NEW YORK – There were many reasons the Phoenix Suns (18-21) figured to be a welcome sight for the New York Knicks (22-18) during the 25th rendition of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day game at Madison Square Garden on Monday afternoon.
For one, the Knicks carried an 18-6 record into MLK Day games, winning their past two and three of their past four on the holiday.
Second, it was only ten days prior that the Knicks easily routed the Suns by 25 points in Phoenix, during the homecoming for Knick forward/center Amar’e Stoudemire, kicking off a four-game western swing.
And lastly, the Knicks, returning home from that road trip, gave a lackluster effort in losing to the worst team in the Western conference (Sacramento) while scoring a season low on Friday night.
Coming off of that performance, there seemed to be plenty of impetus for New York to be sufficiently fired up to end a two-game losing streak by defeating the Suns again.
That was the case offensively as the Knicks (tied for the highest scoring team in the league) matched the amounts of points they scored in their earlier win in Phoenix.
Defensively however, it was a different story for New York, as the Suns burned the Knicks (who rank 27th in points allowed) for 26 points a little more than halfway through the opening period and outscored the Knicks 23-15 over the final 5:29, to win, 129-121, and hand the Knicks their third straight loss.
New York had no answer for newly acquired guard Vince Carter, who became the 37th player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points en route to scoring 29 points (11-20 fg, 5-8 3-pt. fg) while grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds to lead Phoenix, which had all five starters scorers in double figures.
Forward Grant Hill scored 25 points, the Knicks’ 2005 first-round draft pick, forward Channing Frye scored 18 points, point guard Steve Nash had 15 points while handing out a team-high 11 assists, and center Robin Lopez added 12 points for the Suns.
The loss wasted a season-high scoring effort by Stoudemire (the league’s second-leading scorer with 26.0 points per game), who led all scorers with 41 points while making 15 of 25 shots from the floor and 11 of 12 free throws.
Phoenix head coach Alvin Gentry (who ironically coached Stoudemire for five years as an assistant head coach under current Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni, in Phoenix) said a different approach at each end of the floor was the difference between the Suns’ win and their earlier home loss to New York.
“At our place, they shot the ball extremely well,” Gentry said. “I think we concentrated so much on Amar’e and we let everyone else open at our place. Today, we decided to play it straight up.”
Basically, the Suns let Stoudemire (who had 23 points during the Knicks’ win in Phoenix) get his points inside the second time around, as long as they weren’t beaten on the perimeter again, by New York.
The strategy worked. Last time, the Knicks had better balance, with six players ranging between 11 and 23 points, while draining 17 of 33 three-point shots.
On Monday, each team made 11 three-pointers, but the Knicks needed ten more (31) attempts than the Suns (21) to do so.
And, other than Stoudemire – who was seeking a sweep over the franchise for which he played for eight years, coming out of high school, before leaving Phoenix for New York as a prized free agent last summer – the Knicks only had three other players score in double figures.
Forward Wilson Chandler scored 23 points for the Knicks, but he made just 2 of 9 three-pointers, while guard Landry Fields added 11 points and a team-high nine rebounds. Forward Danilo Gallinari scored 17 points while returning to the Knicks’ starting lineup after missing six games with a knee sprain.
Offensively, the Suns made the Knicks work a lot more than in the teams’ previous meeting by pounding the ball inside with 6-foot-10, 247-pound reserve center Rony Turiaf dressed, but not playing due to a hip injury.
That forced Stoudemire, who often plays at the forward position, to slide over to center, while receiving little help defending the post.
“Rony is very important to our team and to the energy he brings,” said Stoudemire.
Compared to the Suns’ January 7th loss to the Knicks, Gentry said, “I thought we did a better job of throwing it inside and forcing them to switch.”
On Friday night, several Knick players acknowledged that they might have still been jet lagged from their western trip, although they didn’t blame that for their loss to the Kings.
Perhaps due to complacency as a result of beating the Suns so easily the first time this season, the same lethargy and lack of urgency carried over to Monday’s game.
New York led 13-8 just over three minutes into the game, but Hill and Carter made back-to-back three-pointers to cap an 18-4 Phoenix run that gave the Suns a 26-17 lead, forcing D’Antoni to call the Knicks’ first time out just past the midway point of the first quarter.
The Suns extended that lead to 37-25 before concluding the opening period with a 39-30 advantage.
“We came out again not fired up and not focused,” noted D’Antoni. “I think we just had a little bit of a mental letdown and it is regrettable… you get to a point where you get back home in the comforts of Madison Square Garden and we think we are really good and we’re not [good enough yet].”
Point guard Raymond Felton, also recognized the Knicks’ sluggish play over the past two games.
“We have to come out with a mental focus and be ready to play from the beginning,” he said. “We are not the type of team where we can take off quarters or take off the early part of the game and then try to win at the end of the game.”
