At the end of it all, it was a feeling the New York basketball fans were all too familiar with.
In a season that promised much, the Knicks once again fell short of expectations and were eliminated from the Playoffs by the Indiana Pacers. Saturday's 106-99 loss meant a 4-2 series defeat and another season of underachievement. Despite winning their first playoff series since 2000, this year has left us with more questions than answers when it comes to the Knickerbockers ability to win a title.
This was a team built to 'Win now', filled with savvy veterans to compliment their All-NBA forward Carmelo Anthony. A title challenge was expected after a strong regular season, where they finished atop the Atlantic Division with a record of 54-28 and the number two seed in the Eastern Conference. This Knicks team had a different look about it than teams of the past. They had all bought into Mike Woodson's 'Team first' philosophy and most agreed that if anybody was going to dethrone the Miami Heat, it would be the Knicks.
Things started well enough. In a tricky first-round series with the Boston Celtics, the Knicks showed the grit and determination that hadn't been displayed since the days of Patrick Ewing and company. Looking back now, the series may have taken more out of this ageing group than was first originally thought. The series went six games, all of which were hard fought and physical. It seemed the pressure of getting their elusive series victory got to them somewhat and could have closed the series out much quicker had they not succumb to the burden of success playing in New York brings.
We were unaware of it at the time, but now it appears to have cost them dear.
The series against the Pacers was a disaster and in all truth the Knicks were fortunate to win even two games. Far too many of their veteran players went missing, their shot and effort deserting most of them when the Knicks needed them most. When the post-season comes around, the game becomes more condensed as the defensive intensity increases significantly and it was no different in this series. The Pacers are renowned for their impressive defensive mentality and the Knicks ran out of ideas on how to score on them extremely quickly. Their ball movement was woeful from the outset of this series, particularly from Point Guard Raymond Felton. Felton has had a productive season at the helm of the Knicks offense, he has answered the questions about his fitness and his form and justified the Knicks faith in him. However, he has been found wanting in this series and has struggled against the Pacers pressure defense. They didn't give Felton an inch to dictate proceedings and he ended up having a shocking series in every department. He shot awfully, going 1-8 and 0-7 in two games and couldn't find any sort of rhythm. Felton wasn't the only player who struggled, but as Point Guard he is responsible for setting the tone for the offense, a task he failed to accomplish. His 0-7 shooting night on Saturday was typical of his struggles against one of the toughest defenses in the League.
What made matters worse for the Knicks was the form of his backup, Jason Kidd. Kidd's influence on this team throughout the season has been extremely positive. He has brought a winning mentality and the future hall-of-famer has been a calming influence when the Knicks have been through tough times this season. As good as Kidd has been, father time seems to have finally caught up with him, in particular during this series. Kidd has been appalling, as bad as he has been during his stellar career. Kidd was scoreless in this series, which is a staggering statistic when you consider the character of the man. Coach Mike Woodson has benched Jason Kidd during the latter stages of the last two games, displaying a distinct lack of confidence in Kidd's ability to get out of his slump. At 40 years of age, Kidd still has 2 years left to run on his contract with the Knicks, but this poor run of form will no doubt have Kidd questioning his future in the game.
The other member of the Knicks roster with a ring, Tyson Chandler, was also as woeful as he has ever been during this series. There was some injury concerns regarding last years Defensive Player of the Year heading into the Playoffs. Chandler had a bulging disk in his neck that caused him to miss the majority of the Knicks final quarter of the regular season. He insisted that he would be 100% for the Playoffs but it has been evident that Chandler hasn't been himself and was a shadow of himself in this series. Roy Hibbert, the Pacers towering Center, dominated Chandler from start to finish, something that few expected. Chandler was physically outmatched and was clearly feeling the affects of his neck injury, even though he would never admit it. He has changed the dynamic of this team on the defensive side of the ball and not having a fully-functional Chandler on the floor seriously hampered their chances of winning in Indiana. Now, the Knicks must ensure Chandler recuperates during the off-season as they look to avoid another disappointing early exit from the Playoffs.
The single, most important thing the Knicks must get resolved during this off-season is the contract of Sixth Man of the Year J.R Smith. He is reported to be opting out of his $2.9 million player option and will no doubt command a much larger salary on the free agent market. Smith has taken some of the gloss off his fine season during this series, the streaky shooter has been pitiful for most of these encounters. When it mattered most, Smith once again failed to produce, which has been a criticism of him throughout his career. He lives and dies with his jump shot and the stubborn Pacers defense made life very difficult for him. Smith was just 4-15 from the floor and it typified his performance during the six game against the Pacers. With $74 million already committed to just 8 players next season, the Knicks may feel that Smith is a luxury they can't afford. He will likely command between $6-8 million a year and even though the Knicks have no trouble paying the steep luxury tax, they may choose to invest their money on someone more reliable and trustworthy in critical situations.
Amare Stoudemire is another who's position should be precarious this summer. The Knicks took a huge risk when they signed Stoudemire to a 5-year $100 million contract, given his catastrophic history with knee injuries. Stoudemire earned $19.9 million this year, an extortionate amount for what he contributes to the team. He isn't the reason the Knicks lost this series, but his ailments have given them a huge headache going forward. Stoudemire is scheduled to earn $21.6 and $23.4 million in the next two years of his deal, which makes him virtually impossible to trade given the tight salary-cap. The Knicks have already used their amnesty clause on Chauncey Billups so it appears they are stuck with Stoudemire's ludicrous contract for the remainder of it's length. They have to maximise his skills and it will be up to Woodson and the coaching staff to come up with a scheme that enables STAT to co-exist with Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony himself, is fast running out of chances to get himself to the finals. He is 29 years of age and realistically has about 4 years left of prime performance, provided he takes care of his body. The Knicks did everything in their power to get Anthony the right pieces around him this season and he has flourished this season, becoming the NBA Scoring Champion for the first time. He has also become more of a team player this season, but as he witnessed his teammates struggling throughout this series, the Carmelo of old emerged. There were far too many isolation plays where the ball seemed to be glued to Anthony's hands while his colleagues turned into observers just like the rest of us. He couldn't have done much more last night as he tried to force a game seven, even his 39 points off 15-29 shooting wasn't enough. The question is now will the Knicks seek Anthony's input on where to go from here? Stick with the team they have to aid cohesion, or make changes to freshen up the oldest squad of players in the league.
The one positive that the Knicks can take from this series is the continued development of Iman Shumpert. He looks to have fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered last season and is now considered a huge part of the future for the Knicks. Shumpert has shown a great attitude in his recovery and his outside shooting has improved greatly as the season has gone on. Shumpert was lights-out from the three-point line last night, going 5-6 and finishing with 19 points. He must start demanding the ball more, which can be hard on a team with so many ego's. Shumpert needs to be more assertive as the Knicks are counting on the young Shooting Guard to make the step up to All-Star level next season.
In a season of ups and plenty of downs, ultimately it will be reviewed as one of failure for these Knicks. An 82 game season and the intensity of the Playoffs seemed to be a bridge to far for a squad who's average age was 32. It will be the job of coach Woodson and James Dolan to regroup, add a couple of hardened Playoff campaigners who can be relied upon when the stakes are at their highest. Expect a high turnover of players once more as some of the older statesmen will be deemed surplus to requirements. It was a nice story while it lasted, but time and tide wait for no man.
Every Knicks fan hurting today will tell you that.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_