket seats that a friend’s family had been holding since the moment Patrick Ewing was drafted. They only use them about half the time nowadays.

The Wizards came in winless on the road; the Knicks had already beaten them once in New York. But the Wizards, with a roster assembled by former Knicks G.M. Ernie Grunfeld, are a well-constructed team. The Knicks started off on a 9-2 run before the Wizards began working their way back into it.

And then, with the Wizards leading by one point late in the first quarter, Gilbert Arenas—the 24-year-old point guard brought in by Grunfeld to be Washington’s star—put on a brief show of force. Arenas plays his position the way Stephon Marbury is supposed to play his, taking the scoring burden on himself where a classic point guard would try to distribute the ball.

But while Marbury was making himself a laughingstock last year by declaring himself the best point guard in the game, Arenas was storming the ranks of the league scoring leaders and taking the Wizards into the playoffs. Now, he had taken the measure of the Knicks and was ready to act.

Arenas drove to the basket—the fastest figure on the floor, going in a straight line—got fouled and hit a free throw. The Knicks made a lazy inbounds pass, and he pounced and stole it for another layup. On the next possession, another foul and another free throw. Then, with three seconds on the clock, he drained a long three-pointer.

Late in the second quarter, Arenas did it again—another flurry of layups and long three-pointers, going over and around Marbury, putting the Wizards ahead 66-55 at the half as the crowd booed. At the end of three quarters, it was 99-85, and the booing was the only sign of life in the building at all.

The Wizards, unlike the Nuggets, did obey the supposed code of basketball. They took most of the fourth quarter off, emptying the bench. A scoring flurry by Mardy Collins narrowed the final margin to 113-102—which seemed fraudulent. On their merits, the Knicks had been 30 points worse than their guests. Leaving the arena, my host apologized for the game.

Did Isiah Thomas feel better about that treatment? Did he even notice?

Thomas’ noisy failure with the Knicks is an enigma. Many great athletes fail to become great coaches or general managers. Usually, though, the problem is that they can’t understand or accept the limits of lesser players.

Thomas seems to have the opposite problem. He acts as if his players’ haplessness and mediocrity doesn’t exist—as if the sluggish, graceless collection of men wearing Knicks uniforms are indistinguishable from his old Piston teammates.

As a player, he had brilliant talent, wrapped in viciousness, wrapped in a beaming smile. The smile was a mask on the viciousness, but it was also a genuine mark of the joy underneath, the pleasure a great athlete could take in his greatness. Now the basketball talent has been hollowed out. All that’s left is malice and a smile.

Who Needs a Basketball Lesson from the Knicks?