New York – The much-improved, new-look New York Knicks have recently faced several big tests to see just how far they’ve come from nearly a decade of losing basketball.
The latest trial was supposed to be their toughest yet.
Instead, it was surprisingly more of a test for the Knicks’ opponent, as the NBA’s best team couldn’t stop the league’s best offense.
With starting forward Danilo Gallinari (15.3 points per game) sidelined due to a mild knee sprain, three other New York starters led an offensive explosion that torched the normally sound San Antonio Spurs’ defense in a 128-115 Knicks’ victory at a sold out Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
Forward Wilson Chandler scored a season-high 31 points while forward Amar’e Stoudemire and point guard Raymond Felton added 28 points apiece for the Knicks (20-14), who won their second straight contest while improving upon their league-leading average of 107.2 points per game.
The Knicks, who were just a point shy of their season high (in a 129-125 home win against Denver, on December 12th), scored the most points allowed by San Antonio this season, while snapping the Spurs’ four-game winning streak and handing the owners of the NBA’s best record just its second loss in 16 games.
The Spurs (29-5), no offensive slouch themselves, entered the game as the league’s fourth-highest scoring team (105.6 points per game) and the NBA’s second-best three-point shooting team (39.7 percent).
Neither team however, shot the ball particularly well from three point range, as San Antonio made just 5 of 18 shots (27.8 percent) while New York sank only 8 of 27 attempts (29.6 percent) from behind the arc.
Both teams were sizzling though, from two-point range – the Knicks made 65.6 percent (42 of 64) of their two-pointers to San Antonio’s 60.9 percent (39 of 64) – and the quick pace and good ball movement on both sides played more into the Knicks’ hands, for a team ranking 28th in points allowed (106.3 points per game) against a Spurs team that was allowing just 96.7 points per game (10th in the NBA).
New York eclipsed that average with 1:43 left in the third quarter, taking a 98-90 lead on a Chandler layup off of a nice bounce pass from Felton (who led the Knicks with 7 assists, as New York had 26 assists and just six turnovers).
Chandler led the Knicks with twelve first-quarter points to key New York’s highest-scoring first period of the season.
“Wilson Chandler was just outstanding,” said Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni.
New York grabbed a 36-35 lead after the first period and then continued its offensive onslaught in the next quarter, while San Antonio just about kept pace.
The Knicks took a 72-69 halftime lead, to tie their season high for first-half points while posting the highest-scoring first half allowed by the Spurs this year.
The Knicks led by as much as 29-22 in the first quarter and their largest lead in the second period was 53-44.
The Spurs’ largest advantage was just four points on two separate occasions within the opening two minutes of the game, and they last led, 31-29, late in the opening period.
They would later tie the game twice in the second period, and twice more in the third, the last time, at 78-78, on a jumper forward Tim Duncan (14 points), with 8:40 left in the third quarter.
Duncan was one of six Spurs and five San Antonio starters to score in double figures, led by point guard Tony Parker (26 points on 9 of 15 field goal shooting), but after Parker, no other Spur scored more than 17 points.
The Knicks took the lead for good, scoring the next seven points, with Stoudemire scoring four points before starting forward Landry Fields (13 points) scored on a driving layup and made a free throw for a three-point play.
New York took a 101-95 lead into the final period and led 108-101 on a pair of Stoudemire free throws with nine minutes left in the game, but San Antonio scored the next five points on a put-back layup by forward Richard Jefferson (13 points and a jumper by guard George Hill (13 points off the bench), with 7:49 left.
That was as close as the Spurs would get however, as Felton started (with two free throws) and capped (on a left wing three-pointer) a 10-4 Knicks’ run that pushed the lead to 118-109, with 4:33 remaining.
A Stoudemire layup off of a tough offensive rebound from Fields put the Knicks ahead 122-111, with 3:27 left, and caused Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich to surprisingly concede the game much earlier than anyone else expected.
With the same score and San Antonio at the free throw line with 3:13 still to go, Popovich, who has made a legendary name for himself by winning multiple NBA titles with his “Big Three” of Duncan, Parker, and guard Manu Ginobili, decided to bench Duncan, Ginobili, and Jefferson for the remainder of the game.
Two seconds later, he did the same with Parker, to have the Spurs’ four leading scorers this season on the bench with Popovich’s teams still seemingly in striking distance.
The Knicks finally showed some defense, holding the Spurs to just 20 fourth-quarter points.
But, it was San Antonio’s inability to stop New York which made Popovich see enough and surrender early.
That, and the fact that the master motivator has an eye on loftier season goals over a single regular season game in January, and didn’t want to miss an opportunity to let his team know that it failed defensively.
“We have a game [at Boston, on Wednesday],” Popovich said. “The chances of winning the game [against the Knicks] were not good… if we score 115 points, I expect to win the game. Our defense was pathetic. It was our worse defense of the year.”
D’Antoni said he was “relieved” when he saw Popovich pull his four best players with the game still in doubt, but he cautioned his team at that moment to avoid being complacent, and to finish the game off.
The Knicks did, finishing the game with their largest lead of the night.
“It was a big win for us,” said Stoudemire, the first-year Knick, who will return to Phoenix on Friday night to play his former team, the Suns (14-18), for the first time since joining New York, as the Knicks embark on a western trip that will conclude with games against the Los Angeles Lakers (24-11), Portland (18-17), and Utah (24-11).
It should be an emotional night for Stoudemire, in Phoenix, where he spent the first eight years of his NBA career as a five-time all-star.
Stoudemire smiled and jokingly told his young son, “We’re going to destroy Phoenix,” as he finished dressing in the Knicks’ locker room after the beating the Spurs.
Stoudemire, who has routinely received “MVP!” chants from Garden fans, as he did again on Tuesday night, has been the biggest of many different reasons for the Knicks’ renaissance from nearly a decade of NBA irrelevance prior to his arrival in New York.
“I feel like we can match up against the [NBA’s] best teams,” he said on Tuesday night.
For the most part, he’s right. The Knicks have been competitive, but had yet to defeat a true NBA title contender until beating the Spurs.
“We played tough in Miami, and we played tough against Boston twice,” the Knicks’ leading scorer said.
But, Stoudemire’s team finally broke through against the NBA’s best, which came to New York not only with ten more wins and ten fewer losses than the Knicks, but with two fewer losses over the first 40 percent of its regular season than New York had during its longest losing streak of the season (in early November).
The Knicks have already come a long way since then, winning their fourth straight at MSG to make their home record match their 10-7 road record after a 2-5 start at the Garden.
This is also the fastest the Knicks have reached 20 wins (in 34 games) in ten seasons, which was also the last season New York last won a playoff game.
The evening was enough to sell Popovich on validating the rebirth of Knicks’ basketball.
“They’re a very good basketball team,” he said. “They are not a dangerous team. They are a good team, and there is a big difference. They are solid, they are playing their roles, playing together, they are communicating [defensively] and the physicality was impressive… they were more aggressive, more physical, [and] hungrier [than us tonight]… they obviously turned the corner and it’s wonderful for [D’Antoni], for the players, and for the organization. They are obviously going in the right direction.”