NEW YORK – After three easy wins to start their season, the New York Knicks were finally tested and even trailed at halftime for the first time this year.
Then, it was time for the Knicks to buckle down defensively and return to what they were doing before – win by double figures yet again – for the fourth straight time, in a 104-94 victory over the Dallas Mavericks (4-2) before a sellout crowd of 19,033 at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
In a battle of two of this season’s top scorers, forward Carmelo Anthony (31 points, seven rebounds), who entered the game third in the NBA in scoring with 26 points per game, ultimately outdueled guard O.J. Mayo (23 points), whose 21.6 points per game ranked eighth in the league at tipoff.
Despite winning that personal showdown, Anthony rightfully credited his team’s improved defense in the second half as being the key to a win that stopped Dallas’ three-game winning streak and has New York (4-0) starting a season with four consecutive victories for the first time in 19 years.
“They surprised us a little with the speed that they were able to play with in the first half,” Anthony said of the Mavericks, who jumped out to a nine-point second-quarter lead and led 57-55 at halftime on the strength of 45.5 percent (20-for-44) field goal shooting that included a hot seven-of-15 clip from three-point range.
The second half, however – when Dallas was held to just 37 points while making only one of 13 three-pointers and shooting a paltry 35.1 percent (13 of 37) from the field overall – was a far different story.
“We got up [on them] defensively, denied passing lanes and played our defense that we’ve been playing for the last week,” Anthony said.
Seeing that, gave head coach Mike Woodson – who at times during the first half, gave his trademark stare of frustrated disbelief – a lot more reasons to smile after intermission.
“You have to give Dallas credit,” he said. “They’ve been playing pretty good basketball and scoring at a high rate. They’re playing a lot faster. I tried to warn our guys of that. I thought in the second half, we kind of settled in our defense… we’ve had four straight games where no one has scored over 40 points in the second half against us. That’s locking in and taking pride in defending the ball.”
That was something that neither team could do against the opposing squad’s leading scorer in the opening quarter, when Mayo and Anthony each made three of six shots from the floor, with Anthony’s slight scoring edge over Mayo (10-8) accounting for the difference in the Knicks’ 25-23 lead after the first period.
A couple of three-pointers by Mayo (who began the night leading the league with 21 three-pointers) ignited an 8-0 Mavericks run to begin the second quarter, but Mayo (5-for-10 from three-point range) picked up his second and third fouls within the next minute-and-a-half, just 19 seconds apart, and would have to sit for the final 8:56 of the half.
Reserve forward Vince Carter (15 points, six rebounds) took up the slack of Mayo’s absence with seven straight Dallas points to cap an 18-7 run that helped the Mavericks match their biggest lead, 41-32, with 6:25 remaining before halftime.
With seven points from Anthony, the Knicks answered with a 12-3 run that tied the game at 44 apiece before a five-point Dallas trip that included an Anthony technical foul started a 9-2 spurt that included four points each from center Brandan Wright (11 points) and reserve forward Chris Kaiman (14 points) and put the Mavericks back up, 53-46.
Forward Ronnie Brewer (13 points, eight rebounds) scored the next four points to touch off a 9-4 half-closing run that ended with a momentum-generating three-pointer with 2.9 seconds left in the half by reserve guard J.R. Smith (22 points), who scored eight points in the period and 17 in the middle two quarters.
Smith’s nine points in the third period came during a 13-5 spurt that gave New York a 78-71 lead and control of what had been a close game, after Anthony and Mayo each picked up their fourth personal fouls just 11 seconds apart, less than five minutes into the quarter. Each star was forced to the bench from that point, until they both started the final stanza.
Leading 84-78 after three periods, the Knicks held the Mavericks off with the aid of a couple of timely putbacks from center Tyson Chandler (11 points, game-high nine rebounds), who along with guard Jason Kidd (six points, three assists, no turnovers), defeated the team that Chandler and Kidd helped guide to an NBA title as Dallas teammates in 2011.
Making a comparison of the depth of that championship roster and his current team, Chandler said, “We would hit you in waves [back then]… and that’s what we [the Knicks] are able to do now.”
Chandler followed a miss by point guard Raymond Felton (eight points, game-high assists, two turnovers) with a layup that put New York up 90-82, and 2:05 later, the Knicks’ tallest player (at seven-foot-one) was fouled as he threw down and emphatic, crowd-pleasing dunk with 6:08 left in the game, after Felton dished to Anthony, who then missed a reverse layup. Chandler demonstratively celebrated that play with a few fist pumps as Dallas called a timeout, down 95-86.
An ensuing free throw by Chandler completed a three-point play, and two free throws by Anthony gave the Knicks the game’s largest lead (98-86), one that they’d match on a Smith three-pointer moments before a harmless Dallas field goal closed the scoring in the final seconds.
Although the season is still very young, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle, who coached Chandler and Kidd on the Mavericks’ championship team two years ago, said of the Knicks, “They are a very good team. In my opinion, they are one of the handful of teams in the East that has a good chance to come out of the East. I like they’re talent, [they are] extremely well coached, and they have Jason Kidd. And, Kidd is going to bring everybody’s level of focus, concentration [and] intensity up an awful lot.”
With a grueling upcoming stretch featuring six of their next seven games and a dozen of their next 17 contests on the road, the Knicks’ third home win this season kept New York as the league’s only undefeated team.
But, the Knicks should hit the road with guarded optimism knowing that although they’ve played as well as anyone – even themselves – could have expected (winning by margins of 20, 16, 22 and ten points), they have also caught some banged up teams at just the right time.
Their season opening win came against a Miami team that appeared disinterested in defending the perimeter the way it did en route to an NBA title last season. New York’s next two wins came against Philadelphia, which for both games against the Knicks, was without talented starting center Andrew Bynum and dangerous scoring guard Jason Richardson for all but two minutes in the first of those two New York wins. And, the Mavericks played the Knicks without all-star forwards Dirk Nowitzski and Shawn Marion, two of the main pieces on Dallas’ 2011 title team.
Evening that out however, New York was also able to persevere so far this season without the presence of two major, injured pieces of their own, in forward Amar’e Stoudemire and guard Iman Shumpert. In spite of that however, the Knicks’ offense hasn’t suffered, as for the first time in franchise history, New York won its first four games of a season while scoring in triple digits.
And, while it didn’t set any club records, the feat of allowing under 100 points in all four of their games, including less than 90 points in three of those contests, is equally impressive for a Knicks team that is now 14-1 at home and 22-6 overall in regular season games under the defensive-minded Woodson since he took over as New York’s head coach about two-thirds of the way through last year’s lockout-shortened season and changed the team’s culture following the departure of offensive-oriented ex-coach Mike D’Antoni.
The Knicks’ next game, at Orlando (losers of three straight games after starting the year with two wins) on Tuesday night (7pm ET), kicks off their first multi-game road trip, a three-game swing that will conclude with back-to-back games in San Antonio and Memphis toward the end of next week.
The middle game of another three-game road swing the following week (after a quick stop at home against Indiana on Sunday, November 18th) contains a rematch against the Mavericks in Dallas on November 21st.
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Notes: Two nights before Veterans Day, the game was played on Military Appreciation Night, during which various military-related activities and entertainment occurred throughout the night. All players on each team wore special, patriotic pre-game warm-up shirts and many played while donning stars-and-stripes headbands and wristbands… The Knicks’ television network, MSG-TV, also held a telethon during the game to raise money for victims of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of the New York City area during the end of October. Merchandise signed by Anthony, Kidd, Chandler and others were among many items up for bid in an effort to raise money for New York area residents who had suffered greatly from hurricane damage.