Tuesday November 27th, 2007

What's with all of this talk of pressure on Isiah Thomas? I traveled to the Knicks' game Monday expecting to find a grand piano swaying from a single loop of kite string above his head everywhere he went.

When going to a Knicks game, you would expect the entire evening to be a kangaroo-court trial of Isiah in which his guilt is all but assured; it's just a matter of how entertaining the fiasco becomes until the string snaps and the comedy achieves its Laurel and Hardy climax. But it wasn't like that at all. The audience was tame, in fact. I can't remember one time in the first half that the Knicks got back on defense to stop an easy fast break by the Utah Jazz, who should have been the more tired team coming off a hard win at Detroit one day earlier, but despite these embarrassing displays, there were none of the "Fire Isiah'' chants that one would have expected based on the vitriol of the past two weeks.

After the 113-109 victory, the postgame interviews dwelt on the Knicks' sudden turnaround and their two-game winning streak. But let's be real: The two wins were at home against the hopeless Bulls and the tired Jazz, who nonetheless shot 50.6 percent and outrebounded New York 42-32.

Look, I'm the genius who picked the Knicks to finish sixth in the East this year, but even a half-full glass like me can't describe this victory as impressive. They are a 4-9 team that relied on Marbury (28 points on 14 shots) to win the game in his typical virtuoso way, which everyone from Phoenix to New Jersey (with a stopover in Minnesota) knows is a road to nowhere. If the Knicks need him to be The Man, then they're headed for The Lottery.

Of course, it helped that the Knicks led for most of the night. Had they been trailing, there might have been some nastiness. But the lead never felt safe, there was plenty to criticize and most of it went unnoticed. In other words, this is no dungeon of torture. If the fans were so upset with Isiah, they would be looking for any reason to boo him.

Unfathomable to me is Isiah's starting lineup of five scorers and zero defenders in Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson, Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry. You can tell by the players Thomas has acquired in the draft over the years that he loves rottweilers and Dobermans (Renaldo Balkman, Nate Robinson, Mardy Collins, etc.), so why does he start the five primped-up finalists from the Westminster Dog Show? All I can imagine is that Isiah is trying to lull opponents into a state of idyllic offensive bliss before he sends in Balkman and Robinson to attack their ankles.

The Knicks would be so much better weaving one or two of their high-effort defenders into the starting lineup to target the top opposing scorer as well as set an example that might embarrass the others into playing harder at the defensive end. The Knicks are a much more intriguing team when Isiah goes to his bench than they are at the opening tip.

I guess he tried to make such a change by benching Marbury, and while Thomas botched his handling of that one, he simply cannot allow the Knicks' starting lineup to define his team. He has the ingredients for a better mixture hiding on his bench, if only he would use them in greater measure.

But then there is something comically dysfunctional about this whole organization, starting with its ironic pregame introductions. After a long, silent pause, the name of Isiah Thomas as coach of the Knicks is announced quicker than a ranting auctioneer to give the fans as little chance as possible to boo him. It's a silly response that only draws more attention to a losing environment that is of the Knicks' own making.

"This is New York and it's different from any other place in the world,'' Thomas said before the game Monday. "The pressure here is immense and we're fortunate enough to have the right to play in a city such as this. It's the best city in the world, and they want to see the best performances, and we want to give that to them. Pressure comes with what we do, and we have to face that every single night and eventually that makes us stronger and that will make us better.''

Compared to other NBA cities, yes, I would agree that turning a loser into a winner isn't easy in New York (especially with the Knicks being managed as poorly as they are under owner James Dolan). But, really, Thomas has at least three years left on his deal, and he knows he isn't going to be fired this season. Marbury played a terrific game Monday, so that situation has been soothed. Curry even blocked a couple of shots.

I maintain the situation isn't so bad as it could or should be for Isiah. On a world-wide scale -- to refer back to his own perspective -- this is a relatively calm situation for the Knicks. I've seen much worse crises in European basketball, for example: I remember after a playoff game in Greece that the players of the losing team were told not to sleep in their own beds that night because they would be in danger. The following day some returned to find that their homes had been stoned by delirious fanatics.

I spent six years covering sports in Europe in the 1990s, and when I moved back home I couldn't believe how quiet and bored the NBA fans seemed by comparison. When a stadium or arena is filled in most parts of the world, the fans tend to be paying close attention and holding their players accountable for every little thing. Friends of mine from overseas have noticed it isn't that way in our country. "You don't watch the games over here,'' several of them have said, and it was true Monday. When the music wasn't thumping out of the speakers and the Knicks were inbounding the ball after a Utah score, all you could hear were the mutterings of thousands of ticket holders engaged in their private conversations.

After the opening introductions, it got ugly but one time when the Jazz pulled within 105-103 with 3:33 left. The audience was clearing its throat in preparation for a few arias dedicated to Isiah, but the Knicks responded by finishing off several frenetic plays at both ends as the tired Jazz collapsed at the finish line.

My point here is that I was a little disappointed there wasn't more feeling from the Knicks' fans, because this league would benefit from some fanatical passion (expressed in a legal, non-violent way, of course). But I'm also not yet going to renounce my prediction of the Knicks as the potential No. 6 team in the East -- especially if Thomas transforms his team's identity by making more use of his bruisers to improve the Knicks' chemistry. Through Monday, there was a three-way tie at No. 6 in the East among the so-so Raptors, Nets and Wizards, all of whom were 7-7. The Knicks were only 2½ games behind, and Thomas has enough backbone hidden on his bench to make up that ground.

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