Commentary

Time to see what D'Antoni is made of

The Knicks finally have practice time coming up, which could make or break the season

Updated: March 30, 2011, 9:26 AM ET
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPNNewYork.com

The epic spiral transpiring with the New York Knicks finally, mercifully, hit pause on Monday night. For an excruciating 53 minutes inside Madison Square Garden, we finally witnessed an offensive assault by Carmelo Anthony and some defensive intensity, too.

A win resulted for a change. So for just a moment we get to stop fast-forwarding to the end of this season, spewing our vitriol -- envisioning the obligatory news conference announcing the dismissal of Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni.

But only for the moment.

After that, it's entirely possible that this city can return back to the cynics we inherently are, lamenting the perpetual demise of this Knicks' franchise, wondering if the basketball Gods will ever grant a reprieve from a misery too painful, too unconscionable, to believe will keep on happening.

The Knicks provided a glimpse into what life should be like, courtesy of Anthony's 39 points, 10 rebounds and their overtime win over the Orlando Magic. But now comes the hard part:

Practice.

We talking 'bout practice, man!

After the Knicks were summarily dismissed by the Boston Celtics eight days ago, Chauncey Billups stood outside the locker room, explaining why they appeared so troubled. The Knicks point guard said, "We're basically using our games as practice. We haven't had any time together to practice and develop any chemistry, cohesion to learn one another. Nothing! The results are what they are because of it," he explained.

We'll take Billups' words for what it's worth. But with that being said, and the Knicks scheduled to play the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday night before getting off four full days prior to their next game, it's safe to assume we'll finally be able to eliminate that excuse and get down to the business of fairly judging whether D'Antoni should remain the coach of this franchise.

After playing the Nets, the Knicks don't play again until Sunday. That's yet another home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the worse team in the NBA, yet one who's beaten the Knicks all three times they've played this season. In the days to follow, there is another home game versus Toronto, followed by road games in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Indiana (who beat the Knicks in a home-and-home encounter two weeks ago).

A show of hands to anyone who thinks the talent on this Knicks' squad shouldn't win at least five of these games?

Thought so!

A moment of praise is deserving for D'Antoni, if for nothing else but his honesty. Just last week D'Antoni admitted he noticed the heat aimed in his direction, that the ire of Knicks' fans are totally "justified" due to the way they were playing, and that a level of "urgency" was being felt as the days waned before postseason action begins.

Well, with the Knicks still ranked in the bottom half of the league, defensively, yielding 100-point games to the opposition as much as girl scouts give out cookies, now is as perfect a time as ever to zone in on D'Antoni and truly discover what he's made of.

[+] EnlargeMike D'Antoni
AP Photo/Bill KostrounCan Mike D'Antoni get his team focused for the final stretch of the season?

Will he continue to be "stubborn, and hell-bent on doing things his way," as Charles Barkley so eloquently put it, or will D'Antoni modify things and play to the strengths of the talent he has? Will Monday night's victory, in which the Knicks neutralized Dwight Howard early and fended off Howard and Jason Richardson late, become the norm? Or will we see a repeat of D'Antoni's squad collapsing in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons on a Friday night -- only to have a day off and respond by yielding a 32-9 lead in the first quarter to a Milwaukee Bucks' team recognized as the worst offensive team in the league?

Will we see Anthony diving for loose balls and helping Amare Stoudemire rebound and defend the post? Or will we be forced to witness the inexplicable: the 6-foot-11 Jared Jeffries refusing to put his hands up to defend the 6-foot-5 Richardson on a game-tying 3-point shot near the end of regulation? (Which, by the way, provides all the ammunition needed to validate Jeffries' total irrelevance on the Knicks' roster.)

"If we can hold teams down defensively, with the offensive players we have, somebody can step up and have a big game," Billups explained, providing his version, not D'Antoni's, of the Knicks' recipe for success. "And that's exactly what happened [Monday]. Melo was out of sight. Defensively, we did a good job of taking away some things.

"This was probably a product of pride and determination. We knew this game was very important to us."

Well, we appreciate Billups' wisdom.

It's nice to know that he, along with Anthony and everyone else, knew it was important to erase a six-game losing streak to stymie their precipitous fall to a No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. That the Knicks did so by forcing 21 turnovers, outrebounding the Magic and forcing them into 45 percent shooting from the field, helps to some degree.

"It's just one game, though," Barkley deadpanned. "One game doesn't make a season."

For anyone, but especially D'Antoni.

The next six games could actually make a season for D'Antoni, though. Especially if the Knicks decide to play some defense and beat the teams they're suppose to beat instead of wilting beneath the pressure. That way, none of us will need to sit here pondering the durability of Stoudamire and Anthony, playing in an uptempo system that begs Father Time to come knocking, forcing us all to say "D'Antoni must go."

Far sooner than D'Antoni or anyone else would really like us to.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."

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