NEW YORK – With two of their key starters already sidelined due to injuries, the New York Knicks turned to the assertiveness of their best scorer and some tough second-half defense to rally for an important 89-80 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at a sold out Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
Star forward Carmelo Anthony (8-20, fg, 12-12 ft) scored half of his game-high 28 points in the third quarter to help the Knicks overcome the hot first-half shooting of Bucks’ reserve forward Mike Dunleavy (26 points) and take a 2½-game lead over Milwaukee for the final playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern conference.
“It was huge,” said interim head coach Mike Woodson of Anthony’s biggest scoring outburst since a January 20th home loss, ironically, to Milwaukee. “He reached down tonight and did what he had to do to get the job done. To me, that is big.”
The timing was perfect for Anthony to carry New York, which as without forwards Amar’e Stoudemire (sore back), point guard Jeremy Lin (sore left knee), and reserve defensive specialist, forward Jared Jeffries.
“Tonight, I wanted to be a little more aggressive,” Anthony said. “It was a game we had to win. I wanted to do everything in my power to get it.”
That included playing through the latest in a series of his own various injuries this season, when Anthony tweaked his groin just before the end of the third quarter. Anthony sat out for nearly the first half of the final quarter before playing the last 6:48 of the game.
After Dunleavy (team-high 26 points) lit New York up for 24 first-half points in just 13 minutes off the bench, each team struggled from the field in the third quarter, when the Bucks (22-27) made just six of 22 field goal attempts (27.3 percent) and the Knicks (25-25) shot an anemic 14.3 percent (3-for-21) from the floor.
But, attacking the basket became vital for New York, which made 15 of 18 free throws while Milwaukee failed to shoot a single free throw in the quarter.
Much of that damage at the foul line was done by Anthony, who singlehandedly outscored the Bucks in the period while making all ten of his free throw attempts to help him score two-thirds of his teams’ 21 third-quarter points.
New York took a 68-64 lead after three periods and led throughout the fourth quarter while clamping down on Dunleavy and the rest of the Bucks after Milwaukee erased an early 18-8 deficit to take a 52-47 halftime lead, mainly on Dunleavy’s hot shooting.
“The second half was tremendous [for us] defensively,” said Woodson, who in his 500th career game as a head coach, moved to 7-1 since sliding down the bench and taking over the team after ex-Knick coach Mike D’Antoni resigned on March 14th.
“It was an ugly game,” Woodson added. “We kept grinding and grinding and getting defensive stops.”
Mainly, that included bottling up Dunleavy, whose 20-foot jumper which tied the game, 62-62, with 2:55 left in the third quarter, was his only shot attempt in the period, before he went 0-for-3 from the floor, missed consecutive free throws, and failed to score in the final frame.
Dunleavy, who entered the game as the Bucks trailed 20-10 with 3:25 left in the opening quarter, made his first five shots from the field, including three treys, to score Milwaukee’s next 14 points in a span of just 2:40.
He finished the half with as many made shots from the floor (nine) while doing so on 23 fewer attempts (ten) than the rest of his teammates (33).
“He had it going big time,” Woodson said of Dunleavy, who, out of respect for his good shooting, was booed by a frustrated Garden crowd when he entered the game during the third quarter.
“A lot of it was that we didn’t communicate the switches,” Woodson added. “Guys didn’t know who was guarding who and that shouldn’t be. We were able to adjust in the third and fourth quarters and we were able to secure the win.”
“They played well,” Dunleavy said of the Knicks. “They tightened it up defensively and we did not respond. They had a bunch of guys on me and [they] did a good job helping.”
The Knicks also shut down the Bucks’ other dangerous offensive weapons, including Milwaukee’s leading scorer, point guard Brandon Jennings, who had often torched New York over his first three years in the league after the Knicks passed on him in the 2009 NBA draft.
Jennings scored 36 and 25 points respectively, in leading Milwaukee to wins in the teams’ first two meetings this season, but he started just two of 12 from the field over the first three quarters and finished only 6-for-22 from the floor, while being held to a harmless 15 points, ten of which came in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, newly acquired guard Monta Ellis, who had averaged more than 20 points per game over the past five seasons before slipping to just over 12 points per game this year, managed a barely noticeable four points on a feeble 2-for-14 shooting night from the field.
And, 14-point-per-game scorer, forward Drew Gooden, was held to a meager six points while making just two of nine shots from the floor.
Six straight Milwaukee points (four points from Jennings and a jumper by Gooden) cut New York’s lead to 84-80 with 2½ minutes left, but rookie first-round draft pick, guard Iman Shumpert (11 points, six rebounds), making a rare start, drained a right-wing three-pointer off of a pass out of a double team from the left post by Anthony, to extend the Knicks’ lead to 87-80 with 2:09 remaining.
Two Bucks possessions later, Shumpert hustled back to stop what looked like would be a Jennings layup with a big steal to help close New York’s 20th win in 22 games this season in which the Knicks led after three quarters.
Standing in from of his locker after the game, Shumpert said, “We want to get this,” as he slapped his hand on a picture of the Larry O’Brien trophy, awarded to the NBA champion each year. Identical pictures of the trophy were installed above each player’s locker in the Knicks’ locker room, during their win over Detroit on Saturday night.
It remains to be seen if New York, is capable of rising to that level from its present eighth position in the eastern conference, although history is on their side.
The last time the NBA played a lockout-induced, shortened season as is the case this year, was in 1999, when the eighth-seeded Knicks made a surprise run to the NBA finals.
Center Tyson Chandler (nine rebounds) and point guard Baron Davis (who got his first start this year) had 13 points apiece for the Knicks to help New York’s starters outscore Milwaukee’s 67-32.
In addition to his scoring exploits, a highly motivated Anthony also grabbed a game-high dozen rebounds.
“We have been winning,” said Anthony. “As far as [me] scoring the basketball, we haven’t needed that.”
Yet, he acknowledges that especially with Stoudemire and Lin each in a day-to-day status at the moment, he will be counted on even more right now. “It is time for me to step my game up in all aspects,” he said.
Of course, with his new groin issue, even Anthony might not be ready for the Knicks’ next game, as New York looks to continue its playoff push and complete a sweep of its current three-game home homestand when Orlando (32-18) visits MSG at 7pm ET on Wednesday night.