Knicks secure narrow win against Phoenix Suns

The visit of the Phoenix Suns at the Garden at times felt like a bizarre procession with the New York Knicks simply inept at shaking off their opponents. Did the Knicks not execute their game-plan well?

With 53.1 seconds on the clock, Raymond Felton scored a crucial three-pointer for the Knicks to regain the lead, 92-89. Poor shot selection from Anthony Carmelo with 10.6 seconds left – he missed a 15 foot open jump shot – allowed Leandro Barbosa to level the score with free throws after a controversial foul by Raymond Felton, and Carmelo nearly committed the same mistake with 47.2 seconds remaining in overtime. It was a tired effort from Carmelo at the end of a grinding, physical evening, but the Knicks survived by the skin of their teeth.

“It was a total team effort again,” assessed Mike Woodson. He stressed the solidity in the defense in his post-game talk. Indeed, the Knicks won it at the back, keeping the Suns to  35.5%  shooting and allowing just four points in overtime.

For a very long time it had looked as if the Knicks wouldn’t need overtime to claim victory. New York got off to a very decent start. With 4:02 minutes left in the first quarter the Knicks sped away from their own back court after a turnover; Shumpert passed it to the omnipresent Anthony Carmelo, who hit the bucket from downtown. It was a sweeping and fast move, as if the Knicks were beating the Phoenix Suns, a young and pacey side, at their own game.

The move oozed ball movement, unselfishness and understanding; in short all the qualities that the Knicks have been demonstrated during their 2014 renaissance.  Encouragingly, the Knicks have become more than a one-man-show. They scrambled in defense, holding off the Suns and the much-feared  perimeter play of Phoenix. The flow and transition in the Knicks’ game came naturally. Truthfully, Anthony Carmelo was in superb form again as he set the pace in the first quarter with 13 points, leading the Knicks to a 28-21 lead. Raymond Felton chipped in with 7 points.  Carmelo would go on to score 29 points, 16 rebounds and four assist over 46 minutes. 

The Knicks machine rolled on, but not without spluttering – and almost coming to a full standstill. Goran Dragic scored a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer to cut New York’s lead to nine points, 52-43. The Slovenian roamed around the court, and his footwork gave the Knicks plenty to think about. Dragic top-scored at the half with 20 points.

But folly is never far away when it concerns the Knicks: totally lethargic, the Knicks allowed the Suns a way back into the game. New York and the Garden cringed as the tension became palpable. Phoenix got a 11-2 run after the interval to tie the game at 54. Three-pointers by Felton and Carmelo provided much needed relief. The Knicks took a lead of seven points into the final quarter.

The Suns went hard at it and their pace and gusto were too much for the Knicks to take. Brazilian Leandro Barbosa played hugely off the bench. He drained and pained the Knicks with his creativity, penetration and shooting. With 14 points he forced overtime. 

The Knicks should have never looked back after the first quarter, but the cliche goes that NBA only becomes interesting in the last quarter – a little too interesting for the Knicks this time, but they got their redemption in the end.

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Anthony Carmelo stars in tight win against the Pistons

By Samindra Kunti – One quarter was all that the Knicks required to defeat the Pistons on an eve when they collectively failed, but were aided by  talisman Carmelo Anthony, whose tentacles of influence and 34 points guided New York on its way.

“I have seen him score so many points. When he shoots the ball like that he is probably the toughest guy in the League to guard. He can score inside and outside. There isn’t anything he can’t do,” said J.R. Smith of Anthony Carmelo.

Carmelo was in imperious form. He laboured hard in the back court and found the hoop with ease, scoring six three-pointers and four rebounds. The interplay with Raymond Felton, returning from injury, opened up the Pistons. New York’s number seven singlehandedly dragged his team out of a few lulls throughout the game.

Yet out with another injury in Texas, Carmelo had conveyed the message to his colleagues to apply more patience in their game and let the ball do the work. In general, few NBA franchises survive the Texas Triangle, or leave it unscathed, but a 2-1 record down south boasted the Knicks’ ambitions in the new year. “It was a positive road trip. Everything went as planned. Our defense really set the tone in all three games,” coach Mike Woodson had said. Certainly the collective effort had been impressive: the Knicks led at the end of the first quarter in each game with an average differential of 5.7 points and their rebounding improved markedly.

