Thursday night on TNT two of the most storied franchises in league history will meet for the first time this season. This is more than just a matchup between the league’s top two scorers and most valuable franchises.
Since the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers’ last meeting, much has changed and both franchises have drifted in opposite directions. Jeremy Lin bucketing 38 isn’t a possibility this time around as this time around he’s doing that in Houston but nine months later, the Lakers are the team in need of a savior at point guard.
However, Mike D’Antoni will be making his first return to Madison Square Garden since resigning as Knicks coach in March.
Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant may get star billings, larger font on the marquee and A-list guap but D’Antoni and his successor Mike Woodson are the visionaries orchestrating their respective teams’ fates from the sideline.
In two of the entertainment capitals of the world, D’Antoni and Woodson are playing out two diverging storylines. D’Antoni’s season has been the equivalent to a disaster flick while Woodson‘s has been a rebirth.
If we’re talking about Gotham visionaries, D’Antoni was the Joel Schumacher to Woodson’s Christopher Nolan.
Schumacher’s Robin, Chris O’Donnell, compared the atmosphere of life on Schumacher’s Batman & Robin set to ‘making a kid’s toy commercial.’
According to John Glover, who later leapt across the DC Comics universe to play Lex Luthor’s father on Smallville, "Joel [Schumacher] would sit on a crane with a megaphone and yell before each take, 'Remember, everyone, this is a cartoon'. It was hard to act because that kind of set the tone for the film."
It’s not difficult to imagine D’Antoni treating defense with the same flippant manner. There were rumors in New York that D’Antoni would go weeks without going over defensive strategy.
Following Tuesday night’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, D’Antoni finally shed his snarky facade and shot back at an L.A. Times reporter who asked whether the Lakers had practiced defense before the game.
Like Schumacher, who is known for recycling performers, most notably, Kiefer Sutherland, D’Antoni is a coaching mind that can’t offer an offensive philosophy that doesn’t include Steve Nash. In New York, Linsanity was just a short-term stop gap whom D’Antoni expected to hitch his wagon to long-term.
The Suns were an Indie-success, the Knicks were a Broadway flop but the Lakers are D’Antoni’s most high-profile project yet. Like The Hobbit script written specifically as an film vehicle for Sir Ian McKellan, D’Antoni’s offense revolves around Nash, who previously starred in D’Antoni’s turbo-charged Seven Seconds Or Less offense.
Unfortunately, Nash’s much anticipated return to the Lakers lineup has been delayed longer than Dre’s Detox. Conversely, Knicks fans are nervously counting down until Amar’e Stoudemire attempts to squeeze his 6-11 ego onto the Knicks bench.
It shouldn’t be a problem for Woodson. While D’Antoni has exposed himself as a one-trick pony, Woodson has proven he’s more than just the Iso-Joe professor he was portrayed as in Atlanta.
Just as Nolan’s gritty trilogy revived the smoldering remains of the Batman film franchise after the debacle of 1997’s Batman & Robin, Woodson’s went 18-6 and vaulted the Knicks into the playoffs. This season, is his magnum opus.
Meanwhile, Woodson’s predecessor D’Antoni couldn’t twist Play-Doh into his desired shape. His inability to mold his schemes around the strengths of his teams resulted in his resignation from the Knicks in the midst of a six-game losing streak. The Lakers are currently mired in a three-game losing skid and have dropped five of their last six.
In case you forgot, the Knicks snapped that streak after torching the Portland Trailblazers by 42 points and transformed the Knicks into a suffocating defensive unit almost overnight. This season, the Knicks are fifth in points scored after timeouts, despite Woodson being hired as the de facto defensive coordinator. It seems that unlike D’Antoni, Woodson has a multi-faceted knowledge of the game.
Nolan’s Batman wasn’t just a blockbuster action hero to rake in the dough for Warner Bros. studios. It was one artistic masterpiece focusing on the human conflict of Bruce Wayne as the vigilante Batman. Nolan’s complex trilogy is as much of stark contrast to Schumacher’s vision as the dichotomy between D’Antoni and Woodson’s philosophies.
Mike Woodson and the Knicks are preaching defense and winning titles.
“We would love to be able to play ‘Showtime’ basketball,” D’Antoni proclaimed to the L.A. media soon after his hiring.
According to the Wall Street Journal and Synergy Sports, as of Dec. 7 a league-high 17% of the Knicks' offensive plays had been run immediately after a timeout.
The Knicks have scored .92 points per possession, seventh-best in the league. To put that in perspective, under offensive guru D'Antoni-Schumacher the Knicks ranked 21st in points per possession after timeouts last season.
The unconventional decision to start a pair of point guards is so innovative and has worked so well that D’Antoni wishes he could have contracted Dominick Cobb to extract that idea from Woodson.
If the D’Antoni doesn’t study up on his own history he’ll be doomed to repeat it. Twice over the next two weeks, his Big Apple past will be staring him right in the face.
The Knicks are first in the East at 14-5 and have cooled the Heat by 40 combined points in a pair of wins, including one without Anthony in the lineup. The Lakers are 12th in the deepest Western Conference we’ve seen this side of the 21st century.
The Lakers are slowly asphyxiating themselves due to poor defensive rotations, a paucity of point guard production and as a result of a flurry of missed free throws mostly shot by Dwight Howard.
In the offseason, Howard downgraded his comic book persona from DC’s Superman to Marvel’s Iron Man but has anything but marvelous. He’s has played more like pre-rehab Robert Downey Jr. while recovering from back surgery and is misfiring at the free throw line at a rate worse than a quail-hunting Dick Cheney.
Ultimately, it was D’Antoni’s inability—redact that—his unwillingness to incorporate his superstar forwards strengths into his scheme that precipitated his departure from New York and led him on the path to LA. Just one month into his tenure as Lakers coach, D’Antoni and Gasol have become the Bane of each other’s respective existence.
Steve Novak, whom D’Antoni elevated from unknown to cult favorite after Anthony injured his groin last February is a stretch-4 in the same vein as Shawn Marion. Pau Gasol is a versatile post player with some face up scoring moves but that’s not his strength. As a result, he’s averaging career lows across the board.
D’Antoni is determined to go up-tempo with a geriatric lineup and is essentially turning his All-Star center into Rip Hamilton. That’s as nonsensical as a rubber bat suit with nipples but it fits D’Antoni’s psychological profile.
In a Wednesday morning interview with Stephen A. Smith Bryant claimed that D’Antoni strikes him as the resourceful win at all costs archetype, not the stubborn 'my way or the highway' caricature he’s been painted as by fellow coaches, ex-players and experts.
Maybe Bryant doesn’t understand. After all, he is the same man who wanted to trade a young Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd. In truth, D’Antoni’s motivation is equivalent to the Bandit in Burma. Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like championships. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some stubborn men just want to win their way or burn down the forest trying.