Knicks Remain Perfect, Streak to 6-0
The Knicks took their perfect 5-0 record into San Antonio on Thursday night, in a much-hyped showdown between the teams with the two best records in the NBA. Considering that the Knicks hadn’t won in San Antonio in a decade, and the Spurs were playing extremely well again this season (winners of seven of their first eight contests), it was widely assumed that New York would have to put forth an A+ effort in order to leave with a win and their undefeated status still intact.
However, their top gun, Carmelo Anthony, was out of sync offensively. Coming into the game as the NBA’s leading scorer, Melo never found his rhythm and finished with a season-low nine points on just 3-of-12 shooting. The Knicks, collectively, were wildly inaccurate from the free-throw line as well; the starting five hit just 61 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe. In addition, New York was pounded on the glass for much of the night, getting outrebounded 48-40.
With seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Knickerbockers found themselves down by 12 points to a veteran-laden Spurs team that has made a living closing out games on their home court.
Yet, somehow, the Knicks finished the game on a 22-11 run to notch a victory and escape from the Alamo with their perfect record still unblemished. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the Spurs’ first loss after leading by at least a dozen points in the fourth quarter since November 2004.
The stars in San Antonio were Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. Felton poured in a game-high 25 points and dished out seven assists in what was his best game of this young season. Coming into the season with a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing year in Portland and all the hype surrounding Jeremy Lin in New York, Felton has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations early on. This was actually his second straight 20-point effort. The last time Felton had scored 20-plus point points in back-to-back games was in early January of 2011, during his previous stint in New York.
Felton’s backcourt mate, Kidd, saved the Knicks last night with three huge three-pointers in the final seven minutes that brought the Knicks back from the dead and infused them with much needed momentum. After a sluggish preseason (Kidd shot just 27.3 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from behind the arc over the Knicks’ five preseason contests), Knicks fans were worried the 39-year-old’s gas tank had finally been emptied. But Kidd’s contributions have been absolutely vital to the Knicks’ early season success in November. He leads the team in steals (2.2 spg) and has been incredibly efficient on the offensive end – he’s turned the ball over a total of four times the entire season and he’s shooting 58.6 percent from the floor, 55 percent from three-point land and 100 percent from the free-throw line. In addition, the Knicks have already benefited from the intangibles he brings to the table. His clutch three-point daggers and key steal late last night in San Antonio were the most recent examples.
J.R. Smith, who has been incredibly consistent and arguably the Knicks’ second-best player all season, had another terrific night in the team’s sixth win as well. Smith finished with 17 points and five rebounds in 37 minutes off the bench. Smith is one of just ten players in the NBA currently averaging at least 18 points, four rebounds and three assists per game.
So, we’ve gotten this far and we have only briefly mentioned Anthony. As noted above, it was not his finest performance, and certainly his worst offensive showing of the season. Still, Anthony chipped in with a season-high 12 rebounds and three assists. More importantly, he did not let his offensive struggles impact his effort or intensity on the defensive end of the floor. Anthony bodied bigger guys on the block, boxed out and chased perimeter players off spots when necessary. One of the most important plays in Thursday night’s win was Melo sprinting out to Kawhi Leonard in the corner and forcing him to put the ball on the floor instead of shooting an open three-pointer, which resulted in a 24-second violation. Anthony, who had launched himself at Leonard, pumped his fists in celebration while lying on the floor. The Knicks’ bench helped him to his feet and Melo hustled back down to the other end.
We later learned that during the game, Melo gathered his teammates and told them he would sacrifice himself as a decoy on offense in order to create open looks for his teammates. Per the New York Post, Melo’s unselfishness impressed Stephen Jackson: “I think last year Melo would have forced a lot of shots,” Jackson said. “This year he’s trusting his teammates and it’s shown out there, especially tonight. It’s amazing how they went from two guys shooting all the balls to a team that everybody has confidence in everybody else.’’ San Antonio Express-News reported Tim Duncan looking at Melo’s stat line and saying, “You assume we win that game.”
The fact that Anthony could score just nine points on 3-of-12 shooting, yet still be a primary contributor to an important road victory in San Antonio has to be incredibly encouraging to head coach Mike Woodson and his staff. This is a side of Melo we have rarely seen; we shall see if it here to stay.
Looking at the win in San Antonio and the season as a whole, the aforementioned Woodson deserves a great deal of credit. Not just for the noticeable impact he’s had on Melo (Woody has challenged Anthony and been unafraid to call him out publicly), but the overall influence he’s had on this Knicks team since taking over.
Many pundits criticized Woodson for entrusting Smith with too many minutes and too much responsibility dating back to last season, but Smith has responded with arguably the best month of his career to start the 2012-13 campaign.
Many of the key principals Woodson has preached since the day he took over as head coach have been on full display this season. Principal among these is an emphasis on defense and taking care of the basketball.
New York turned the ball over more than any team in the NBA last year (16.2 turnovers per game). This season, they actually lead the league in fewest turnovers per contest (10.2). In San Antonio, the Knicks’ reserves (J.R. Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Pablo Prigioni and Steve Novak) combined to play a total of 80 minutes. They didn’t commit a single turnover.
Coming into the Thursday night, the Knicks led the NBA in both defensive and offensive efficiency. After giving up 100 points to the Spurs, their defensive rating took a bit of a hit, but they are still second in points per game against (89.8).
New York is currently outscoring their opponents by an average of 13.7 points per game this season, tops in the NBA. All things considered, it’s been an incredible start to the season.
And, encouragingly, aside from a few outliers (such as Smith shooting over 73 percent from three-point territory), the Knicks’ early season achievements are by no means unsustainable. The recipe for success is obvious: Play tough, inspired defense and take care of the basketball. If the Knicks can do those two things, they’ll give themselves a chance to win each night they take the floor.