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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
15 Apr 2023
Tribune News Service


NextImg:Mike Lupica: Knicks are really good but still a star player away from being a title threat

The last time the Knicks were even close to big ideas at this time of year was 10 years ago next month, when Carmelo Anthony went down the baseline and tried to throw down a dunk against the Pacers in Game 6 in Indianapolis. The Knicks were playing for their season that night, down three games to two, but trying to get themselves a chance at a Game 7 at the Garden. And a chance to play the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron and the Heat, against whom they had won three of four games that year.

Carmelo was the leading man the Knicks needed that season, until he wasn’t, meeting Roy Hibbert at the rim.

The Knicks had won 54 games that year under Mike Woodson, one of the most under-appreciated coaches in the history of the franchise even if the genius Phil Jackson didn’t see things that way later. Carmelo was No. 3 in the MVP voting, J.R. Smith, bless his heart, was Sixth Man of the Year, and Jason Kidd had the ball.

There were a lot of role players you don’t remember from that season — Pablo Prigioni and Iman Shumpert and Steve Novak are a few of the names — but they all still won the Atlantic Division. And even though they had put themselves into a hole by losing Game 1 to the Pacers at the Garden, they were up 92-90 without about five minutes left and if Carmelo threw one down, they were up four.

Only Hibbert, a Georgetown guy about to be a bad man against Patrick Ewing’s old team, produced his fifth block of that game, an amazing, all-world block at the rim, and the Pacers went off on a 9-0 run from there and finally won by seven and the Knicks were done.

“That play changed a lot, obviously,” Woodson, now the coach at his alma mater, Indiana, said Thursday night from Bloomington. “It’s a different game, and maybe a different ending to that series, if Hibbert doesn’t make that block.”

Even if the Knicks had won the game and won the series, and even with what they’d done against the Heat in the regular season, LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had had an amazing season, with a 66-16 record, twelve games better in the loss column than the Knicks.

“But we’d played them real tough that year, even in the one game we’d lost,” Woodson said. “But we’ll never know.”

Now, ten years after all that, the Knicks’ team that opened the playoffs on Saturday night against the Cavaliers have the best team they’ve had since, at least when Julius Randle is out there with Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett. They are much better than they were two years ago, when they finished No. 4 in the conference, deeper and more talented and more athletic, trying to do exactly what Woodson’s Knicks did a decade ago:

Play themselves into a shot at the best team in the conference and the best player, which means Giannis. Milwaukee’s LeBron. Somebody else always has one of the best players. The Knicks never do.

It is why the best thing the Knicks have done, especially this season, is not produce the record they have. It is that being as young and deep and talented as they are could make them an attractive destination when one of the best players — say someone like Luka Doncic — wakes up one morning and wants to come be a leading man on a big stage in New York.

You know what the dream really is for the Knicks, even as they’re trying to win their second postseason series in this century?

It is Luka. Or somebody like Luka. One of those guys.

Randle, before his ankle injury and around the times when he acted like a hothead, has been one of the truly admirable blue-collar players in the league this season. Buck Showalter, when talking about his star position players, Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor, refers to them as “posting up.” He doesn’t mean posting up like Randle can. He means showing up for work, game in and game out. You know how many games Alonso and Lindor missed last season, combined? Three.

Brunson, of course, has become as important a free-agent acquisition as the Knicks have ever had. Barrett is still just 22 years old, and a fascinating work in progress. Maybe the Knicks can keep adding talented role players. Maybe they can find another Immanuel Jaylen Quickley with the 25th pick in the first round and add that player to what they have and move up a little more in the standings.

But how far?

Barring some sort of new Miracle on 33rd St., do you see them being better than the Bucks anytime soon, or the Celtics, or the 76ers, at least until they start breaking up the 76ers again? The Bucks have Giannis. The Celtics have Jayson Tatum. The 76ers have Joel Embiid, who might do something remarkable this year, and have voters see him as being even more valuable to his team than Giannis was to the Bucks.

The Knicks need somebody to be the kind of star Carmelo was when he was at his best and carried them in 2012-13, when he averaged nearly 29 points and carried them all the way to Roy Hibbert. There were only two players the voters saw as being more valuable than he was that year:

LeBron James.

Kevin Durant.

Brunson has been terrific this season, and will be terrific for a long time at the Garden. But he isn’t one of those guys, as much of a joy as he has been to watch with the ball in his hands. He just isn’t.

The Knicks need a Luka, who is now stuck on a team, the Mavericks, who was as big a disappointment as there was in the sport this season. Or maybe there is a way for them to get an even better Kentucky kid than Quickley is, get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander out of Oklahoma City. Because you know something? Gilgeous-Alexander was an even better basketball player than Luka was this season, and has a team that was still playing this week.

And Gilgeous-Alexander should be something else, when all is said and done, and that means All-NBA. First-team All-NBA. He was that good for the Thunder.

The Knicks were a show again this season, even more than they were two years ago before they lost to Trae Young and the Hawks in the first round. They have beaten the Celtics this season in a thrilling overtime game, beaten the 76ers, beaten the Nuggets and the Kings and the Suns. They’re really good, and they absolutely could be a destination for a great player who wants to come to New York and at least put them back in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1999.

You just wonder when that might be. And, if you’re a Knicks fan, dream about who it might be.

I didn’t have the heart to tell Angel Reese that I frankly didn’t care whether she attended the White House ceremony for her LSU team or not.

How long is it going to be before we start hearing that the Knicks are going to make a play for Zion, a guy who’s been hurt the past few years even more than Giancarlo Stanton?

My pal Stanton suggests that winning at any cost might not be Lamar Jackson’s cost when this is all said and done.

Maybe Chaim Bloom, the Red Sox general manager, thought his fans wouldn’t notice that he decided to play this season without a shortstop.

The way things are going at Fenway, Bloom is going to be lucky to make it through this season.

It is worth noting, even at this time when Aaron Judge is the reigning home run king of the world, that Pete Alonso has led baseball in home runs since he arrived at Citi Field.

And also leads the world in RBI since 2019.

The NBA is always more interesting when LeBron James is in play, period.

Don’t tell me that Brooks Koepka was ready to be in the barrel with Jon Rahm at Augusta after playing his 54-hole Member-Guest tournaments for Greg Norman.

And while it was big fun watching Phil Mickelson turn back the clock at the Masters with that 65, he played under absolutely no pressure last Sunday.

Neither did Patrick Reed, another Saudi All-Star who’d won his own green jacket and finished where he did on the leaderboard.

Rahm was the one who took it all on, took on everybody, and beat them.

And I’m sorry, but the idea that anybody except Rahm was the big winner on the best day of the golf year is bananas.

By the way?

Let’s see the big TV ratings spike the next time the LIV boys do play a Member-Guest, wherever that is and whenever that is.

It is going to be something if the Rays run away from the Yankees and everybody else in the AL East this season with their $74 million payroll.

Here’s what I was thinking the other night as young Mr. Brito of the Yankees was getting lit up by the Twins:

Jhony, we hardly knew ye.

Finally today:

We had another wedding in our family on Saturday, with our second son Alex and his bride, Jen.

It was one of those days that made all of us in attendance believe that things can still work out the way they’re supposed to in this world, with two people this much in love.

And I’d tell you it was one of those lovely moments that made us believe in happy endings.

Except that this was a joyful beginning.

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