That, my friends, is the feeling of wind in the sail, the sunshine breaking through. The New York Knicks have turned some kind of corner in 2014, both mentally and physically. At 13-22, the Knicks are a long way from celebrating anything, but after two months of rotten, disinterested basketball, it’s time to acknowledge a week span in which the Knicks took down both the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat.
Exactly one week from popping the cork on the new year with a win in San Antonio, the Knicks defeated the Heat on national television for the fourth time in five contests. Recall those Knicks from last season that beat Miami 3-1 in the season series? The 2013-14 Knicks looked an awful lot like that crew in this one. From the offensive and mental composure to the timely defensive stops, it’s hard to think of a more impressive, satisfying win this season.
And it all started with a sort of return to basics. After shaking off some early rust, forcing offensive looks and allowing the Heat wide open shots in transition, the Knicks seemed to buckle down. Raymond Felton, who captained the offense with command all night, got teammates involved, particularly with Andrea Bargnani who slipped screens and picked and popped for open, mid-range jumpers. When the defense adjusted to his shots, he took it to the basket with success, even throwing down a stylish reverse dunk in the process. Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, guarded by LeBron James (in Shane Battier’s absence) strapped on his boots and went to work, facing up from his sweet spots on the elbows for a few jumpers, and like Bargnani, blowing by the defense when they tried to take away those shots.
Although the Knicks competed in the first half — Mike Woodson suggested this could happen! — a few crucial defensive lapses didn’t seem to favor the Knicks’ momentum. At the end of the first quarter, Bargnani, for some ungodly reason switched on to James, allowed a backdoor cut and alley-oop layup with .7 seconds on the clock to let the Heat take a 27-21 lead. Late in the second quarter, Kenyon Martin lost Rashard Lewis in the corner twice for back-to-back threes. The Knicks were playing hard, but not smart.
Suffice to say, upon entering the second half, fans were nervous. The Heat like to play with their food before eating, and two months of watching the Knicks crumble down the stretch has installed instinctive anxiety as games wind down. But something else happened instead; the Knicks were the ones starting to gather momentum. While Dwyane Wade and James started to take over the offense for Miami, it was Felton and Anthony that once again kept the Knicks together, with the help of some friends. Anthony found Shumpert for a three-pointer as Shump stayed red hot in 2014. Felton found Bargnani for a driving layup. Every time the Heat threatened to run away, the Knicks answered, particularly Shumpert who buried three shots from beyond the arc in the third quarter. Then it was Anthony’s turn to cook as he nailed back-to-back three-pointers.
Up 3 with 3:30 to play, the Heat’s offense stalled out, and Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani were there to respond for the Knicks. Over the final three minutes, Bargs and STAT combined for nine points in a row as the Knicks turned deficit into a six-point lead. Tim Hardaway Jr. PUNCTUATED the quarter by following Stoudemire’s missed jumper with a huge put-back slam. Though James responded with a coast-to-coast layup to beat the buzzer, the energy and pulse of Madison Square Garden was on the Knicks’ side.
The Heat played into the Knicks’ hands by playing big lineups, playing slowly and carelessly. Nonetheless, the Knicks won this game. The Knicks utilized the double-screen pick-and-roll action once again, usually with Anthony and Stoudemire as the screeners, and Felton navigated it beautifully, finding Anthony several times for open jumpers or Stoudemire for open baskets in the paint. The Heat threatened to make their big run, starting with a Ray Allen four-point play, but the Knicks answered, most importantly with a Shumpert three that pushed the Knicks lead back to eight. While the heat stagnated, James and Wade trying to play the hero, the Knicks were content to move the ball and find the open shot.
If the closing of the game left any doubt, the Knicks casually shut it down. Felton found Stoudemire for a wide open dunk in the pick-and-roll with a minute remaining to push the lead to 11. Later on, guarded by James once again, Anthony hoisted one of his signature one-dribble pull-ups and drained it, bringing the Garden to a raucous applause of pride and approval.
What Went Right
- Enough can’t be said about Raymond Felton’s excellence tonight. Easily his best game of the season, posting 13 points, 14 assists, 5 rebounds, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers. Unlike the Knicks’ other point guard options, Felton has the ability to penetrate into the teeth of a defense, and although he’s usually a lousy finisher, it forces the D to react. From there, Felton is perhaps the best Knick at finding either a rolling or popping big man or kicking it out to the perimeter for shooters.
- And a round of applause to Anthony, too. ‘Melo admittedly said playing against LeBron James elevates his own game to another level, and while we’d like to see the kind of smart, team ball Anthony played each night, we’ll take it when it comes. At times he forced the one-on-one matchup a bit too much, taking contested jumpers on the wing with little ball movement — but other times Anthony caught the ball in rhythm and launched, netting 29 points on 12-24 shooting. When the shot wasn’t there, ‘Melo helped with the ball movement, as evidenced by his five assists.
- And Amar’e Stoudemire, too! STAT notched his first double-double in over a year by contributing 14 points on 7-12 shooting to go with 11 rebounds. He looked engaged on defense, and — surprise, surprise — found much more success on offense by cutting weakside or acting as a roller to get easy shots around the basket. Hey, those are only the kinds of plays he built his career on, right?
- The Knicks continue forcing opponents into turnovers, at one point creating three in a row in the first half. The Heat turned it over 15 times in this one, which is their season average, but the Knicks generally took advantage, scoring 12 fast break points, which is much better than their season average.
- Oh, hey, Andrea Bargnani, too! National-television Bargs likes to ball out and all 19 of his points were needed. He took but one three-pointer and instead focused his game in the mid-range where he was lethal as usual.
What Went Wrong
- Not a whole lot. However, as was the case in San Antonio, the Knicks got pretty lucky by having the opponent shoot themselves. Miami looked disinterested for the most part. Instead of their usual, aggressive, trapping pick-and-roll defense, the Heat kind of flailed around when the Knicks ran the double-screens, and the Heat rotations were almost always late to either the open shooter or open roller. On offense, Miami dribbled and dribbled a whole bunch until they decided to do something. And they shot just 33% from downtown, which, again, was pretty lucky for the Knicks.
- The Knicks hit a lot of momentous shots, particularly in the second half, but they missed a bunch, too. In one stretch in the second quarter, Hardaway Jr. missed back-to-back open threes, and then off of a turnover, Anthony ignored a 3-on-1 break to take a pull-up three, which he missed. Thankfully, those misses didn’t come back to hurt the Knicks.
- Can’t believe this has been left until now. Remember J.R. Smith? Tattoos, likes to shoot a lot, kinda silly? He didn’t play tonight. He wasn’t injured or sick; Mike Woodson decided not to play him. And it was kind of… glorious! Smith’s abysmal shooting kills a lot of Knicks lineups. Furthermore, his on-court antics are a distraction. His recent untying-opponents-shoes binge earned him a $50,000 fine from the NBA and a seat in Woodson’s doghouse. It was long overdue, frankly. He’ll be back Saturday night in Philly, but props to Woodson for finally manning up and disciplining J.R.
- Don’t think I’ve ever seen Chris Bosh have a good game against the Knicks, at least not recently. 6 points, 3-10 FG, 9 boards, 4 assists tonight. Last season in four games: 15 points per game, 38% shooting, 6 rebounds per game. Whatever, I don’t mind.
That’s it! It feels tremendous to write about something positive for once. With 11 of their next 14 games at home, there’s a real chance for the Knicks to get something going here.