This was one of those nights in the sports industry that becomes hard to talk about without sounding like a braggart and a name-dropper.
For last night’s Knicks/Celtics game at Madison Square Garden, I used my media credential to go behind the scenes and visit both locker rooms. When it was time for tip-off, I used my invite to a luxury suite — where I was part of a select group brought in to celebrate the launch of KnicksNow.com, the team’s new interactive social media website — to watch the game from the rich-people seats with rich-people amenities. And then after the game, maybe the best of the NBA season so far, I used my media pass again to access the locker rooms and catch the aftermath of an instant classic. Here’s how it all went down:
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* It’s unspoken NBA protocol that superstars usually find ways to duck out on the League-mandated pre-game media session. As long as a player is in the training room and not the general locker room, he’s mostly off-limits. (Though I have seen big-timers like Gus Johnson and Stephen A. Smith saunter into the training room in MSG’s visitor’s locker room before.)
So if, say, the Spurs are in town, I can talk to George Hill and Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair all I want for 45 minutes, but odds are Tim Duncan and Tony Parker won’t show. (Manu Ginobili usually makes an appearance for the Spanish-speaking media.) With the Celtics, it was on another level. Not only was about half the team in the training room, the door to that room was closed, the first time I’ve seen that. The only players lounging in the locker room were Big Baby, Avery Bradley, Luke Harangody and Marquis Daniels, and that’s when they weren’t on the court working out.
* Ray Allen (owner of the largest calves in the world) made himself available for a few minutes, and of course was bombarded with “Is the rivalry back?” questions. When things slowed down and the crowd cleared out a bit, Ray ended up chatting about the new Tron movie and how, when he read The Da Vinci Code, he always imagined Liam Neeson playing the main character.
* Among the notes written on the Celtics’ dry-erase board: “Don’t settle.” On the Knicks’ board: “Be mentally tough today EVERY POSSESSION.”
* Lots of celebrities in the building: Spike Lee (wearing a Landry Fields jersey), Donald Trump, Dylan McDermott of one of my all-time favorite shows “The Practice,” Jamie Lynn-Sigler as the night’s contractually-obligated “Sopranos” alum, Trey Songz, Fabolous, and WWE champion/”Real World” alum The Miz. And, yes, he brought the belt.
In the hallway where the suites are situation, I ran into Charles Smith. He tried to put a chicken sandwich in his mouth, missed, tried again, missed again, tried again, missed again…
* I spent a lot of the first half doing the schmoozing/networking/free food thing, so honestly I missed a lot of the action on the court. Ray Felton hit a running three off the glass at the halftime buzzer to put the Knicks up 58-51 at the break.
* About five minutes after both teams went to the locker room, Ray Allen was back on the court shooting free throws. For a while he was the only player out there. By the time his teammates joined him, you could see the Celtics’ level of focus. Allen was only practicing threes and free throws. KG was only working on 18- and 20-footers from either side of the key. Why? These are the shots they get in games. You don’t see any Celtics practicing without a purpose. That was a staple of the Isiah Thomas-era Knicks: You could always find Eddy Curry or Jerome James working on their crossovers 20 feet from the basket during warm-ups, while Nate Robinson honed his form on half-court heaves. Last night, Nate warmed up with pull-up jumpers in the lane.
* As the third quarter gets underway, somebody asks me, “Do you think the Knicks are gonna do this?” Right after I say, “I think the Celtics are gonna make a run,” Boston rips off a 7-0 run to tie it up: Allen dunk, Paul Pierce fadeaway, Pierce three. The MSG crowd, which has been good but not as electric as expected, was really starting to buzz with a nervous injury. It’s like the reverse of Red Sox fans when the Yankees start to make a run on them.
* Danilo Gallinari was incredible in the second half. He hit a swooping lefty hook, a baseline drive where he dunked it backwards and swung on the rim, another baseline drive where he punched a two-hand dunk on KG, stuck a couple open threes, and in the final minute got a left-hand scoop shot and-one that brought rain down with it. He looked like a more athletic, less-awkward Dirk Nowitzki. Question: If the Raptors were offered Gallinari for Andrea Bargnani straight-up, do they take that deal? I think Gallo could score just as much as Bargnani if he were the No. 1 option, plus he wouldn’t be playing center, so Toronto could go out and get a real five.
* With 0.1 on the clock at the end of the third quarter, Pierce fouls Felton while he was shooting a three. The free throws make it 90-83, putting the C’s right back where they started coming out of halftime.
* I missed the Rajon Rondo injury when it happened, but when he returned to the court he was noticeably limping. As usual, however, he wasn’t available after the game to talk about it. Garnett and Pierce both said they were concerned.
* In one 15-second sequence, Big Baby hit the deck three times: After spectacularly missing a dunk, then trying to run back down on D, then when he baited Amar’e Stoudemire into an offensive foul. Is he hustling or just clumsy? A Celtics fan I know says both.
* Four things that need to die:
1. The phrase “‘Nuff said”
2. The “FAIL” phenomenon. (Or at least “epic fail”)
3. Describing any controversy using the suffix “-gate”
4. The idea that Rondo only racks up assists because he plays with Hall of Fame teammates.
Watching the game from a high angle in-person only confirmed what I’ve been saying: Rondo makes plays happen with his dribble-penetration, and sees angles other point guards don’t see. He draws defenders into moving where he wants them to move in order to create open looks for his teammates. They just have to make the shots. If he was playing with the Cavs he’d still average at least 10 dimes a night.