NEW YORK – If there was any doubt as to which team still is in control in the NBA’s Atlantic division, it’s even clearer now, after the Philadelphia 76ers rode a big third quarter to an easy 106-94 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.
Quieting recent talk that New York (18-23) has the talent and depth to ultimately overtake Philadelphia (25-17) for a division title this year, second-year starting guard Evan Turner scored 13 of his 24 points and reserve guard Lou Williams added 12 of his game-high and season-high 28 points and during a 38-point, third-quarter Philadelphia outburst which broke open a close game at halftime.
After the Knicks scored the game’s first four points, the Turner, who made nine of 14 field goal attempts and six of seven free throws to go along with a game-high 15 rebounds, answered with five points that were bookended by a pair of slam dunks by starting forward Andre Igoudala (19 points, 7-11 fg, seven rebounds, game-high eight assists) during a 9-4 Philadelphia run that gave the 76ers their first lead, 9-8, midway through the opening quarter.
Starting forward Carmelo Anthony then scored seven points during a 13-5 New York charge that regained a lead of 21-14 for the Knicks with 2½ minutes left in the period.
Anthony (22 points, nine rebounds) made five of seven field goal attempts and scored half of the Knicks’ 24 points in the opening period, but he would not make another basket from the field while missing his final six shots from the floor before getting benched for the final quarter along with fellow starting forward Amar’e Stoudemire (nine points, 4-9 fg, five rebounds).
Head coach Mike D’Antoni insisted that he was simply trying to search for combinations that are working and that he was trying to stick with players who reduced a larger deficit.
But, if that was the case, it was news to Stoudemire, who didn’t seem to have been communicated to regarding his coach’s decision to bench his two stars in the final quarter.
Williams, who missed his final six shots after starting the game a blistering 10-for-13 from the field to score his first 24 points in his initial 16 minutes coming off the bench., scored four points during a quarter-closing 6-3 Philadelphia run that brought the 76ers to within 24-22 heading into the second quarter.
Praising Williams, after the game, Turner said, “He is a scorer. He brings energy. If he makes two or three [shots right away], he is probably going to make four.”
New York scored the first five points of the next period, but the 76ers moved back ahead, 49-43, on a 25-14 surge, with reserve forward Thaddeus Young (14 points, 6-9 fg) scoring Philadelphia’s final six points during the run.
The Knicks scored the next six points to tie the game, but Williams quickly pushed the ball along the left side and beat the first half buzzer with a terrific left-corner jumper as he fell out of bounds, to give the 76ers a 51-49 lead at intermission.
“Big shot he hit at the end of the half,” said 76ers’ head coach Doug Collins. “I thought that was a momentum shot.”
A three-point play by starting forward Elton Brand (13 points, 6-10 fg, eight rebounds) and a jumper from Turner gave Philadelphia a 65-57 lead, but New York scored the next seven points on two free throws each by Anthony and starting center Tyson Chandler (eight points, team-high 12 rebounds), and a driving layup by starting point guard Jeremy Lin (14 points, 5-18 fg, team-high seven assists, game-high six turnovers).
Despite struggling, Lin slightly outplayed starting point guard Jrue Holiday (eight points, 2-14 fg, three assists, two turnovers), who missed his first eight shots from the floor, all in the first half.
Getting to within 65-62 was as close as the Knicks would get, as Turner and Igoudala went on consecutive, personal 4-0 runs to start a 24-11 Philadelphia spurt over the final 5:11 of the period that give the 76ers an 89-73 lead through three quarters.
Philadelphia was shooting a hot 55.7 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from three-point range by that point.
Each team finished the game making 21 of 26 free throws, but the 76ers ended the game shooting 50.6 percent (40-for 79) from the floor, including 55.6 percent (5-for-9) from behind the arc, to the Knicks’ 41.2 percent (33-for-80 overall and 7-for-17 from three-point range) for each.
