Unlucky 13: A Blast From the Past

Carmelo Anthony (7) scored 41 points in the Knicks' first playoff win since 2001. Photo by Frank Franklin II (AP), courtesy of cnnsi.com.

On Sunday, the New York Knicks edged the Miami Heat 89-87, winning Game 4 of the opening round playoff series and staving off elimination, at least until Game 5 tonight in Miami.

Prior to Sunday’s win, the Knickerbocker franchise had lost thirteen consecutive playoff games:

  • Games 1, 2, and 3 of this year’s series against the Heat;
  • Games 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the 2011 opening round series against the Boston Celtics;
  • Games 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the opening round series against the New Jersey Nets in 2004;
  • Games 4 and 5 of the 2001 opening round series against the Toronto Raptors.

Toronto's Vince Carter drives against Latrell Sprewell of New York in 2001 playoff action. Photo courtesy of NYDailyNews.com.

The Knicks’ most recent playoff win came in Game 3 against the Raptors on April 29, 2001. The Knicks took that game 97-89. The box score for that game is a real trip into recent history.

The Raptors’ starting lineup included Charles Oakley and Chris Childs. Both of these players are best remembered as Knicks; Childs actually played 51 games for the Knicks in 2000-2001 before he was traded to the Raptors, and was a member of the Knicks in his most famous NBA moment, an ugly (at least for Kobe) scrap with Kobe Bryant in 2000.

Oakley began his NBA career as a Chicago Bull and led the league in total rebounds in 1986-1987 and 1987-1988 for Chicago. He was traded to the Knicks before the 1988-1989 season and went on to play ten seasons in New York. Oakley will be forever linked to the Pat Riley Knicks teams that terrorized the league between 1991 and 1995, pairing a tenacious and physical defensive style with an offense that could be charitably described as ugly. Oakley epitomized those teams, which were brutally effective (four playoff appearances in four years, never fewer than 51 wins in the regular season) but played a style of basketball so hard on the eyes that the NBA changed the league’s rules to limit hand-checking and encourage more offense.

(Interesting fact: both Oakley and Ben Wallace are alumni of Virginia Union University, a historically black university in Richmond, Virginia that competes in NCAA Division II. Surprisingly, the VUU record for rebounds in a season is not held by Oakley or Wallace but by Jackie Jackson, who grabbed 641 caroms during the 1960-1961 season (including two 30-rebound games).

Jackie Jackson on his Harlem Globetrotter trading card from 1971-1972.

Including Oakley and Wallace, seven VUU alumni have played in the NBA; two additional VUU players, Jackson and William “Pony” Wilson, have suited up for the Harlem Globetrotters. A loyal alum, Oakley apparently brought his cooking show to Virginia Union for homecoming this year.)

Back to Game 3: Antonio Davis, who made his only All-Star Game appearance during 2000-2001, was Toronto’s leading scorer with 21 points. For the season, Davis averaged a double-double (13.7 points and 10.1 rebounds), a feat he had never accomplished previously and would never repeat.

Vince Carter scored 20 points for Toronto in the Game 3 loss, shooting a horrid 5-21 from the floor. The 2000-2001 season was VC’s high water mark in Toronto. That season, he averaged a career-high 27.6 points per game while shooting 46.0% from the floor and 40.8% from three. The Raptors made the franchise’s deepest playoff run in 2000-2001 (second round), and the team won a franchise-high 47 games in the regular season (the 2006-2007 Raptor team led by Chris Bosh and T.J. Ford later tied that mark).

The visiting Knicks were led by Allan Houston with 24 points, while Glen Rice chipped in 18 off the bench. In my humble estimation, these gentlemen were the proud owners of two of the sweetest shooting strokes of all time. I would have paid hard American currency just to watch them in shootaround.

The Knicks also got 20 points from Latrell Sprewell; when this game was played in 2001, Sprewell had passed his coach-choking stage but had not yet joined the boat-owning class.

New York’s starting five was Houston, Sprewell, Kurt Thomas (now the league’s oldest active player – one day older than Grant Hill), Mark Jackson (returning from Toronto as part of the Childs trade for his second tour of duty as a Knick), and Othella Harrington. Notable for his absence was Marcus Camby, who started the other four games of the series for New York, but missed Game 3 after his mother and two sisters were held hostage at knifepoint.

The many (okay, two) faces of Charlie Ward.

Game 3 saw Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward play 17 minutes off the bench for New York. Ward, who starred as a quarterback for Florida State, played in 630 NBA games over 11 seasons, but never took a snap in the NFL.

In another strange twist, Dell Curry scored 7 points in 17 minutes off the bench for Toronto. Curry played more than 1,000 NBA games and retired with Toronto after the 2001-2002 season, but is now best known as the father of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and Duke Blue Devil Seth Curry.

Stephen Curry is now coached by Mark Jackson, whom his dad probably guarded in the 2001 playoffs.

All of this makes for an interesting (at least to me) detour, but for Knicks fans, the heart of the matter is that after the 2000-2001 season ended, the Knicks began a long and hopeless trek through the wilderness. After Toronto eliminated them from the 2001 playoffs, the Knicks piled up nine consecutive losing seasons. (New York managed to make the playoffs in 2003-2004 despite finishing the regular season 39-43.) Not only were those teams bad on the court, they were embarrassing off it (see Isiah Thomas and Stephon Marbury). To make things worse, this nine-year blunderfest followed a fourteen-season stretch in which the Knicks qualified for the playoffs every year (twice with a losing record in the regular season) and advanced to the NBA Finals twice (1994 and 1999).

The ship has now been righted somewhat, as the Knicks have posted two consecutive winning seasons, making the playoffs each year. The team did, however, change coaches midway through this year, and will face an offseason rife with questions about the future direction of the franchise.

Will the Knicks retain interim coach Mike Woodson on a permanent basis for next season? If so, will Woodson’s defensive message be effective over a full-length 82-game season? Is sensation Jeremy Lin compatible with Carmelo Anthony? Is Amare Stoudemire compatible with Anthony? Even if everything breaks their way, will it make the Knicks good enough to get past the Heat in the Eastern Conference? Couple all of that with the fact that the Nets have relocated to Brooklyn, and there is a lot for Knicks supporters to be anxious about.

Time will tell whether the Knicks’ next playoff loss will set off another era of futility or will be just a blip on the radar.

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