Breathe easy, New England. You know what happened on Sunday in Foxboro? Don’t expect to be seeing that on the hardwood at TD Garden ? or Madison Square Garden for that matter ? any time in the near future.
A couple of years ago, with Eric Mangini at the helm, and Brett Favre under center, the Jets were in disarray. They were a sexy team (seriously, not a Jenn Sterger reference). They were a team that many thought could become something special. They had potential to rise up and overthrow the Patriots at the top of the AFC East.
In fact, the Jets even came into Foxboro and beat the almighty Patriots, during the regular season, even if they did only have to beat Matt Cassel and not Tom Brady.
But, as Favre did far-too-often in his career, he faltered down the stretch, and the Jets pulled off an epic collapse. Soon after, Mangini was gone. So was Favre. A new era began in New York.
Rex Ryan came in from Baltimore with his vaunted defense and turned the franchise upside down. He changed the culture. He changed the attitude.
What does this have to do with basketball? Plenty, actually.
Give the New York Knicks credit. They’ve done something that many basketball fans were starting to wonder aloud whether or not would ever happen again. Finally, the Knicks are relevant for arguably the first time since they were whitewashed in the 1999 NBA Finals by the Spurs.
Despite that relevance, the Knicks are simply not a title contender. They gave the Celtics a game in New York a month ago. It’s arguably been the highlight of what’s turning into an up-and-down season. Sure, the near-win boosted morale and confidence.
It was the kind of game that you take lessons from and learn from, but it was a moral victory, and a relatively minor one at that. The Knicks can continue to build themselves into a 45 to 50-win team by adding up small accomplishments. What they really need, though, is a change in philosophy.
It may or may not start with the coach. Mike D’Antoni is the kind of guy who’s had success before, but has never reached the top of the mountain. The Phoenix teams he coached with the likes of Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion were fun, but they lacked one essential ingredient to being a title contender ? defense.
At the risk of sounding cliche-y, defense wins championships. OK, so that’s very cliche, but it’s the truth. The Jets will play in their second AFC Championship in as many years because their defense is so strong. Once the Knicks buy into that ? whether it’s with D’Antoni at the helm (could he the Knicks’ version of Mangini?) or someone else ? they’ll be on their way to contending for a title.
And, like the Jets, the blueprint for success is just a few miles north. As recently as Monday night, the NBA was reminded that the Celtics still reign supreme when it comes to defense. Like the NFL, there’s no greater barometer or predictor of a team’s success or outlook than its defense.
The last possession for the Magic on Monday was a thing of beauty if you’re a Celtics fan. The C’s were suffocating. Their rotations were crisp. Their communication seemed to be solid. Even an offensive rebound was negated by Kevin Garnett’s defensive instincts when he made a game-clinching steal in his first game in roughly three weeks.
It was just another notch on the belt of a team that prides itself on defense. The Celtics are a good defensive team not just because they’re talented, but because they’ve bought into the system. And from that tenacious attitude on defense, a “You can’t hang with us” mentality is now a Celtics hallmark.
Just as importantly, the Celtics, like the Knicks (to a quieter degree, the Patriots) know that they’re good. It’s a bravado that annoys the opponent, but it’s also a bravado built on true confidence, unity and a desire to make changes for the greater common good. Championship teams are built. The Celtics, in the past couple of years have shown that. The Patriots, for the better part of the past decade, have shown that. The Knicks can get there, but they still need change.
They can continue to make basketball interesting, relevant and chique in New York by continuing to put up triple-digits night in and night out. But until they start committing to defense and truly buying into the attitude that championships are won on the defensive end, they will continue to play little brother to the Celtics. More importantly, they’ll be an afterthought to the rest of the league.
The Jets got by their big brother this weekend, and now they’re a game away from the Super Bowl. If the Knicks want to ever be in the position to knock the Celtics off their Eastern Conference perch, the Knickerbockers better start taking notes from their football brethren over the bridge.