Two free throws by Turner opened a game-high lead of 98-77 in the final quarter for Philadelphia, and New York would get no closer than 11 points down on a pair of foul shots by Smith with 1:20 remaining, while “Fire D’Antoni!” chants filled the Garden.
A short time later, the 76ers dribbled out the clock as a loud chorus of boos rained down from a disapproving crowd.
It was the third straight win for the first-place 76ers, who widened their division lead to 6½ games over the third-place Knicks, while handing New York its fifth straight defeat – a streak that began with four-game road trip during which the Knicks came up empty.
While it’s widely believed that New York possesses a team capable of becoming a serious eastern conference contender, its record against top NBA teams suggests otherwise.
A team-wide resurgence that began on February 4th – when Lin began to reshape the way many viewed the Knicks – had New York on a seven-game win streak following an 8-15 start to the season, prior to Lin’s emergence.
As “Lin-sanity” swept the New York city area, the NBA, and even the globe, the Knicks were suddenly perceived as suitable challengers not only within their division, but for the eastern conference crown, with the young and talented 76ers almost seen as an afterthought, even though Philadelphia has led the Atlantic division all season.
However, a closer look reveals that the seven-game win streak came against six teams with losing records and a home victory over the Los Angeles Lakers team that was just 5-10 on the road at the time, and which is currently only 7-14 away from home.
New York then cooled off dramatically, splitting its next six games – though only three of those were played against winning teams – leading right into its current losing streak which has seen the Knicks face just one team without a winning record.
“This rough stretch, what is it? Five in a row? It seems like two months,” a frustrated Lin said.
Lin’s backup, veteran point guard Baron Davis (eight points, three assists, three turnovers) thinks that although the Knicks are only one game ahead of Milwaukee for the final playoff spot in the east, his time might be taking games for granted.
“We need this. This is what we need,” he said, of the rough period New York is going through.
“It’s definitely going to help us in the long run because we know that team (Philadelphia) is not 12 points better than us,” he added. “Playing against these tough teams, we know they’re not ten, 14, 16 points better than us. So, if we find a way to stay close, then we’re the ones who will make that run in the fourth quarter. It’s energy and effort defensively. That’s what it takes to win basketball games.”
Davis had a simple answer as to how the Knicks might accomplish that.
“Stay with our resolve, just believe in ourselves, more than anything,” Davis said.
That all sounds fine on the surface, but Davis’ body language, nervously shaking his legs as he sat in the Knicks’ locker room after the game and said those words, seemed to indicate that deep down, he might actually be more concerned about his team’s ability to beat the league’s quality teams as well as the poorer ones.
It’s a feeling that seems to be alarmingly pervasive throughout the team, especially when it comes to the question of whether the Knicks are always playing with enough intensity to beat some of the NBA’s better teams.
“There weren’t good vibes in timeouts.” D’Antoni said. “We have to keep fighting. We have to play harder and we have to have more energy.”
Chandler, in his first year in New York, and the only Knick on the roster with an NBA championship ring, which he won last year with Dallas, said, “Sometimes we play with urgency and sometimes we don’t. We need to put together 48 minutes. When we want to get into people, we get into people. We have to have that mentality the whole game.”
Forward Landry Fields, who started and scored 13 points, added, “We need [a sense of urgency] more often. It can’t just be in desperation… it is your energy and effort that you can control the most.”
Stoudemire agreed, saying, “I think we could have put up a better fight. We have to do a better job at knowing the importance of games. This was a big game for us, a conference and division [opponent]. We have to do a better job knowing that and really going after it.”
Meanwhile, Anthony believes the Knicks need to respond better to adversity within games. “There is no confidence when we get down,” he said. “Our whole energy is low. We just have to find a way to get it done. Our backs are against the wall and we just need to figure it out.”
That will have to be in a hurry, as the schedule doesn’t get an easier with the Knicks heading to Chicago on Monday night to face the NBA-leading Chicago Bulls (34-9) at 8 pm ET.