But against the Pistons Anthony’s message was soon forgotten. A pitiful first half was unworthy of NBA basketball. A lone highlight was perhaps the play of Andrea Bargnani as the ball gravitated towards him. The center scored 9 points, including a three-pointer, inside the opening five minutes. The Knicks then lost their flow, and despite the Pistons’ low outfield scoring rate of 33%, were just 24-21 up after the first quarter. New York staggered in lethargic fashion, stumbling and bumbling around. The Pistons were equally bad offensively and therefore both outfits did not deserve more than being tied at the half, 41-41.

The Knicks needed to come out with another mind-set after the interval, but the lack of tenacity continued to bother them. Bafflingly enough Woodson’s men were unable to force the Pistons out of the paint. A livid Woodson called a time-out. It resulted in a hat-trick of three-pointers, including two corner treys, from the ever reliable Anthony Carmelo. The gusto and energy from the Texas road trip were back as the Knicks powered to a 15-o run in 3.31 minutes.  They outscored the Pistons 32-17 to lead 73-58.

In the first game, back in Detroit, the Pistons had run away with the third quarter and never looked back. In reverse roles, the visitors  did catch up this time, storming back into the game. With 3.20 minutes left the Pistons had cut back New York’s lead to just three points, 83-80. Fittingly Anthony Carmelo had the final say. Another three-pointer and free-throws were enough to keep the surging Pistons from snatching the win.

Melo was the Knicks’ most valuable player yet again. Without Anthony, New York  would be decapitated. Next time when Melo has another thing to say, his colleagues ‘d better listen more carefully.

Jason Kidd and the Nets on a roll after win over Atlanta Hawks

By Samindra Kunti – Maybe Jason Kidd should never wear a tie again; the bald and staunch looking Kidd is not a superstitious person, but at least in 2014 his dress code has brought the Nets good luck, or better, good fortune – for the win against the Atlanta Hawks was mainly down to Brooklyn’s positive all-round play, and not the basketball gods.

The Nets were without one of their own gods: Deron Williams was out with a sprained left-ankle. The outlook of the line-up for the Nets was rather smallish, but would prove effective. For the Atlanta Hawks, coming off a 91-84 loss at the Chicago Bulls but still with the third best record in the Eastern Conference, star player Al Horford had been missing since December 26, 2013.

The first quarter got off to a fast start with little interruption. There was much good movement from the Nets and the impetus of Andrei Kirilenko was a refreshing sight. He set up Joe Johnson with a clever blind pass, and then Paul Pierce for a double flush finish. Kirilenko proved his cerebral qualities again with little deflections and disruptions that brought that little extra liveliness for the home team. Kidd kept Kirilenko on court for 21 minutes. “I thought it was 14 minutes. He played 21? Wow. We probably stretched him a little bit farther than we wanted to, but AK was a big plus for us, offensively and defensively,” Kidd commented.

The Nets, led by Paul Pierce’s nine points, closed out the first frame with a six point lead (27-21).  The Hawks nearly seemed afraid of the paint. Stifled  by the Nets’ decent organization, the visitors were restricted to perimeter play, attempting three-pointers. There was little creativity from Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap just scored five points in the first quarter.

But the Nets did not manage to play through the many three-pointers of Atlanta. Indeed, the contrast with the second frame was big as the Nets went ice cold, loosing their swift ball movement. With one minute left, the outfield scoring rate for the Nets had dropped to 35%. Atlanta pummelled Kidd’s troop by 31-19, including a 11-0 run. With 28.8 seconds remaining, Paul Millsap hit another three-pointer for the Hawks as they took command. The Hawks cracked the 50-point boundary, leading at half-time by 52-46.

The struggles for Brooklyn were a bad harbinger for the third quarter, which has been the Achilles heel for the Nets the entire. Yet the Nets responded strongly with a 14-0 run. Two three-pointers from Anderson opened up a 8-point lead, 60-52. An excellent record in free-throws, 18/18, kept the Hawks in the game before Teague finally missed from the line, 60-59. A three-pointer from Kirilenko and a hat-trick of three-pointers from Mirza Teletovic maintained a healthy lead for the Brooklyn outfit at the end of the third quarter, 72-67.

