NEW YORK – Returning home after a road loss to one of the NBA’s worst teams (8-21 Cleveland), the New York Knicks needed to play much better, hosting one of the NBA’s best road teams.
What the Knicks (17-12) produced, was their best overall game of the season to date, building a 22-point fourth-quarter lead while defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder (20-10), 112-98, at a sold out Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Including all five starters, six Knicks scored in double figures and six recorded at least three assists, led by 23 points from center Amar’e Stoudemire (the NBA’s second leading scorer, behind Thunder star forward Kevin Durant) and ten assists from point guard Raymond Felton (12 points), who committed just a lone turnover (none in the second half).
As if motivated by the time of year, in the holiday spirit of sharing and giving, New York moved the ball extremely well from the start. The Knicks had nine assists on their first nine field goals and finished with 30 assists (twice as many as Oklahoma City) on 42 baskets, while committing just eleven turnovers.
That, along with 47.6 percent shooting from three point range, spelled trouble for the Thunder, who entered the Garden with an impressive 10-4 road mark.
“We played great team basketball, offensively,” said Stoudemire, who scored at least 20 points for a fourteenth straight game.
Led by forward Wilson Chandler (21 points, 3-4 from three-point range), the Knicks made 10 of 21 treys to improve to 13-1 this season when making at least that many three-pointers, while raising their season record to 4-0 when handing out at least 30 assists.
Durant led all scorers with 26 points, but half of those came in a first quarter that ended with the Thunder in front, 28-27, after the Knicks lost a pair of early five-point leads.
Oklahoma City twice extended that lead to as many as eight points within the first 3:10 of the second period, but five different Knicks scored during an 18-6 run over the next 4:38, as New York grabbed the lead for good.
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (23 points), who along with Durant, forms the NBA’s highest-scoring duo, made a driving layup and Durant nailed an 18-foot jumper to trim the Knicks’ lead to two.
But, New York scored the next ten points, with four different Knicks scoring, to push the lead to 63-51, with 46.5 seconds left in the opening half.
The Knicks, with fresh legs on three days of rest, got the Garden crowd rocking during the end of that run, by getting out in transition against the Thunder, which won in Charlotte the night before, but which fell to a mediocre 3-4 this season on the second night of back-to-back games.
Felton scored on a fast break layup off of a nice bounce pass from Gallinari, before making a great feed on another fast break, to Stoudemire, who finished with a flying slam dunk down the lane, forcing an Oklahoma City time-out as the loud home crowd rose to its feet.
On the next Knick possession, Felton made a wild cross-court pass from the right corner, to forward Danilo Gallinari (13 points), who saved a turnover with a good catch before capping the run with a left-corner three-pointer.
Westbrook though, scored the final four points of the half, to cut the Knicks’ lead, to 63-55 by halftime, and a driving dunk by Durant brought the Thunder to within 65-59, with 9:02 left in the third quarter.
The Knicks then responded with four different players scoring, including rookie forward Landry Fields (14 points, 10 rebounds, for his seventh double-double), during a 15-2 spurt over the next 2:42, to lead, 80-61.
Oklahoma City made one last charge, with a 15-5 run, to pull to within 84-76, but that’s as close as the Thunder would get, as forward Shawne Williams (7 points) and center Rony Turiaf (11 points) sparked the Knicks off the bench, to help extend New York’s lead to 90-78 entering the final period.
Backup point guard Toney Douglas (9 points) scored six points in a span of 2:05 to put the Knicks up, 99-82, with 9:16 left in the game.
Douglas’ contributions came after earlier rumors during the week that the Knicks might be seeking a trade for a third point guard who if brought in, would cut into Douglas’ minutes.
New York twice increased its lead to 22 points, the last time, on the only points from Russian center Timofey Mozgov, who threw down and alley-oop dunk off of a lob pass from Felton, to lead 112-90, with 3:05 remaining.
The Thunder made the score more respectable, scoring the game’s final eight points.
The Knicks, who usually need to win with offense, bottled up one of the better offensive teams in the second half, holding the Thunder to 43 points on just 34 percent (17-50) field goal shooting after halftime.
While Stoudemire leads the Knicks offensively, he helped set a done defensively, as well.
“I want to make sure we close out on all shooters, and force [opposing shooters] to [our] help, [and] box out, and [rebound],” said Stoudemire. “These are the philosophies that we have been working on in the last few practices.”
Being vocal, as Stoudemire, Felton, Douglas, and Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni, all mentioned after the game, was also a big factor for the Knicks, defensively.
“We did a great job on the defensive end,” Stoudemire said. “We were able to maintain our principles… communication… [was] very important for us and we did a good job [with that] tonight.”
He added, “I have been trying to set the tone defensively in the paint. That’s the key for us. Our guards are out there to close out and force [opponents] to the help, and it is up to us big guys to help them out.”
While Felton (who became the first Knick since Stephon Marbury, in 2004, to record five straight games with double-digit assists) humbly called the win merely “one of” the Knicks’ best overall team performances of the season, the victory was in fact, New York’s most crisp and complete game of the year thus far.
Oklahoma City was the best opponent the Knicks had beaten this season, and the margin of victory was New York’s second-highest of the season, and only the fourth time in their 17 wins this year that the Knicks won by double figures.
Thunder head coach, Scott Brooks, was impressed with seeing the revamped Knicks for the first time.
“They’re a very good team,” Brooks said. “And, well coached. They play hard, they move the ball. That was the best passing first half I’ve seen against us all year,” said Brooks, who saw the Knicks torch his team’s defense for 20 first-half assists on 25 field goals.
“If you just go down the line,” Brooks added, “everybody on the team, they know what they’re supposed to do, and they do it well. They’re a talented team. They play well, and they play together.”
The Knicks, who simultaneously stopped their own three-game losing streak while ending the Thunder’s three-game winning streak, face another tough test (after hosting the likes of Denver, Boston, and Miami last week) back at the Garden, against Chicago (18-9, first-place in the Central division, and winners of two straight), on Saturday, at noon ET.