NEW YORK – Long-suffering New York Knicks fans finally caught a glimpse of what they had envisioned when their team first brought Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire together.
Although the dynamic duo still has a mountain to climb to win its first playoff series as a tandem, the two stars at least helped New York “get over the hump,” as Stoudemire said after the seventh-seeded Knicks’ stirring 89-87 win over the second-seeded Miami Heat before a boisterous sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Historically, the win simultaneously broke a pair of losing streaks that were more than 11 years in the making –New York won its first playoff game since April 29, 2001 and its first postseason contest at home since a week prior (each of those 2001 wins came in the same best-of-five first-round series loss to Toronto).
It also stopped an NBA-record string of 13 straight playoff losses, a mark that was set in the Knicks’ Game 3 loss to the Heat on Thursday night (even though New York still hold the dubious league record of 39 consecutive postseason games with fewer than 100 points scored).
Regarding more immediate concerns, the Knicks, while avoiding a second opening-round sweep in as many years since Anthony and Stoudemire were paired on the same roster, sent their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the heavily–favored Heat back to Miami for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
Despite a dismal 2-for-7 start from the field that sunk New York’s leading scorer to 24-for-71 (33.8 percent) for the series, Anthony closed 13 of 22 from the floor to finish with a game-high 41 points (one shy of his postseason career high) and six rebounds.
Although, none of Anthony’s made shots were bigger than the three-pointer he drilled with 54.5 seconds remaining to break an 84-84 tie and put New York back up for good, moments before guard Dwyane Wade (22 points, six assists, four steals, three rebounds, three blocks) missed a potential game-winning three-pointer with 2.4 seconds left.
Stoudemire meanwhile, played a very effective sidekick to Anthony as the only other Knick in double figures, with 20 points on efficient 8-of-13 shooting from the field, to go along with a game-high ten rebounds, after missing Game 3 with stitches on his left (non-shooting) hand that looked like something out of a Frankenstein movie.
That absence was Stoudemire’s own doing, having punched a glass fire extinguisher casing following New York’s Game 2 loss in Miami. However, with his left hand heavily taped, Stoudemire echoed Anthony’s strong will to win rather than letting the Heat extinguish the Knicks’ season before New York was ready.
“It was a great win for us and for our fans,” said Stoudemire after the game, with his left arm bandaged and in a sling, in the same manner he left American Airlines Arena after Game 2.
But, thanks primarily to his heroics and even more so, that of Anthony’s, the Knicks will get a third chance to steal a game in Miami and give New York City the possible thrill of another postseason game at The Garden.
Such an opportunity would be well-deserved for an MSG crowd which for fans of a team that still faces seemingly insurmountable odds of winning the series (no NBA has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series), played a major factor in the outcome of Game 4 by providing a strong home court advantage and an electric atmosphere more befitting of a Game 7.
“It was a great feeling, especially to win here in The Garden,” said Anthony. “The fans were tremendous.”
Reflecting on the myriad of injuries which have plagued the Knicks, who were already playing without starting point guard Jeremy Lin (who last played on March 24th due to a knee injury) and key combo guard Iman Shumpert (who’s season ended in Game 2 with a torn ACL and lateral meniscus), Anthony said, “Despite all of the stuff that’s going on with our team… for us to come together and win this playoff game, it is a great feeling.”
But, when Lin’s backup, veteran point guard Baron Davis (two points, two assists, four turnovers in over 25 minutes) was lost for the rest of the game (and likely for the season) to a ruptured right patella with 5:15 left in the third quarter – during the middle point of a game-turning 19-2 run for New York – Anthony’s main thought was, “Here we go again,” while also saying, “We miss him already… my prayers are with him.”
Stoudemire, who wears tattoo of a teardrop under his right eye for his older brother Hazell, who tragically died in a car accident in early February, added, “I almost shed a tear on the court. It is something I don’t want to see again, especially with my teammates. Baron is such a great guy off the court and a great teammate. He is such a phenomenal locker room guy. I dropped down to one knee and said a prayer as he was down.”
Yet, he and Anthony were equally proud of their team’s ability to follow the Knicks’ public relations mantra of “Rising Up” even after seeing Davis wheeled off the court on a stretcher. As he was taken to the locker room, Davis pumped his left fist to which the crowd responded with a roar.
Early on, the Heat looked as though it might be headed for its first sweep since 2005, when it beat Washington in the Eastern semifinals.
Miami jumped out to an 8-1 lead after 3½ minutes as New York missed its first five shots from the floor, but Stoudemire had two dunks and scored six points to key a 14-6 turnaround that gave the Knicks a 15-12 lead before they settled for a 20-18 advantage after the opening quarter.
However, the Heat took control during a whistle-happy second-quarter during which the teams were called for a combined 23 fouls (14 on New York). Stoudemire only played 57 seconds in the period, picking up his third foul with 8:24 left in the half.