Felton, along with Stoudemire, is a serious all-star candidate this year, but he had two of his worst outings in the Knicks’ last two games, scoring a season low six points on 2 of 15 field goal shooting on Friday night before netting just seven points while making only 3 of 13 shots from the floor on Monday (though, he did dish out a game-high 13 assists).
Stoudemire chimed in on the Knicks’ lethargy, saying “We didn’t quite play with enthusiasm. We didn’t bring the energy we needed. We let them get off to a great start. When you let a team… get hot, it is going to be hard to stop… they were hot throughout the whole game.”
Well, maybe not so much during the second quarter, when the Knicks outscored the Suns 34-22 after New York’s second unit entered the game and provided a needed spark.
Guard Bill Walker (9 points in 17 minutes off the bench) made a pair of three-pointers around a Chandler jumper and Fields made a couple of three-pointers around a Chandler free throw during a 15-6 quarter-opening run that tied the game, 45-45, just 2:17 into the second period.
Carter (who is with his fourth team after Phoenix’s December 18th trade with Orlando) then scored the next five points on two free throws and a three-pointer.
He seemed motivated by the Knicks’ big win in Phoenix. “My shot was falling,” he said. “I just wanted to be aggressive. They beat us pretty good last time.”
Chandler helped New York answer Carter’s personal mini-run, scoring seven points to key a 17-7 run that had the Knicks match their biggest lead of the game, 62-57, with 2:31 left in the half, before they took a 64-61 lead into the locker room.
During halftime, the sellout crowd was treated to a very entertaining display of a speed painter armed with a brush in each hand, creating a brilliant portrait tribute to Dr. King.
Phoenix started the third quarter on a 23-13 run to regain an 84-77 lead 6:46 into the third quarter.
The Knicks cut that margin to one point on three separate occasions, but the Suns scored five straight points from the free throw line (where they outscored the Knicks 28-20, taking 31 attempts to New York’s 25) to close the period on a 7-2 run to lead 97-91 heading into the final quarter.
Chandler then scored five points to start a 10-3 Knicks’ run that gave New York It’s last lead of the game, 101-100, with 8:57 left in the game.
Former first-round pick (Memphis, in 2005) forward Hakeem Warrick (9 points in 17 minutes off the bench) scored the Suns’ next six points to give Phoenix a 106-103 lead, but Gallinari drained a right-wing three-pointer to tie the game, 106-106, with 5:29 left.
Nash (who had 12 of his 15 points and 8 of his 11 assists in the second half) then drilled a right-wing three-pointer to put Phoenix up for good, 109-106, with 4:45 remaining.
A Felton turnover then led to a beautiful driving layup by Carter, who started his dribble on the left wing before finishing with a great right-handed scoop layup around traffic, from the right blocks, to put the Suns up, 111-106.
Stoudemire then finally got his first points of the final period (on just his third field goal attempt of the quarter), banking in a 7-foot jumper, to get the Knicks to within 111-108, with 3:57 left.
But, Carter made a three-pointer 16 seconds later to push the Suns’ lead to 114-108.
After a Stoudemire basket, a Frye three-pointer extended the Suns’ lead to 119-110 with 2:39 remaining, and a short jumper by Warrick made it 121-112, with 1:45 left.
Gallinari gave the Knicks some temporary hope with three free throws after he was fouled on a three-point try by Nash. That cut the Phoenix lead to 121-117, with 57.7 seconds left, but the Suns made all eight of their free throw attempts after that point, to seal the victory.
Phoenix outrebounded New York 48-38, leading to a 58-48 scoring advantage in the paint and a 22-15 edge in second chance points.
After the game, Stoudemire seemed less unhappy about failing to once again send a message to his former club and far more concerned with the Knicks’ recent struggles defensively, their inability to win as consistently as they had earlier in the season, and where they stand one game before the halfway mark of the season.
“We have to understand that we have to give the effort especially defensively,” Stoudemire said. “The one thing we didn’t do was communicate defensively. We let them get open shots. We didn’t rotate defensively. We can’t afford to give teams confidence and we can’t afford to lose games like we did today.”
“Four games over .500 is unacceptable,” he added. “We had a chance to take advantage of our situation (playing losing teams, Sacramento and Phoenix, at home after already beating them on the road), and we didn’t. Now, we have a tough road trip ahead of us.”
Chandler agreed, saying “22-18 is not a lot, especially with a lot of good teams in the East this year. We are trying to make the playoffs, so we have to make runs.”
A confident D’Antoni believes his team will.
“We will be back,” he said. “This definitely should be a wakeup call.”
Calling next, will be the Houston Rockets (19-23, last place in the Southwest division), on Wednesday, as the Knicks begin a tough southwestern trip with three more rematch games. After a stop in Houston (where New York hopes to avenge an earlier home loss to the Rockets), the Knicks will visit a pair of first-place teams (San Antonio and Oklahoma City) which they defeated at home, each within the past month.