You’ve heard the cliche many times before… You only have to watch the last few minutes of an NBA game.
Save that myth for the casual basketball fan.
Real basketball followers know that’s not always the case.
And, if you’ve watched the first four New York Knick games this season, you especially know what a huge difference getting off to a good start means to their success.
It took three tries in a span of four nights, but the Knicks finally figured out what sometimes makes a strong fourth quarter hold up in an NBA game –- playing just as well in the first quarter.
So does another cliché… playing from ahead instead of playing catch-up.
After a season-opening blowout loss in Miami, the Knicks lost their next two games in pretty much the same fashion.
On Friday, New York had a big fourth quarter, outscoring the Charlotte Bobcats 27-13, which was only good enough for a double overtime loss because the Knicks came out flat and trailed 32-13 after the first quarter.
The following night, New York again dominated the fourth period, 41-26, but all that did was cancel out a miserable first quarter in which the Philadelphia 76ers outscored the Knicks 40-25, before later beating them in overtime.
On Monday night at Madison Square Garden however, the Knicks finally learned their lesson.
This time, playing from the start, with focus, passion, intensity, and a sense of purpose, a fourth quarter in which the Knicks outscored the New Orleans Hornets 40-30, didn’t go to waste.
That’s because it was coupled by New York also winning the first period, 31-24, slightly more than the final margin of victory in the Knicks’ 117-111 win over the Hornets, despite Chris Paul again doing what he does best.
The victory was the 300th regular season win in career of Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni, who laid out some specific pre-game goals before the win. “Keep our intensity up for 48 minutes, play together, and move the ball,” he said.
That sounds fairly simple, but those were all areas in which the Knicks lacked while beginning the season with three straight losses, their worst start since going 0-5 in 2005.
Well, check, check, and check on all three accounts, and then some, against New Orleans (1-3), which lost its second straight on a northeast road trip.
“I thought our defense was solid most of the night,” D’Antoni said, as he finally saw his team buy into buckling down and getting serious about making defensive stops.
“Just a better flow of the game,” he added. “It felt better offensively and defensively. Each guy came in and understood what he needed to do.”
The one guy who did it best for the Knicks was forward David Lee, who scored a team-high 28 points on 13 of 17 shooting from the floor, while adding eight rebounds. “He was huge,” D’Antoni said of Lee.
Lee’s efforts were complimented by that of former starter Al Harrington, who D’Antoni has preferred to use as a spark off the bench the past two games. As he did with his game-high 42 points on Saturday, Harrington responded in that role, matching Lee’s eight boards while scoring 24 points on 8 of 21 shooting from the field in 29:43.
On Harrington seemingly accepting his new role well, D’Antoni said “I hope he likes it because he’s doing a terrific job at it.”
After trailing by 31, 21, and 23 points in their first three games, and never leading after the first quarter in any of those games, the Knicks came to play early against the Hornets, scoring 14 straight points to take a 16-6 lead in the opening period.
The seven-point lead the Knicks built after the first quarter, propelled New York to a 58-52 halftime lead. But Paul, widely considered the best point guard in the league, scored 11 of his game-high 32 to help the Hornets outscore the Knicks 29-19 in the third quarter and take an 81-77 lead going into the final period. Paul also had a game-high 13 assists with just two turnovers, and added five rebounds, while shooting 12 of 18 from the floor (including 4 of 5 from three-point range) and 4 of 5 at the free throw line.
However, it was the fast start in the opening quarter, leading to the six-point halftime lead, which allowed yet another big fourth quarter by New York to be the difference between a third consecutive late rally falling short and instead, the Knicks’ first win of the season.
For the first time on the young season, the Knicks consistently exhibited solid team play, sound defense, a good motion offense, and nice ball movement, often finding the open man and exploiting the Hornets’ interior defense for easy baskets.
Most of all, keeping their intensity up as D’Antoni wanted, often diving after loose balls, deflecting passes, and just having a better overall court awareness, ultimately carried the Knicks to victory.
Although Lee and Harrington led the way, they had plenty of help as the Knicks played a nice team game, with 24 assist on their 43 field goals.
Guard Larry Hughes, scored 20 points on 8 of 13 shooting from the field, as the latest new starter in D’Antoni’s early season lineup experimentation, as the coach searches for the best floor combinations.
Knicks’ point guard Chris Duhon scored 18 points, making 8 of 9 free throw attempts, while dishing out 9 assists and turning the ball over just twice. And, forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler chipped in nine points apiece.
All around, it was largely a team effort. As Hughes pointed out, “It’s about coming out and playing hard for 48 minutes.” He added that offensively, “When we make those guys move, we can shoot the ball from anywhere. It makes the game a lot easier.” He also was happy for D’Antoni on reaching his personal milestone, saying “Congratulations to Coach!”
D’Antoni meanwhile, was happy just to get any win, and viewed the win as a positive sign of the potential of what could lie ahead when his team backs up on the court what he preaches to them in the locker room. “I was just encouraged the whole game,” he said. “We’ll just keep going forward… Much better tonight, we took a gigantic step forward.”
The Knicks can take their next step on Wednesday night, when they host 0-2 Indiana, who will first play at home against Denver on Tuesday, before coming to New York.