Tired Knicks Top Road-Weary Nuggets to Stay Perfect at Home

NEW YORK – The visiting Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks would have each had valid excuses for not finishing strongly at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night. Instead, both teams fought hard down the stretch, but it was the home team doing yet again what it has done without fail thus far, better than anyone else in the NBA this season.

Ultimately, the Knicks (15-5) overcame a disrupted sleep schedule to rally from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit while remaining the league’s only unbeaten team at home, with a 112-106 victory over the Nuggets (10-11), who played on the road for the 15th time in their first 21 games to start the season.

Head coach Mike Woodson, under whom New York is a league-best 8-0 at home this season (the Knicks’ best start on their own floor in two decades) and 19-1 at MSG since Woodson took over the team about two-thirds of the way into last season, credited the effort of his squad, saying, “They could have come out tonight and not perform because of fatigue,” after Woodson and most of his team got to bed between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. following a Saturday night loss in Chicago and some fog-delayed travel back home.

The turning point came after 2008 Knick lottery pick, forward Danilo Gallinari (21 points, team-high nine rebounds), helped Denver build an 88-80 lead early in the fourth quarter, and New York responded with the next dozen points to lead for good.

Reserve forward Steve Novak (seven points) accounted for the first half of that run with consecutive three-pointers from each wing, after missing his first two shots of the game, and starting forward Ronnie Brewer (nine points) finished the spurt with four points.

Star forward Carmelo Anthony then scored 11 of his game-high 34 points over the final 6:39 to keep the Nuggets at a safe distance.

A jumper by Anthony with 3:08 left matched the Knicks’ biggest lead, 106-97, and after the league’s third-leading scorer (26.4 points per game) who was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week last week, added four more points, the closest Denver would get was within four points with just under a minute to go.

Anthony, who came to New York in a blockbuster trade for Gallinari (and others) after leading Syracuse to a national championship as a freshman, and then immediately achieving NBA stardom while staying in Denver for more than 7½ years at the start of his professional career, was more motivated by continuing the Knicks’ perfect mark at home than trying to stick it to his old team.

“I don’t have any hard feelings toward Denver,” he said. “It [was] a matter of us, and me, not wanting to lose on our home court and protecting our home court… it [was just] another game on [the] schedule this season. The emotion [of playing against Denver] is gone.”

Playing for the first time after missing the previous two games with a lacerated non-shooting hand that he suffered while diving for a loose ball in a win at Charlotte on Wednesday, Anthony finished 10 of 24 from the field, including three of eight from three point range, while making 11 of 16 free throws and grabbing six rebounds in a team-high 39 minutes.

Relying on Anthony’s late scoring ability was only part of the formula for another Knick win at MSG. The other key was finally getting some stops.

After being drawn into playing the Nuggets’ up-tempo style in the opening half, Woodson said, “Our defense picked up. [They’re] a good offensive team. They can really score the basketball. I didn’t want to get in a foot race up and down with [them] and the first half,” after which the Knicks led 61-58. “[But], it was kind of that way,” Woodson continued.

Starting uncharacteristically slow at home, New York fell behind 15-8 after nearly 5½ minutes, but a pair of alley oop dunks by center Tyson Chandler (15 points, game-high 12 rebounds) on feeds from point guard Raymond Felton (10 points, six assists, three turnovers) bookended a trio of Anthony free throws to tie the game at 15-15.

Denver held a slim 25-23 lead after the first quarter, but a 7-0 run coming solely from the Knicks’ bench gave New York a 37-30 lead.

The Nuggets twice cut that lead to a single point before New York upped its advantage back to seven points on another Felton-to-Chandler alley oop, but Denver scored the next six points to get back to within 57-56 in the final minute of the half.

An aggressive Gallinari, who had just four points and hadn’t taken a free throw by halftime, took the game over with 14 third-quarter points, while making four of five field goal attempts and five of eight free throws, and scoring a dozen of his team’s first 19 points of the period to help the Nuggets to an 84-80 lead after three quarters.

Since joining Denver, the six-foot-ten Italian import has maintained the same solid level of production he gave New York, but hasn’t reached the star status of the fellow lottery pick Anthony.

Gallinari was impressed with the new-look Knicks, who around the centerpiece of the trade that involved him, have undergone an overhaul as an organization, from the team’s general manager, to Woodson, to their roster.

“It’s a completely different team,” Gallinari said. “[It’s a] different system, and different coach. They are playing at a high level, they have a good record [and] they have a good team.”

Denver, the third-youngest team in the league, contrary to veteran-laden New York, was led by point guard Ty Lawson (23 points), who was drafted out of North Carolina in the first round. Felton was likewise selected in the first round from the same school, four years earlier, and was part of the trade bait alongside Gallinari and others that brought Anthony to the Knicks toward the end of the 2010-11 season.

Felton (four-for-15 from the field) in 27 minutes), who has taken 45 shots while making just 13 (28.9 percent) over New York’s past two games, played less than 2½ minutes of the final quarter, as Woodson opted for future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd (17 points, seven assists, one turnover) to run the Knicks’ offense over the last several minutes.

New York will have plenty of time to recuperate from its tiring Chicago trip and win over Denver, as Sunday night’s victory began a stretch of eight consecutive games during which New York won’t have to leave New York City.

The Knicks’ next game will be in Brooklyn on Tuesday night before an Italian homecoming week of sorts continues at the Garden when New York starts a six-game homestand against the league’s top scorer, Kobe Bryant, and his struggling Los Angeles Lakers, coached by Mike D’Antoni, who resigned toward the end of last season, paving the way for Woodson to take the Knicks in a new direction – one that, thus far, has served them much better.

Despite a first-round playoff loss to defending NBA champion Miami, the Knicks have remained on a steady pace of winning three-quarters of their regular season games in the short time Woodson has guided them.

After D’Antoni was just 121-167 (.420) over three-plus years in New York, including 18-24 last season before he stepped down, Woodson finished 18-6 last year, and is so far, 33-11 overall, with the Knicks.

Note: Late in the second quarter, the MSG scoreboard flashed a “Happy Hanukkah” message to those who were celebrating the annual Jewish festival. Ironically, during the second night of Hanukkah, which lasts for eight nights, with Gallinari wearing the same number eight that he wore as a Knick, the scoreboard later showed a tie score of 88-88, with 8:08 left in the game.

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