NEW YORK – Things were going just fine for the New York Knicks during their home opener at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. That is, until the Portland Trailblazers rallied late, again.
With several key offseason improvements made to last year’s 29-win team, for a franchise which hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2004, the expected buzz filled the Garden early as optimistic Knick fans caught their first glimpses of some talented new pieces while welcoming back some of last year’s promising, young returnees.
Legendary announcer Michael Buffer introduced the Knicks (1-2) to the raucous sellout crowd of 19,763, which remained energized throughout much of the game.
And, even though the early season struggles continued for third-year forward Danilo Galinari (who started and scored just four points while playing only 15 minutes despite having no personal fouls), New York was well on its way toward rewarding the Knicks’ faithful with a victory in the first MSG game for the Knicks’ new era.
Prized free agent signing, forward Amar’e Stoudemire, and another big free agent signing, point guard Raymond Felton, along with rookie guard Landry Fields, and last year’s carry-overs, forward Wilson Chandler, and guards Toney Douglas and Bill Walker, all helped the Knicks battle back from an 11-point early second-quarter deficit, to lead by nine on a Walker three-pointer with 5:32 left in the game.
But, Portland (3-0) proved to be the wrong team for New York (1-2) to run into when crunch time arrived.
For the third time in as many games this season, the Trailblazers fought back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win, 100-95.
This time, it was a switch to a zone defense which baffled the Knicks’ offense, as the Blazers went on a game-closing 17-3 run to spoil MSG’s opening night.
Of course, the Knicks might have withstood the Blazers’ final push at the end, had New York been able to start strong.
Instead, Portland forward Nick Batum (10 points, 4 rebounds) scored the game’s first four points, and although the Knicks tied the game, 4-4, guard Andre Miler (19 points, game-high 10 assists, 3 steals, 4 turnovers) made a pair of jumpers sandwiched around a 25-foot three-pointer from star guard Brandon Roy (game-high 29 points, 10-23 fg), as a 7-0 Blazers’ spurt had the Knicks down 11-4 and playing catch-up until late in the second quarter.
Portland made six of its first nine shots from the floor, while New York made only 3 of its first nine field goal attempts.
The Knicks scored eight of the next 12 points to close to within 15-12 on a short jumper by Gallinari with 5:16 left in the opening quarter, but two free throws by undrafted, third-year guard Wesley Matthews (13 points in 25:26 off the bench) capped a 9-2 Portland run which gave the Blazers a 24-14 lead with 2:19 left in the opening quarter.
After the Knicks scored the next five points, Matthews made a 22-foot jumper with 4.8 seconds left in the period to put Portland ahead, 26-19 after one quarter.
The Blazers shot a sizzling 57.9 percent (11-19) from the field, while the Knicks made just 36 percent (9 of 25) their shots from the floor in the period, including just 1 of 9 shots from three-point range.
Gallinari, who was playing with a sore right wrist that he insists is fine, made just 1 of 6 shots in the quarter and finished the game only 2-for-9 from the field.
Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni believes Gallinari is healthy, but might be forcing things rather than letting the game come to him. “I don’t know if it is physically,” he said, “Or if it is a little bit of a funk right now. He is pressing. He is young. He has to calm down and get through it. He has to go out there, hit open shots, not try to do too much, and just get back at his game.”
Felton meanwhile, credited Portland’s defense for making the Knicks shoot – and mostly miss – so much from outside. New York finished the game just 25 percent (7-28) from three-point range.
“We took what the defense gave us. We just have to hit shots. They were packing the lane… keying on [Stoudemire] a lot,” Felton said.
The Knicks took 16 first-half three-pointers (making just four), while attempting only five free throws (making two) in the opening half.
Still, New York was able to rally later in the second quarter, after a Matthews three-pointer gave Portland its biggest lead of the game, 33-21, with 9:52 left in the half.
Chandler (team highs of 22 points and 16 rebounds, 12 before halftime) sparked the Knicks off the bench, scoring 13 of his 15 first-half points during a 16-5 second-quarter run that brought the Knicks to within 38-37, with 3:28 left in the half.
New York extended that to a 21-6 run, to take its first lead of the game, 42-39, on a three-pointer by Felton (16 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 turnovers) with 1:54 left in the half.
A Portland turnover led to a fast break dunk by Fields (11 points, 8 rebounds) with 58.7 seconds remaining in the half, to put the Knicks ahead, 44-41, but a driving layup by Roy and free throw by Miller (who played in his NBA-leading 613th straight game) after a technical foul on Stoudemire, tied the game, 44-44, at intermission.
Miller also made a free throw after a technical foul on rookie Russian center Timofey Mozgov with 7:06 left in the third quarter.
Thus far, officials have been following through on the NBA’s directive to clean up the league’s image in terms of players complaining about calls.
That league mandate proved costly to the Knicks on Saturday as there might have been a very different outcome at the end without the Knicks providing the Blazers with two gift points on technical fouls.
A three-pointer by Roy gave Portland a 62-57 lead with 6:34 left in the third quarter, but an 18-foot jumper by Douglas (11 points, 4 rebounds off the bench) tied the game, 68-68, with 2:48 to go in the period.
Roy then made 15-foot jumper to put the Blazers back up by four, but a Chandler three-pointer with 48.1 seconds left in the quarter tied the game, 74-74, heading into the final period.
