For a moment there it looked like it was all going to blow up. Down 9 points with 7:14 left in the fourth quarter, the Spurs ran a perfect pick-and-roll for the 300th time in a row. Tony Parker whipped a one-armed bullet pass into a rolling Tiago Splitter, who laid it in and got hammered by Tyson Chandler after the fact. And-one. Time-out, Knicks. The game resumed, Splitter hit his free throw, and the Spurs went up by 12 points, with seven minutes remaining in the game.
With Carmelo Anthony having his worst night of the season, unable to get easy looks, incapable of making any looks; with J.R. Smith reverting to his ‘Dr. Hyde’, isolation, dribble-dribble-step-back-jumper ways; with Tyson Chandler mysteriously a step slow on both ends; with Steve Novak unusually inaccurate – it looked like the Knicks’ time as the last undefeated team in the NBA would come to an end.
Yet when the final buzzer rang, it read 104-100, in favor of the Knicks. How did this happen?
The game began in a shootout, like an old western movie. The two best, toughest foes in league, engaged in a back-and-forth, seemingly incapable of running out of ammo.
These days, the Knicks and the Spurs bare few resemblances. One pushes the pace, shoots and scores like it’s going out of style, getting stops when necessary or just convenient; the other slows the tempo, grinding at teams with stingy defense and a passing-heavy, efficient offense. However, both teams have demonstrated machine-like precision this season, and while the differences are there, both the Knicks and the Spurs seemed willing to cater to one another tonight.
As mentioned, the game got off to a blistering start. The pace was quick and hurried. For the Knicks, Raymond Felton darted in and out of the lane, setting up open looks for Ronnie Brewer and Jason Kidd, benefiting from the attention paid to Carmelo Anthony himself, by knocking in a few jumpers. For the Spurs, it was all the usual suspects. Tim Duncan, the ageless one, hitting jumpers from the elbows and finishing around the basket, Danny Green slipping inside and out, losing Knicks on cuts. DeJuan Blair, who got the start and the task of covering Anthony to begin, even did his fair share on offense.
The Spurs’ game plan was evident from the get-go: make Carmelo Anthony work. They fronted him in the post, denied him the ball, doubled him frequently, and pestered him whenever they could. For the Knicks, however, this was fine as the rest of the team stepped up and contributed their dues on offense. Neither team seemed particularly invested in defense, though, as the quarter ended with the Knicks up, 33-31.
The second quarter was more of the same. Both teams ran with their deep bench brigades, once again scoring with great efficiency, pushing the ball up and down at a pretty good pace.
The Knicks got off to the quicker start, behind some excellent play from Pablo Prigioni, and some handiwork from Steve Novak and Rasheed Wallace. Prigioni had a jumper himself and also set up Novak and Wallace for two three-pointers. Novak also contributed a fastbreak layup (!!), while Wallace knocked down a post-up, turn-around jumper, and another three-pointer. The Knicks jumped out to a 48-40 lead, before the offense suddenly came to a stand-still.
Tony Parker reentered the game for San Antoni and did as Tony Parker does. Parker slithered incessantly into the lane, setting up looks for himself on an array of floaters, lay-ups and pull-up jumpers. Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson also benefited from Parker’s commandeering of the game, getting wide open looks for themselves.
The Spurs wiggled their way back into the game, capping off the half with a step-back three from Danny Green with .9 seconds left to put the Spurs up 57-55 at the half.
The second half played more to the Knicks’ strengths in terms of pace. But that was about it. Though the Spurs never really ran away with the game in third quarter, the Knicks looked frazzled at their inability to get easy baskets, playing as if they were down 20. Furthermore, the refs’ whistles, by and large, disappeared for the quarter, as box-outs sent people tumbling, drives to the basket were disrupted by flailing arms, and nary a whistle was blown. At one point, Rasheed Wallace literally bit Tim Duncan in the neck.
No, but really, the officiating was rough, as the officials let many things go, while also calling some tick-tacky calls. This bothered both teams, but the Knicks seemed most bent-out-of-shape about it.
Their troubles were compounded by the disappearance of Carmelo Anthony. Credit to the Spurs as Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard consistently pushed Anthony far out to the perimeter and bothered him on every step he took with our without the ball. In Anthony’s defense, he moved the ball about as well as we’ve ever seen, and rarely forced looks. The looks he did take, however, came in the form of rushed jump shots, off-balance drives to the rim, and one blown fastbreak lay-up, followed by a charging call after gathering the offensive rebound. The Spurs’ defense simply bothered Anthony into an uneven keel that he just did not look comfortable with.
Smith, the Knicks’ second most dependable scorer, reverted to, as many folks pointed out on Twitter, the ‘nightlife’ J.R. Smith, who dribbled holes into the court while attempting the darndest, most difficult fade-away jumpers that one could imagine.
