With the Knicks getting ready for Game 1 in Boston, 1,495 miles away, Mike D'Antoni's former guys, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov of the Nuggets, are in Oklahoma City preparing to do the same for their 9:30 p.m. ET opening round tip-off.
While D'Antoni has fond memories coaching his ex-quartet, he says his new-look squad has a stronger makeup entering the postseason.
"I love those guys and I would've been confident going in with them," D'Antoni said, "but you have Melo and Chauncey who have been there a lot more, so you are more confident. But some of it is rattled because they haven't been together long. So it's a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I like the other group too, but I think the franchise is richer and better, and the future is going upward. I hope it starts now."
After the February 21 blockbuster trade, the Knicks were only a .500 team (14-14) and at one point, they lost six straight at the end of March. During three days of playoff practice this week, D'Antoni has been stressing the importance of closing the deal in the fourth quarter, where they got burned during that losing streak. One of those rashes came during a loss to the Celtics on March 21, when they got outscored 33-17 in the final period.
But D'Antoni says the team is in a much better place now. He warns, though, there are some question marks about how his players will respond to a different level of play approaching. But he won't look to coach any differently, mostly because he expects his guys to play harder and be more mentally prepared, especially with the playoff-tested and 2004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups running the show.
"We're rolling pretty good, but the playoffs are a different beast and we'll see how it goes," D'Antoni said. "We gotta know that we just gotta be disciplined and strong enough mentally in the fourth quarter, and a lot of that comes from being familiar with your players and being in that situation a lot. We haven't been in that situation a lot. Now that doesn't mean we can't do it, but knowing where that ball goes without thinking or is that an automatic switch without thinking, I don't know if we're there yet. But we'll find out."
D'Antoni says he doesn't feel a greater sense of urgency to win, even after two previous losing seasons in New York. That's because his Big Three truly believe they can do something special: not only upset the Celtics, but take the crown.
"Having Melo, Amare and Chauncey, especially, they expect big things," D'Antoni said. "They expect to win the whole thing. They expect to compete with anybody on that floor in any game. That's the mentality we want to go in with. And I expect to win. I expect that we can beat anybody."
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