Both teams were more aggressive with attacking the basket in the third quarter. As a result, they each scored 30 points, while Portland was 8-for-9 free throw line and New York made 9 of 12 foul shots, during the period.
With the game tied at 79-apeice, the Knicks used a 13-4 run to surge ahead to their biggest lead of the game, 92-83, on a three-pointer by Walker (9 points, 3-5 three-point fg), with 5:32 left in the game.
The appreciative Garden crowd was rocking and ready to celebrate an Opening Night win with the Knicks seemingly in control.
From that point however, Portland switched to the zone defense, bottled up the Knicks’ offense, and stole the game down the stretch.
“We just didn’t score. We were up nine. They made some nice shots. Some things went against us and we just didn’t put the ball in the hole,” said D’Antoni, who watched Felton score a field goal and a free throw as the Knicks’ only points the rest of the way.
Stoudemire (18 points, 5 rebounds, 5 personal fouls, game-high 6 turnovers) added, “It was one of those nights where they pretty much clogged the lane up and tried to force us to beat them from the outside. So, we have to have a good shooting night to beat teams like that. We will work on it.”
New York’s new star, who briefly addressed the crowd at mid-court before the game, averaged 23 points per game and 12 points in the fourth quarter, while leading the Knicks to their own comeback win in Toronto on Wednesday, and a very competitive four-point loss against the defending Eastern conference champion Celtics, in Boston, on Friday night. But, the Blazers held Stoudemire to just four points on 2 of 5 shooting from the floor in the final quarter.
The Knicks can take some solace in the fact that the Blazers had already done this sort of thing to two other opponents this season.
In its first two games, Portland used an 18-1 run in the final 5:44 to beat Phoenix by 14, and scored 15 straight points in the fourth quarter in Los Angeles, to beat the Clippers by 10, and give Blazers’ head coach Nate McMillan his 200th career coaching victory.
After that game, Clippers’ head coach Vinny Del Negro said, “Their zone bothered us. We got very stagnant.” And, Blazers’ starting center, ex-Knick Marcus Camby said that night, “It was our defense. “We changed it up a little bit and switched from man to a zone, and I think that kind of slowed them down a little and made them a little hesitant. Then we were able to get some stops.”
That should sound very familiar to the Knicks.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge (20 points, team-high 10 rebounds) scored four points and Miller added three as Portland scored night straight to erase the Knicks’ earlier lead, with 2:46 to go.
A driving layup by Felton gave New York its final lead, 94-92, fourteen seconds later, but Miller made a three-pointer to put the Blazers up, 95-94, with 2:07 remaining.
Felton then made one of two free throws to tie the game, 95-95, with 1:23 left.
While the Blazers were unimpressive, from the free throw line, shooting just 66.7 percent (20-30), the Knicks were even worse, making only 56 percent (14-25) of their free throws, including just 3 of 8 in the fourth quarter, while missing 9 of their final 10 shots from the field.
Fields missed a left-wing three-pointer with 43.9 seconds left, and forward Rony Turiaf (1 point, 2 rebounds in 9:26) then fouled Aldridge battling for a loose ball off of a missed jumper by Roy.
With Portland in the bonus, Aldridge made one of two free throws to put Portland ahead to stay, 96-95, with 25.5 seconds remaining.
The Knicks called time out and with 23 seconds on the shot clock, and instead of holding for one shot in the final seconds, they set up a quick drive for Felton, who was blocked at the rim by Camby with 20.9 seconds left.
With 14.8 seconds remaining, Felton fouled Aldridge, who again made only one of two free throws to keep New York alive.
Trailing 97-95, Stoudemire appeared to have been fouled by Camby on a strong drive down the lane, but officials ruled the ball was swatted cleanly off of Stoudemire’s leg and out of bounds to Portland.
“I thought there was contact on the initial drive but they let [Camby] get away with that sometimes, and then he stripped the ball.”
D’Antoni seemed to agree while not wanting to blame the loss on the call, saying “I’m kind of biased… they called it the way they thought they saw it.”
Miller was then fouled and made two free throws, to give the Blazers a comfortable 99-95 lead with 5.9 seconds left.
Stoudemire then missed a three-pointer, and Douglas fouled Batum, who made one of two free throws to close the scoring with 1.7 seconds remaining.
McMillan, who was a fellow assistant coach of D’Antoni’s on the USA gold medal-winning team in 2008, credited Portland’s latest comeback to his team’s ability to keep its composure. “We talk about the three C’s, being calm, being clear, and consistent about what we do. We stayed calm in these last three games, and we’ve had to be clear about what we need to do. Get stops, rebound the ball, and score. We’ve been able to overcome being behind in the fourth [quarter].”
Roy, Portland’s leader on the floor, said “I felt like we were in range to strike with six minutes left. We said, ‘This is still out game’. No one panicked and we always had confidence, and we’re playing well right now.”
At the start of the night, Buffer told the crowd to be ready to “turn the page in a new chapter of Knicks’ basketball.”
While the Knicks figure to be better and more competitive, these are types of games they will have to learn to put away to make sure future chapters are written the way the Knicks want them to read.
They’ll get another chance at showing the eager hometown crowd they’re ready to turn that page when the calendar turns to November, and the Knicks conclude their brief two-game homestand against Orlando (1-1) at 7:30pm on Tuesday night at MS