Minutes after the Knicks' blowout loss to the Pacers on Monday night, Isiah Thomas took the podium and lamented the fact that he always had to talk about effort and heart. He remarked that he looked forward to the day when he could answer questions about strategy and substitutions.
Thomas probably didn't expect that day to come so quickly.
In the aftermath of an impressive 108-90 victory by the Knicks over the Cavaliers on Wednesday night, one question began to circulate: Why haven't we seen more of David Lee?
Lee, the Knicks' third-year Energizer Bunny/power forward was the catalyst of an improbable Knicks win over the defending Eastern Conference champs. When Lee entered the game after center Eddy Curry picked up his second foul with 9:55 remaining in the first quarter, the Knicks trailed 7-5. Paced by Lee's 17 first half points (on 8 of 10 shooting) the Knicks went into the locker room at halftime with a 63-50 lead, one they would not relinquish.
"Lee should be playing all the time," remarked an advance scout sitting nearby. "He changed the game exponentially."
"David was fantastic," said Thomas after the game.
Thomas now faces a rare strategic dilemma. With Stephon Marbury planted on the bench (Thomas said Marbury, who skipped practice on Tuesday and shootaround Wednesday morning, approached him in the second quarter and said he was OK with not playing) and with Curry playing a supporting role, the Knicks had arguably their most impressive win of the season. Granted, Cleveland looked like they had spent too much time at the 40/40 club the night before, but there was no denying the second unit was impressive.
Malik Rose played 12 minutes of solid defense and had a posterizing block of Sasha Pavlovic in the second quarter.
Jared Jeffries played 19 minutes of mistake-free basketball and did a serviceable job defending LeBron James.
Nate Robinson scored 11 points in 18 minutes.
Thomas passed the buck on Monday to his players when he said they were playing without heart. Consider it passed back to him. It's clear that the Knicks, who pulled to within 2 1/2 games of the final playoff spot with the win, need to put their collective fate in the hands of their youth.
That means keeping Marbury (who will make $19 million this season) on the bench in favor of Fred Jones ($3.3 million). That means yanking Curry ($8.9 million) early in games in favor of Lee ($990,600) if Curry is ineffective. That means living with the mistakes of youth, as long as they are aggressive ones.
Now we will see what Thomas is made of. The gauntlet has been thrown down. A few of his players proved they have heart. They just aren't the ones gobbling up all the payroll. Let's see if Thomas is willing to play them.