The Knicks made eight of nine free throws in the quarter, but all of Miami’s 19 attempts and 14 makes at the foul line during the first half came in the second quarter, which began with the Heat scoring the first 12 points to lead 30-20 less than five minutes into the period.
Wade had all five of Miami’s misses (in eight attempts) from the line in the quarter, and finished 4-of-11 from charity stripe.
Anthony scored four points to cap an 8-2 New York run that closed the Knicks to within 32-28, but the Heat scored five of the next six points to lead 37-29, before settling for a 44-38 halftime lead.
Forwards Chris Bosh (17 points, team-high nine rebounds) and LeBron James (27 points) led the way for Miami during the quarter in different ways. Bosh scored ten points in the period (to match Anthony), making all eight of his second-quarter free throw attempts, while James chucked up nine field goal attempts and made just three, to score nine points in the quarter.
The Heat started the third period on a 7-2 run to take a game-high lead of 51-40, but New York scored the next ten points (seven by Stoudemire) to pull within 51-50 just before Davis’ injury. The last of those points came on a steal and a right-corner three-pointer by J.R. Smith (7 points on just 3 of 15 shooting from the floor; five rebounds; four assists). It was Smith’s only made trey in eight attempts, but it was the first made three-pointer of the game, after each team had missed its first 11 attempts from behind the arc to that point, and it was one that Knicks’ head coach Mike Woodson called, “The biggest of the game, because it got us jump-started.”
New York extended that spurt to a 59-53 lead with Anthony scoring the Knicks’ next seven points before Stoudemire closed the run on a pair of free throws.
A James three-pointer cut that margin in half, 64-61, going into the final quarter.
In all, Anthony (11 points) and Stoudemire (nine points) combined for 20 points during a 26-17 third period that got the crowd loud and gave New York some needed momentum.
The NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter, forward Steve Novak (three points on just two shots) gave the Knicks a 67-63 lead on a trey 35 seconds into the fourth quarter, but Wade scored the last five points of a 9-2 Miami spurt that regained the lead for the Heat, 72-69.
Five straight points by Anthony though, capped a 9-3 New York run that put the Knicks back up, 78-75, with 5:11 left in the game.
Again, Miami answered, this time, with six of the next seven points to lead 81-79 on a driving layup by Wade with 2:27 to go.
A nice turnaround jumper by Anthony tied the game at 81-81, and after a missed three-pointer by Bosh, the Knicks’ backup to their backup point guard, Mike Bibby (six points, five rebounds, two assists, two turnovers in 22½ minutes off the bench), came through with his biggest shot of the season, draining a clutch three left-corner three-pointer to put New York up 84-81 with 1:23 remaining.
Bibby, a former star in Sacramento in his 14th season, who last year, was with three teams and ended the season with Miami, was praised by Woodson, who coached Bibby in Atlanta before the two reunited in New York this year.
“He gave us leadership, he gave us veteranship,” said Woodson. “The guy has been around a long time and he still has the heart of steel to make big shots when it counts. He’s still capable of running a team and doing all the necessary things to help you win games. His shot was huge… I kind of expect that from him.”
Just seven seconds after Bibby’s big shot, James tied the game for the 11th and last time, at 84-84, on a three-pointer, but Anthony, with his only made three-pointer (in four attempts), provided the type of postseason moment that Knick fans hadn’t enjoyed at the World’s Most Famous Arena in more than 4,000 days.
Bosh turned the ball over and Anthony was fouled on a three-point attempt, but he missed a pair of free throws before making the last to extend the Knicks’ lead to 88-84 with 25.9 seconds left.
Only 5.6 seconds later, James scored on a driving layup and drew a foul. He made a free throw to get the Heat to within 88-87 before Stoudemire’s miss on the second of two free throw attempts nearly cost New York the game, and its season.
With Anthony denying James in the left corner, Wade drove from the top of the three-point line and seemed to have a good look at a game-tying shot, but he momentarily lost the dribble along the right blocks before being forced out toward the right corner, where he took a three-pointer that fell short off the right side of the rim.
“We had a switch on Amar’e backing the rim,” said Wade explaining the game’s final shot. “I kind of lost [the ball] and… it kind of forced the other way. I actually had a good shot (on the last three-pointer). I thought it was going in, just a little bit short. We knew they were going to switch. I lost the ball and I didn’t get the [first] open shot I wanted to shoot.”
Luckily for the Knicks, or they might still be searching for their first playoff win since Anthony and Stoudemire were each in high school.
Instead, those two will keep trying on Wednesday night in Miami (tipoff at 7 pm ET), to build on a new streak – one that the Knicks hope will ultimately lead to writing a different kind of history, as the first NBA team to unthinkably erase a 3-0 deficit and win a series.