On the morning after back-to-back losses to the Warriors and the Lakers, the traveling Knicks typically would have taken the day off. But there is nothing normal about this intensive 66-game season. "We wanted a good hour and a half of practice," said New York coach Mike D'Antoni last Friday, after his 1--2 Knicks had flown to Sacramento following their atypical workout in Los Angeles. "Normally it would just be a bit of talking and let's get the legs back. But we've got to go."
The Knicks weren't the only team racing to keep up with the whirlwind schedule generated by the lockout. The champion Mavericks and the contending Celtics—two of the league's oldest teams (chart, next page)—heard talk of their imminent downfalls after 0--3 starts, while the Spurs, down 18 at the half of their third game in four nights, rested 35-year-old Tim Duncan for the final two quarters of an eventual loss at Houston. "I'm sure a lot of coaches will treat this year differently," says D'Antoni. "They'll pull plugs on games a lot quicker than they normally would and start resting players for the next night."
While it's natural to predict that younger rotations should have the advantage during this season of limited rest and recovery, D'Antoni thinks those teams will benefit only if the players have a track record of performing well together. "There is a lot of preparation and mental work that is even more important than the physical," he says. "Take Miami last year—it took them a month of [preseason] practice, eight exhibition games and 20 games into the season before they got their act together. It might take that long for new teams and new coaches to put stuff together this year. You can't make any assumptions until after the All-Star Game."
The Knicks have hopes of rising to contention after adding free-agent center Tyson Chandler to their front line of All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. But Chandler didn't begin to practice with his new team until Dec. 10, two weeks before their Christmas Day opening victory against the Celtics. Although Anthony carried the Knicks down the stretch of that 106--104 thriller, the two ensuing West Coast losses revealed the impact of injuries to point guards Baron Davis, a free-agent pickup who the Knicks hope will play his first game by the end of the month, and Iman Shumpert, a first-round pick who sprained his right MCL against Boston. Through three games Toney Douglas, who started only nine games last year, was leading New York with a negligible 3.7 assists per game, while Stoudemire was shooting 40.5% for his 17.3 points. D'Antoni was confident that Stoudemire's efficiency would return: After a similar start through 11 games last season, Stoudemire led the Knicks on a 13--1 streak during which he scored 30 points or more in a franchise-record nine straight games. "Last year he would turn the ball over a lot, there wasn't any spacing, and things weren't really good, and then we were able to solve some issues," says D'Antoni. "We're in the same spot now. We'll clear it out for him, he'll be more patient, and it will come."
The Knicks closed out their road swing on Saturday with a 114--92 win over the Kings in which Douglas had eight assists. But Stoudemire sat out the game with a sprained ankle, underscoring another problem that coaches will have to deal with in this condensed season: the prospect of more players getting banged up and having less time between games to recover. Says D'Antoni, "Between injuries and people being tired and out of shape, there are going to be some wild swings." This season, consistency may be more important—and elusive—than ever.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
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