Earlier in the season Teletovic had said he didn’t know what his role was in the team, but it was clear tonight he was there to space out the field and hit it big with three-pointers. Teletovic did just that, scoring 16 points overall, of which four were three-pointers. “That is what he does. We have always counted on him to be able to knock down the three, and tonight he did that for us. I thought his defense was big for us too – being able to switch on smaller players and being able to keep them in front,” assessed Jason Kidd.

Were the Nets on their way to a third consecutive win? It was a little muddy, but their industry and penetration around the hoop was sufficient to hold off Atlanta. Johnson’s three-pointer and driving dunk shot should have been the signal for the Nets to switch to a defensive mind-set with six minutes on the clock, but poor shot selection around the paint left Atlanta with a chance. With 3 minutes and four seconds on the clock, the scoreboard read 82-80 to the Nets. Teague drilled in a three-pointer to keep it tight. While the Nets defended solidly most of the night, Jason Kidd must have been upset with their occasional lapses of concentration. Teletovic’s crucial three-pointer with 44.6 seconds left sent the home fans into a delirium as the Nets went on to win 91-86.

The Nets thus remain undefeated in 2014  and for Jason Kidd there were plenty of positives to take from the game: the Nets gelled in a consorted and conscious effort on both sides of the court. In defense, where Kirilenko made another defining impact, the Nets held the Hawks to 34 points in the second half – the fewest points conceded by the Nets in any half this season. Furthermore the third quarter no longer is jinxed for the Nets, closing it out 72-67 and allowing Atlanta to just score 15 points, an opponent season-low for the Nets. Offensively Joe Johnson, who struggled with his shooting in the past few games, made a game-high 23 points, putting a stop to a streak of five straight games scoring just in single digits. Teletovic grew in confidence with his firm scoring.

The Nets now face two tricky games at home to two top franchises, the Golden State Warriors from Oakland and the Miami Heat. Not precisely cupcakes like Kevin Garnett indicated in the locker game, but Oakland, Cleveland and Atlanta weren’t exactly pushovers either. Brooklyn take it game by game, and by the looks of it, have finally got something to build on.

Brooklyn Nets usher in 2014 with consecutive wins

By Samindra Kunti – 2013 was a torrid year for the nine local sports franchises, including the Brooklyn Nets,  in New York City’s metropolitan area. The Nets had an overall winning record of 46-43 in 2013, but the pre-season hype soon turned into an odyssey of misery as rookie coach Jason Kidd and his team were overwhelmed, even in a largely mediocre Eastern Conference league.

The new year has started off on a more positive note for the Brooklyn-based franchise: last Thursday the Nets beat Oklahoma City on the road and yesterday the Nets saw off the Cleveland Cavaliers 89-82 at the Barclays Center to record back-to-back wins.

Jason Kidd decided to rest Kevin Garnett; the visitors were missing their star player Kyrie Irving with a left knee contusion.

The Nets coasted to a convincing halftime lead of 14 points, 51-38, with Paul Pierce (11) and Deron Williams (13) leading the charge. The overall play of the Nets was encouraging: Williams showed consistency and Pierce played the stretch. Andrei Kirilenko chipped in with admirable defensive work during his 7:30 minutes on the court.

Kidd recognized Kirilenko’s contribution. “He is a pro. Sometimes the stat sheet doesn’t show it but he does all the little things, coming up with loose balls, finding open teammates and being able to cut and finish plays,” he said after the game.

Kidd’s outfit nearly lost the plot, once again, in the third quarter as the Nets allowed Cleveland back into the game. The Cavaliers outscored (27-16) and outrebounded (13-4) the Nets in the third quarter, cutting the deficit to just two points.

Again, it seemed a little mystifying why the Nets couldn’t capitalize on a strong first half. This time, however, they rallied and avoided a dismal third-quarter becoming their downfall once more. Andrey Blatche scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and Mirza Teletovic hit a crucial three-pointer with 14.6 seconds on the buzzer as the Nets hung on to victory, 89-82.

The question remains now whether Kidd and his charges can build on the momentum they have gained in the past two games? The Atlanta Hawks are up next on Monday.

