Posted Apr 17 2012 11:17AM
Tucked away in a private room at a fancy steakhouse in Buckhead, Ga., the night before the Knicks and Hawks played last month at Philips Arena, interim Knicks coach Mike Woodson was busy holding court.
The room was filled with folks the former Hawks coach had invited to thank for the love and support he'd received since moving to Atlanta in 2004, people he wanted to thank personally and appropriately for sticking with him through the good and bad times.
Woodson carried on, ribbing one of his guests about his golf game and busting another one's chops for being the shortest man in the room, laughing and joking in ways no one in New York, outside of those with a backstage pass to the traveling circus that is the Knicks this season, has seen him act.
Sure, they've seen a smile or two out of Woodson since he took over from Mike D'Antoni. The Knicks are 13-5 and 9-1 at Madison Square Garden since he moved into the big chair, but they haven't seen the relaxed Woodson that owned the room at that steakhouse.
They haven't seen the Woodson who kicked into high gear when Knicks forward and shooter deluxe Steve Novak crashed the private party, along with several of his teammates, out the night before the game looking for a bite to eat near the team hotel.
Woodson gave Novak a glowing introduction, called him one of the greatest shooters on the planet and then turned serious and fined Novak for wearing a T-shirt and jeans to one of the most expensive restaurants in town.
Woodson was joking, of course. And he repeated his "you're fined" routine on every one of the Knicks he ran into that night, including Jeremy Lin, who showed up late by himself, hat on backwards and his earphones near closing time.
"Fined for what?" Lin said as Woodson dropped the punch line on him, moments after announcing his arrival, "Ladies and gentlemen, the King of New York."
Just a few weeks in and you could tell Woodson and this team had already bonded in ways that would produce the sort of results we've seen from the Knicks on the floor. Even with Lin and Amar'e Stoudemire out with injuries, Woodson has driven the Knicks to the brink of a playoff berth with his straight-talk approach and unwavering demand that his guys plays defense, share the ball and play the game the right way.
If the Knicks are smart, they'll make Woodson a permanent fixture in that locker room and in that city, forgoing their usual coaching/character search for a coach with a surplus of character who has already won over the most important group of men involved -- the men in his locker room.
Woodson inherited a fractured bunch with an 18-24 record. That's not the team that will face the Celtics tonight on TNT. That old bunch played through Lin and its biggest stars, Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire, struggled to find their way in an offense that didn't suit their games.
Woodson has tweaked D'Antoni's offense and demanded the stars and everyone else turn up the defensive intensity. Under D'Antoni, the Knicks averaged 16.1 isos a game and shot 35 percent. Under Woodson, those numbers have jumped to 22.2 and 41 percent, respectively.
Anthony has flourished in Woodson's system, playing his best basketball of the season since the changeover. He's averaging 31.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and shooting 51 percent from the floor this month and averaging 30.2 point over the Knicks' last 10 games.
Anthony looks like the star Knicks fans thought they were getting when the organization traded away much of its young core for him last season. And he's doing it against the best of the best. He dropped 43 points and the game-winning 3-pointer in overtime in a win over the league-leading Bulls two weeks ago and lit up the Heat for 42 points in a loss Sunday.
He doesn't have to publicly endorse Woodson, but his play is affirmation that the change is to the liking of the Knicks' biggest star.
And anyone worried about Woodson's no-nonsense style clashing with a team full of diverse personalities -- check the Knicks' roster, they travel from one end of the personality spectrum (Landry Fields) to the other (J.R. Smith) and make stops everywhere along the way -- overlooked his results with the Hawks.
Woodson worked under some of the most dysfunctional circumstances any NBA coach has had in recent years during his six seasons with the Hawks. He inherited a program that was stripped down to the supports when he took over. His first three teams were filled with rookies, veterans playing out the last string of their careers and journeymen role players needed to fill out the roster.
His last three seasons, when the youngsters matured, prized free-agent acquisition Joe Johnson became an All-Star and eventual All-Star Al Horford was plucked in the top three of the 2007 draft, the Hawks took flight. They averaged 46 wins over his final three seasons, making the playoffs each year and compiling a 53-win season in his finale, the fifth-best record in the Hawks' Atlanta history.
When the Hawks decided not to offer him a new contract after a second straight second-round playoff exit, it wasn't about him losing his team or his X's and O's being off. They had new management and the brass decided a tone and philosophical change was needed after six years of Woodson's grinding approach. So Woodson exited having helped resuscitate a franchise only to see someone else (his longtime top assistant Larry Drew) try to finish the job (it should be noted that the Hawks took a step in the postseason but haven't been back to that 53-win level since Woodson's departure.)
Now Woodson has his chance to do the same in New York: finish a job someone else started.
The Knicks are poised to make a move similar to what the Hawks made in Woodson's final three seasons in Atlanta. They'll have all of the distractions that come with playing in New York. And Woodson will spend his time in the blender that is the New York tabloids, despite his desire to remain out of the spotlight.
But they'll also have a coach who has a firm grasp on what it takes to get to the next level, how to manage a locker room full of complex personalities and how to wrestle with the weight of expectations in the same city he began his professional career in as a player when the Knicks made him the 12th overall pick of the 1980 draft. In a strange way, things have come full circle for Woodson.
And while he's not Phil Jackson, John Calipari or any of the other "names" rumored to be on the short list of candidates the Knicks will consider for the job, Woodson is also not full of the bluster or handcuffed to the drama that comes with those "names" either.
What Woodson is, which is much more important than anything else, is the right coach for this Knicks team now and in the future. And you don't need a backstage pass to figure that out.
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