NEW YORK – Exactly four decades earlier, the New York Knicks pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in their history. No such late-game heroics were needed on Sunday.
Despite having a bad shooting day, New York (7-1) won its fourth straight home game to start the season, using a stout defensive effort to shut down the Indiana Pacers (4-7), 88-76, before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Yes, meet the new-look Knicks, who continuing their post-Mike D’Antoni era spearheaded by coach Mike Woodson, have put defense first, just like the Pacers, who entered the game giving up an NBA-low 90.3 points per game.
Likewise, New York has done an excellent job of stopping opposing offenses, having ranked fourth in the league with just 92 points allowed per contest at tipoff.
Yet, whereas Indiana’s offense was third-worst in the league, scoring just 89.3 points per game, the Knicks are excelling in that area, starting the game with a scoring average of 102.3 points (the third best in the NBA), behind their leader, star forward Carmelo Anthony, who scored 12 of New York’s first 19 points in the opening quarter while finishing with a game-high 26 points and nine rebounds.
Still, the Knicks’ early season success has all started with defense under Woodson.
Thus, even on an early afternoon during which New York shot a dreadful, season-low 36.7 percent (33-for-90) from the field while scoring their least points of the young season, the Knicks also allowed their fewest points of the year and opened a led of as much as 20 points by the fourth quarter while coasting to their sixth double-digit victory of the season.
New York’s win came on the 40th anniversary of perhaps the most famous regular victory season in its 66 seasons. Even though the Knicks have several aging veterans on their bench, only one player on their roster – 40-year-old Kurt Thomas – was born prior to the famous date in team history of November 18, 1972, when the Knicks scored the last 19 points over the final 5:11, to erase an 18-point deficit and beat the Milwaukee Bucks (including basketball legends Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Oscar Robertson), 87-86, at MSG.
A stifling New York defense made sure that type of rally wouldn’t be necessary against Indiana, which shot just 26.3 percent (10-for-38) in the opening half and 39.4 percent (28-for-71) overall while once again playing without injured forward Danny Granger, who has yet to play this year after being the Pacers’ leading scorer over five previous seasons.
Pacers’ head coach Frank Vogel and forward Paul George, who led the Pacers with 20 points – while making just two of eight shots from inside the arc despite sinking four of seven three-pointers – each noted their team’s inability to take care of the ball as being the biggest reason for Indiana’s sixth straight road loss since winning its road opener.
“Turnover differential was probably the difference in the game,” said Vogel, while George pointed to the Pacers’ 19 turnovers compared to just eight for the Knicks, saying, “We turned the ball over way too much. When you look at it, we got 71 [field goal] attempts and they got 90 attempts. When you are playing a team as dangerous as New York and you give them [about] 20 more shots, of course you are going to get the results you got [today].”
Although point guard Raymond Felton (11 points) struggled from the field (making just five of 15 field goal attempts), he was largely responsible for keeping the ball secure for the Knicks with a game-high eight assists and no turnovers in 29 minutes, to not only set up his teammates, but also help his squad improve upon its league-low 10.6 turnovers entering the game.
Felton acknowledged New York’s solid defense however, as being the difference in the final outcome. “That’s what won the game for us today,” he said. “We really went after it [defensively] from the start of the game.”
Guard Jason Kidd (three points, two assists, one turnover in 23 minutes), who was fouled in the head and temporarily left the game in the opening minutes with seven stitches before returning with a lopsided headband, agreed.
“I think we believe in one another,” he said. “When you look at our defense, at training camp, that’s all we talked about was playing [well] on the defensive end. Team defense, helping one another and you can see that in the first two weeks of the season.”
Center Tyson Chandler (seven points, nine rebounds) credited the stability of the current season’s schedule as helping New York’s defensive improvement, with a normal training camp and season under Woodson this year as opposed to Woodson taking over for D’Antoni two-thirds of the year into a condensed and abbreviated lockout season last year.
“We understand that good teams in this league win defensively,” he said. “We’ve been covering for each other, having each other’s backs, communicating, talking out there, and you don’t get to the next level without defense. There is a better focus and understanding. Last year, we really didn’t have a true training camp and time to put things in. This year, we’ve had a decent schedule to implement some things and strategies.”
The Pacers were victims of that from the outset, falling behind 21-18 after the first quarter and managing only a dozen points in the next period to trail 41-30 at halftime after the Knicks broke open a two-point game midway through the second quarter with a 13-3 run behind seven points from Felton.
Later, forward Ronnie Brewer (six rebounds) scored all eight of his points during the first five minutes of the second half to help extend New York’s lead to a commanding margin of 56-40, and although Indiana nearly cut that lead in half with 16-9 run, reserve forward Rasheed Wallace (nine points, seven rounds in 17 minutes) closed the scoring in the third quarter with a three-pointer to push the Knicks’ lead back to 68-56 in the final minute of the period.
Wallace also scored the first four points of the final quarter to increase New York’s advantage to 14 points, and a three-pointer by reserve guard J.R. Smith (13 points, seven rebounds in 30 minutes) ballooned the lead to 79-60 halfway through the period before another three-pointer by reserve forward Steve Novak (nine points in 24 minutes) gave New York its biggest lead, 86-66, with 2:34 remaining.
After the game, Anthony commented on his noticeable growth as a player, going from primarily a great scorer during his more than seven years with Denver and since being traded to the Knicks in 2011, to giving a greater all-around effort to help New York win this season.
While the points still come in droves for Anthony, he accurately said he is now, “Absolutely, by far,” a better player than when Pacers’ president Donnie Walsh traded for him during the last of Walsh’s three years in the same role with the Knicks, before Walsh returned to Indiana last year.
Ironically, Walsh didn’t want to part with Felton (in his first stint with New York at the time), but was forced to in order to land Anthony in New York. Yet, with Walsh returning to his native city to see the Pacers lose to his former team, he witnessed such with Felton back in New York, setting up a more mature, more team-oriented Anthony leading the Knicks to thus far, a terrific start to a new season.
Unblemished at home, the Knicks will try to improve upon their already-good 3-1 road record with a three-game road trip in New Orleans (3-5) on Tuesday, Dallas (6-5) on Wednesday and Houston (4-6) on Friday, before returning home to face Detroit (2-9) next Sunday.