By Neil Keefe
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These next few weeks were supposed to feel like 14 years ago in the spring of 1997 when I was 10 years old and in fifth grade. With the Foo Fighters releasing their seventh album (“Wasting Light”) two weeks ago it was supposed to feel like 14 years ago around this time when they released their second album (“The Colour and the Shape”). It was supposed to feel like 14 years ago because that was the last time Madison Square was the home to two playoff teams in the same year when “Rock and Roll (Part 2)” dominated the Garden PA speakers. This spring was supposed to be the home to a different New York sports playoff game every night to accompany the Yankees games. It was supposed to last a few weeks and maybe even a month. And if all the stars aligned, maybe even into a second month. It wasn’t supposed to be over in 11 days and just nine games.
Well, actually, it was.
All along it’s been known that the Rangers and Knicks were in the middle of building and planning for the future. But the playoff hype and the idea that the Garden was ready to return to its late-90s glory derailed the plan that everyone knew about and had accepted and agreed to. The idea of something special taking place this spring created a false identity and false hope for both teams and their fans. And then when the teams looked like they could have won on the road in the opening game of each series (and the Celtics again in Game 2), it only fanned the flames of a fire that had been created to lead fans on with the thought that either of these teams could make a serious run in their respective tournament.
There won’t be any more Rangers or Knicks games at the Garden or at all this spring. It’s devastating, but that’s just how it is. After just four home playoff games between the two teams, it’s all over. Just 11 days of playoff action and it’s all over until the fall.
It shouldn’t matter that the Rangers aren’t playing anymore this spring because really we knew they wouldn’t playing that long all along. They didn’t go down in Game 7 on an overtime winner. They went down in Game 5, a game in which they barely showed up and were never really in. And after trading punches with the Celtics in Games 1 and 2 before blowing both games, the Knicks rolled over and played the role of the red carpet for the Celtics into the second round. Neither team went down in devastating fashion. They went down like teams not ready to be serious contenders playing against teams capable of winning it all this season.
I don’t think either team fell short of expectations despite going a combined 1-8 in the playoffs. The Rangers entered the season with a young team, battled injuries and needed all 82 games of the regular season (and then some) to make the playoffs. The Knicks’ season was split into two seasons with the first being pre-Carmelo and the second being post-Carmelo. They were forced to create team chemistry on the fly and give role players increased playing time.
The Rangers and Knicks and Madison Square Garden and the MSG Network have desperately been looking for something to build off of for a decade now. They have milked the memories of the ‘94 Rangers and Knicks and squeezed out every last drop of magic from that year. They have showed Messier kissing the cup a million times and have brought in everyone they could to talk about the ’70 and ’73 Knicks, but they need to expand on their history and create new memories. There are Rangers fans that were born in the fall of 1994 and their best Rangers memory is losing to the Sabres in the second round in 2006-07 and then losing again in the second round to the Penguins in 2007-08. And the Knicks haven’t won a playoff game in 10 years and haven’t gotten out of the first round in 11.
When I started to really think about who the 2010-11 Rangers and 2010-11 Knicks were, it became clear that they were nearly identical in their current state and their future plans. Neither team was built to succeed in 2010-11 despite what some crazed fans believe. The Rangers have been built from within with a young defensive core, and the Knicks were built from within and then rebuilt midseason with the same idea: the future. But New Yorkers so badly wanted the Rangers and Knicks and Madison Square Garden to be relevant again that they created unreal expectations for two teams facing incredible uphill battles in their second seasons. So, how much alike were the No. 8 Rangers and No. 6 Knicks? A lot more than you might think. Here are five strong similarities between the teams:
1. Playing Against Possibly Beat Team In League
It’s a very realistic possibility that both the Capitals and Celtics could win their league’s championship. And that possibility makes me wonder why anyone thought that the Capitals were the best matchup for the Rangers and the Celtics were the best matchup for the Knicks entering the playoffs?
Sure, the Rangers beat the Capitals three out of four in the regular season (including 7-0 and 6-0 wins), but that was the REGULAR SEASON. The Rangers needed all 82 games of the season and then another game between the Hurricanes-Lightning to clinch a playoff berth in which they didn’t control their own destiny. The Capitals clinched their spot in March and then clinched the first overall seed in the East.
The Rangers did hold late leads in Games 1 and 3 and could easily still be playing a Game 6 at MSG, but when you think about it, why would anyone want to face the No. 1 team in the conference. A team that came that back from a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers two years with relative ease. A team that changed its defensive philosophy in midseason and a team that has the second best player in the world on their roster. Why not hope to play the Flyers who make goalie changes as often as Joe Girardi makes pitching changes. Why not pray for the chance to play the Bruins who have just as much trouble scoring, lack a superstar and big-time threat, and are identically built? I guess none of that matters since rooting and hoping to play a certain team in the playoffs doesn’t mean the standings will fall that way.
The Knicks were never good enough to beat the Celtics. They were good enough to stay with them, but they were never good enough to get a win against them. They went 0-4 against them in the regular season and then 0-4 against them in the last week. The Knicks were going up against a team whose window of opportunity is coming to an end faster than Mischa Barton’s did after leaving “The O.C.” and Doc Rivers and the Celtics know this. This might be the last real chance the Celtics have to reach the Finals again with this roster and for a long time as a franchise, and they weren’t going to let the 42-40 Knicks be the team that stops them from making one last run at the whole thing.