With the Knicks’ two best scorers out-of-sync, the Knicks finished the third quarter down 76-72, things having not gone nearly as badly as they seemed or as the Knicks made it appear.
The Spurs came out and attacked. They smelled the blood in the water. Tiago Splitter galloped around the court, finishing pick-and-rolls with splendid ease off the masterful execution from Tony Parker. The Knicks were still scraping for every point, but their pick-and-roll defense, manned by a hellish trio of Kidd, Novak, and Wallace, was being shredded by the Spurs. And back to where we began this journey:
Parker-Splitter pick-and-roll, Splitter layup, Chandler foul, Knicks timeout, Splitter and-one, hope diminished.
Down 89-77 with seven minutes left, the Knicks seemingly flipped the switch. Raymond Felton kicked it off with a dive to the rim and finish over Splitter. A stop on defense, another pick-and-roll, this time with Felton kicking it out to Jason Kidd for an open three-pointer. Next up, another pick-and-roll, Felton, wonderfully forcing the defense to react to his penetration, kicks it out to Smith who dishes it to Kidd in the corner – another three-pointer. Lead down to four.
The Spurs weren’t ready to quit just yet, however. Tony Parker continued his dribbling clinic and got the free throw line; Ginobili got a rainbow three to bounce in.
But the Knicks, gathering momentum, confidence, responded. Felton dropped in another layup. Chandler smashed the ball off of a beautiful drop-off from Anthony for an and-one. J.R Smith successfully worked off the dribble to get a floater to drop in the lane. Suddenly, it was a one-basket game, and the Knicks’ defense rediscovered itself. They forced missed shots, turnovers, and a shot-clock violation.
The finale came in glorious, fist-pumping eruption. Off of a turnover, the Knicks raced down the court, swiftly moved the ball and J.R. Smith got a wide open three-pointer which he drilled to put the Knicks up two. On the next possession, Felton drove-and-kick and found Kidd on the elbow who bombed in a long three-pointer to make it a five-point game. Next possession, Felton missed a layup only to have Chandler follow it up with a violent put-back dunk and some ensuing Chandler howls. Some free throws from Smith closed the game.
Just like that, the buzzer rang and a furious flurry had ended with the Knicks winning the game, remaining undefeated.
- Felton was the best we’ve seen him in this short season. Much like the Magic did Tuesday, the Spurs sagged under pick-and-rolls forcing Felton to shoot or make mostly inconsequential passes out to the perimeter. Felton made a few pull-up jumpers in response to the defense, but also made a much more committed effort to continue pressing into the lane which opened up far better looks behind the arc and to the roll man and cutters. 25 essential points on 10-20 shooting, 3 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 turnovers for Felton tonight. Splendid work by Ray Ray.
- No Pablo Prigioni in the second half, once again. Also no Marcus Camby or Kurt Thomas at all tonight. Still too much Rasheed Wallace, especially in the second half as Tiago Splitter ran him limp all over the floor.
- The two biggest critiques: 15-23 from the free throw line, which had busting potential to be heartbreaking if the Knicks had lost by only a basket or two; almost no adjustments to get Anthony better looks. Woodson deserves a ton of praise, but like we saw against the Miami Heat in the playoffs, Woodson had almost no answer to the Spurs’ simple ball-denial techniques on ‘Melo. In these situations, it’d be great to see him run some more screens or curls or fake-action sets to try and free Anthony up more. The Spurs defense was very good, though.
- Only 7 turnovers tonight, which was so essential to the win. Tina Cervasio explained during a break, if I understood correctly – and help me out if I didn’t -, a drill where two squads try and force each other into as many turnovers as possible. The team with the most turnovers runs sprints. Thus far, it’s working as the Knicks have been extremely careful with the ball.
- Jason Kidd: I owe you an apology. Boy, was I wrong about your signing this summer. I thought you’d be incapable of running an offense, un-trustable behind the three-point line, and insufficient on defense. However your steady hands – those same steady hands that fluster opponents and so easily snag careless dribbles and passes – have made such a big difference in the Knicks’ most desperate times. I’m very happy to have you on the team, and usually happier when you’re on the floor. Thanks, Jase <3
- Steve Novak’s inability to hit three-pointers is getting concerning. BUT A STEVE NOVAK LAYUP, THOUGH!!
Perhaps an even bigger test comes tomorrow night when the Knicks play the red hot Memphis Grizzlies. I wouldn’t be surprised by a let-down, but this team has consistently fooled me this year, so who knows. What is so enjoyable, in the meantime, is a come-from-behind win against the NBA’s second best team, in an arena the Knicks haven’t won in since 2003. Undefeated.