Tedious tie between Argentina and Ecuador

By Samindra Kunti – For Argentina it was a question of playing without their wonder boy Lionel Messi – exactly on the day that Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been (over)hyped across the globe. The Metlife Stadium felt awkwardly empty without the presence of Messi. A sea of La Tricolor fans painted the first tier strictly yellow.

Right from the kick off, Montero and Valencia sped down the flanks, causing all sorts of problems for Fiorentina´s Roncaglia and Bordeaux´s Orban. The pattern for the first half had been set, but a wasteful, or rather incompetent, Ecuadorian frontline failed to punish Argentina´s lethargic backline. Caicedo and co dispatched one tame shot after another, seemingly taking pity on Argentina´s number one, Sergio Romero. Ecuador had eleven attempts on goal before the interval, only three were target. Antonio Valencia hit the woodwork with a header from close range.

But for Sabella the outing of his XI was just another confirmation of the paradigm that haunted Argentina during the World Cup qualifiers: his side were and are out of balance – attacking wealth versus defensive poverty. Argentina´s forward line normally reads Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain. Tonight Sabella opted for Higuain and PSG´s Lavezzi up front, with Angel Di Maria in support. While the trio did not muster match in the absence of Messi, Higuain came relatively close to scoring when loitering at the far post in the 34th minute.

Sabella did not alter his side for the second term. Argentina looked rejuvenated and a trio of dangerous shots from Angel Di Maria tested Alexander Dominguez. Ecuador were rattled. There were no more twists and turns from Montero or balmy runs from Antonio Valencia as Argentina dominated the second half with the game turning into what Sabella later would call ‘a tale of two halves:’

Pablo Zabaleta replaced Roncaglia and that signalled the start of a festival of substitutions – an unpleasant feature of international friendlies. Sabella and Rueda were both reverting to plan B and C, giving certain players playing time, but a 45 minute spark quickly descended into a tedious encounter. Maxi Rodriguez smashed a volley against the post from a tight angle late on, but like Argentina´s entire evening, it was all a bit under par without Messi.

FC EDMONTON SPOIL COSMOS´PARTY

The Cosmos and FC Edmonton line up at James Shuart stadium in Hempstead, NY on October 20, 2013 © Samindra Kunti

The Cosmos and FC Edmonton line up at James Shuart stadium in Hempstead, NY on October 20, 2013
© Samindra Kunti

Three points or a victory – that was all the Cosmos needed from their home game against FC Edmonton to secure their ticket for the 2013 Soccer Bowl. Coach Savarese dubbed it as another final in his pre-match talk and stubbornly refused to talk about Championship dreams.

In their last two home games The Cosmos scored four goals against both the Tampa bay Rowdies and the Carolina Railhawks to cement their place at the top of the NASL, but their goal-scoring prowess took  a slump against FC Edmonton.

In a league known for its physicality, the Cosmos stand out for their possession play and fluent ground passing with Senna a driving force in midfield, but against Edmonton the New York outfit failed to impose their all-conquering style. The Eddies stifled the home side with their trademark hard-nosed and disciplined defending.

The Cosmos battled away on the midfield, but had a hard time finding space in the final third of the field. Paulo Mendes threatened in the opening minute with an attempt from the edge of the box.  Szetela came close in the 16th minute when Paulo Mendes played him in, but his little chip flew over the crossbar. Just before the half-hour mark Marcos Senna unleashed a fierce shot, which FC Edmonton goalkeeper Lance Parker tipped over.

Edmonton, the least prolific XI scoring-wise in the NASL, had little to show for it at the other end: striker Corey Hertzog´s shot was saved by Kyle Reynish after four minutes.  While the Cosmos had eight attempts on target at the end of the half, the bulk of the action had taken place in the middle of the field, with Stefan Dimitrov, picked by Savarese over Alessandro Noselli, only playing a peripheral role in the game.

Edmonton´s shut-down mentality continued after the break to the Cosmos´ despair with Diomar Diaz volleying wildly over the bar eight minutes into the second half. Hertzog tested Reynish with a shot from the left channel. The Cosmos´slow ball circulation allowed the visitors to regroup each time as the home side lacked inspiration to unlock the game.