2. Problems Disguised By Early Achievements
Last October when the Yankees swept the Twins, the problems that caused the Yankees to struggle in September (which resulted in many “experts” picking the Twins to beat the Yankees) were disguised by the Yankees winning three straight against the Twins for the second straight postseason. Everyone forgot about the Yankees’ streaky offense and their extremely shaky starting rotation. It wasn’t until they were embarrassed in six games (it probably should have been over in four) that everyone remembered why the Yankees were questioned going down the stretch in the regular season in the first place.
When the Rangers led Game 1 before giving it away, and when they led 3-0 in Game 4 before giving it away, it looked like they could be just as good as the Capitals if they wanted to, when they really couldn’t. If you want to know who the real Rangers and Capitals are, look no further than the 51 minutes of overtime the teams played in Games 1 and 4 combined when the Capitals looked like they were on a 51-minute power play. Once Game 4 went to overtime, the game and series was over because the only way the Rangers were going to score in overtime was from a lucky or bad bounce, or a blocked shot off a shin pad that would turn into a breakaway. They weren’t going to score off a quality scoring chance created from offensive skill because they never have those and didn’t have in nearly three periods worth of overtime.
When the Knicks put a scare into the Celtics in Boston in the first two games of the series without Amar’e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups for extended periods of time, people started thinking it was possible that the Knicks could win the series. When Toney Douglas hit that 3 in Game 1, I thought Game 1 was over. And when Carmelo had the ball in his hands for the final shot in that same game, I thought the game was over again. When Jared Jeffries made that layup with 19 seconds left in Game 2, I thought Game 2 was over. And when the Knicks had a chance to take the lead back before Jeffries froze at the end of the game, I thought it was over again. And when I thought about the fact that the Celtics were a Jared Jeffries’ good decision away from possibly losing to Carmelo Anthony and limited help at home, I thought the Knicks would return home and win on their home court. I was wrong because …
3. Inability To Close Games And Figure Out How To Win
The Rangers had a 1-0 lead with 6:16 left in Game 1. They had a 3-0 lead with 17:13 left in Game 4.
The Knicks had an 85-84 lead with 11 seconds left in Game 1. They had a 93-92 lead with 13 seconds left in Game 2.
I think that’s all that needs to be said about that.
4. Dealing With The Injury Bug
The Rangers weren’t going to beat the Capitals with Ryan Callahan in the lineup, but his presence was certainly missed. He’s not Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, and he’s not in the next tier of players below them. And he might not even be in the tier of players in the tier below them. But he is the heart and soul of the Rangers, and the future captain of the team, and when he was lost for the season after blocking a Zdeno Chara shot, you had a feeling the season went down with him. For a team that has trouble scoring goals, you don’t want to lose a player who was second on the team in goals despite missing 22 games or 27 percent of the season.
The Knicks weren’t going to beat the Celtics with Amar’e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups at full strength, but they wouldn’t have gotten swept with them in the lineup. When you think about Game 2 and the fact the Knicks lost by three and Bill Walker played 33 minutes (and went 0-for-11 from the floor) and Jared Jeffries played 26 minutes and was given the ball on the play to win the game, and Billups didn’t play and Amar’e barely played, well that says something.
5. Head Coaches
There’s plenty to question when it comes John Tortorella, but it’s not like a few different coaching decisions here and there were going to make the Rangers a better team than the Capitals. I have been against the John Tortorella Experiment for as long as I have been against the Boone Logan Experiment, but unlike Logan, I have grown to accept the idea that Tortorella will be around for a few more years and with his new extension, there’s nothing that can really be done about it. Now it’s time to just hope that he is the right person to mold the young players on the team while Henrik Lundqvist is still in his prime. I hope Glen Sather is right for once because if he isn’t this has to be the last coach he gets to hire and fire while avoiding the ax himself.
The Knicks weren’t going to win this season if their coach was Mike D’Antoni or Phil Jackson or Eddie Franklin. But after a couple seasons of waiting for the free agent class of 2010 and after having his roster change time and time again, D’Antoni is nearing the point where he has to start to prove that his offensive-minded tactics actually do work. If for some reason the Knicks struggle in 2011-12, D’Antoni’s job won’t be secure. And if Doc Rivers becomes available at the same time as Chris Paul then D’Antoni might as well pack his bags if he hasn’t figured it out by then.
We wanted 2011 to be 1997 because we miss what it was like when the Rangers and Knicks mattered at the same time. We wanted the Rangers to upset the Capitals and for Game 3 to labeled the “Can You Hear Us?” Game and an MSG classic forever. Instead it was erased by an epic collapse. We wanted the Knicks to be the team that slammed the window of opportunity shut on the Celtics and for Game 2 to be the “Carmelo’s 42 and 17″ Game. Instead it was erased by a disastrous turnover. We wanted too much from two teams not ready to give us that much. We wanted greatness from two teams that aren’t yet great, but are on their way there.
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