Coach Savarese decided to bring on Noselli for Paulo Mendes in the 61th minute and switch his formation to a 4-4-2. It almost paid dividends straightaway as Noselli´s first attempt flew just wide. But the Cosmos showed more urgency and purpose with their Italian striker on the pitch. Noselli was in the thick of the action, providing body in the box. Robert Garett forced a fine save from Reynish to keep the game on a knife-edge.

In the 70th minute Noselli tried an ambitious overhead kick. The Cosmos´ exerted pressure as Noselli´s presence in the box weighed on the Canadian defence.  Noselli finally broke FC Edmonton´s staunch resistance in the 78th minute as he pounced in the box on Dimitrov’s nudge.  From close range he left Parker with no chance.

The Cosmos kept dominating, having the majority of possession, but lacked offensive penetration.  And the visitors proved to be party-poopers in the end at the Cosmos´last home game of the season. In the last minute of regular time, Lance Laing´s corner from the right seemed to mystify the Cosmos´defence, allowing David Proctor to put a free header past Reynish into the back of the net. A moment of sloppy defending cost the Cosmos, lulled into a false sense of security in the closing stages of the game, dearly.

The Cosmos now have two away games – at San Antonio Scorpions and Atlanta Silverbacks – to clinch their spot in the 2013 Soccer Bowl.

THE COSMOS DEMOLISH THE CAROLINA RAILHAWKS

Samindra Kunti – Giovanni Savarese spoke to the media ahead of the game with the Carolina Railhawks. There was no surprise in his discourse. “We have another final this weekend. Carolina is a tough team that made it difficult for us when we played them at their home…but our focus has already switched to Carolina and Saturday night,” Savarese said.

The New York Cosmos coach tends to say that every game is a final. It´s a cliché of the kind you´d rather want to avoid in the land of soccer. More so when you follow it up with a statement basking in general emptiness – the opponent is tough and difficult to play.

But top of the league Savarese had a license to voice his opinion. His declarations did reveal a deeper truth. The Cosmos had not yet forgiven the Railhawks for a thumping 3-0 defeat. In a fiercely physical game on Augusts 17, Joseph Nane, Sebastian Guenzatti and assistant coach, Alecko Eskandarian all got send off.

Savarese and his charges got their revenge last Saturday. The Cosmos were given an early warning by the visitors in a sloppy start to the game when Ayoze was dozing at the back and Brian Ackley slipped through the offside trap.

After eight minutes Diomar Diaz opened up the visiting back four with a fine cross from the left. Danny Szetela got on the end of Diaz´s feed and guided the ball composedly past Akira Fitzgerald. It was the prelude to an one-sided half.

The stats told the tale of the half: nine shots on target for the Cosmos to just the lone attempt by Ackley for the Railhawks; Kyle Reynish did not make single save. The Cosmos were buzzing with a very industrious Marcos Senna in the axe of the field: his two free kicks were saved by Fitzgerald. Holding a high defensive line, the Cosmos had the visitors in a stranglehold. To complete the Railhawks´ misery, and in an ironic twist of faith, their assistant coach Dewan Bader got ejected from the game.

The game got off in the second half right where it had left the Railhawks in the first half –  choking at the edge of their own box. With an expert save – strategic positioning and flying suppleness – Fitzergald parried a goal bound shot from Guenzatti after 51 minutes. Three minutes later Diaz sneaked in behind the back of a lax defending Paul Hamilton and his tor instinct was rewarded with his fifth goal of the season.

Alessandro Noselli, a substitute for Guenzatti, won a penalty when felled by Henry Kalungi inside the box. Senna banged in the penalty low to Fitzgerald´s left, but referee Gonzalez ordered a retake. The youngster Fitzgerald momentarily was looked in a battle with Marcos Senna, whom he had again denied early on in the second half with another eye-catching save. But this time Fitzgerald yielded to the old sniper from Spain.

Fitzgerald was to be pitied for his agony was not at an end yet. Noselli finished a perfect evening for the Cosmos when he pounced in the box and dispatched an absolute screamer in the last minute of the game. It was a fitting finale to what undoubtedly was the Cosmos´ best performance in the league. “The team came out with the right attitude, pressuring and possessing the ball. It was the most complete game of this season so far,” assessed Savarese.

The Cosmos now sit comfortably at the top of the NASL and just need three more points from their remaining three games to secure a place in the Soccer Bowl.