NEW YORK – New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson said after his team’s last game, a 105-100 home loss to Portland on Tuesday night, “One hundred points are more than enough to win in [the NBA],” provided his team was willing to get back to basics and play much better defense than it had been playing of late.
It turned out he was right, as the Knicks (22-10), motivated by Woodson showing a video displaying earlier times this season when New York buckled down defensively, held the NBA’s highest-scoring team to a season low in scoring, during a 100-83 rout of the San Antonio Spurs (26-9) before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Playing a fourth game (and third on the road) in five nights, fatigue played a role in San Antonio netting just 14 points more than it had at halftime of a league-leading 13th road win in Milwaukee the night before.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich admitted, “We were a little low on fuel.”
But, even more, it was the Knicks’ ability to lock down a Spurs offense that was averaging a league-best 105.9 points per game, as New York stopped a two-game slide while snapping the Spurs’ season-high seven-game winning streak, over which San Antonio was scoring at 111.7-point clip.
“I thought New York’s defense was great tonight,” added Popovich. “They played well and kicked our butt.”
The win also gave the Knicks – who similarly used sound defense to erase a 12-point deficit over the final seven minutes to win in San Antonio on November 15th – their first season sweep over the Spurs in a decade, while avoiding what would have been their first three-game losing streak of the year.
Although it probably wasn’t a great idea to give the defending champion Miami Heat bulletin board material for a possible Eastern conference playoff series with New York in the spring, Woodson said of San Antonio, “I still believe they’re the best team in the league.”
He wasn’t far off on that, as the Spurs, who entered the night in the midst of their fourth win streak of at least five games this season, were a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City, which had the NBA’s best winning percentage.
“Statistics-wise, in their last 10 games, and their record, as a whole, [it] indicates that they’re sitting right at the top as one of the best teams, if not the best team in the league,” Woodson added of San Antonio, which shot just 36.4 percent (28-for-77) from the field.
“We played great tonight,” Woodson continued. “We beat a damned good ball club. It took a total team effort for 48 minutes because that team will never beat themselves. We looked good tonight.”
Unlike against Portland, when forward Carmelo Anthony’s 45 points and guard J.R. Smith’s 28 points accounted for 73 percent of New York’s scoring, as the Knicks had only one other player in double figures and trailed by as many as 19 points, despite ending the game with the same point total as they had against the Spurs.
One game later, Anthony (23 points) and Smith (20 points) led New York’s offense again, but in a much different way, as 10 different Knicks scored, half of them in double figures, and nine Knicks scored by the time New York led 37-31 before the midpoint of the second quarter.
Woodson acknowledged the Knicks’ prior defensive struggles during which New York went just 3-5 and 2-3 at home following a dominating 18-5 start that included a perfect 10-0 mark at MSG, predicated on being one of the better defensive teams in the league.
“I thought that we were slacking over the last 10 games,” Woodson said of the Knicks’ defense, which allowed 100.9 points per game over that stretch. “Our defense kind of went the other way.”
Although it wasn’t exactly the #Knickstape that Twitter-following Knick fans know so well, another type of tape was the solution to pulling New York out of its defensive decline, at least for one night.
“We put a nice feel good tape together this morning to show our players… how we started the season, essentially when we were number one on defense and number one on offense,” Woodson said. “We were doing everything right at the beginning of the season. There was some major slippage. As a coach, I have to take some heat for that. It’s my job to get guys to step on that floor and give a hundred percent and play defense at a high level to help us win. And, we [hadn’t] been getting that the [previous] 10 games.”
Center Tyson Chandler (10 points, game-high 14 rebounds) noted, “In our film session, [Woodson] went back to our first 10 or 12 games and showed us how we were playing. Guys saw that and it motivated us a little bit.”
With that encouragement, the Knicks did a great job of holding the Spurs’ three leading scorers and multi-time NBA champion core of stars – forward Tim Duncan (11 points) and guards Tony Parker (11 points) and Manu Ginobili (eight points) – in check.
“It was very hard for us to find a way to the rim,” said Ginobili, whose team was obliterated in the paint, where New York held a 36-12 advantage, shooting 50 percent (18 of 36) compared to the San Antonio’s 27.2 percent (6 of 22) from that area.
“Give credit to the Knicks,” added Duncan. “They played well, shot the ball well, moved the ball well and defended well. They switched a lot defensively and altered a lot of shots. Obviously, Tony didn’t get off clean shots as he usually does. I didn’t get clean looks… their size is a big part of that.”
Not only was Duncan referring to the 7-foot-1, 240-pound Chandler, but to 6-foot-11, 245-pund forward Marcus Camby, who in his first season back with New York, made his first start as a Knick since the 1999 NBA Finals in which the Spurs, like the Knicks did to them on Thursday night, used defense to oust New York in five games despite never reaching 90 points in that series.
Camby only scored two points, but he pulled down six rebounds in 15 minutes and his long reach and space-eating defensive presence helped the Knicks take a lead after the opening quarter for the first time in seven games.
That wouldn’t seem to matter much in the virtually-any-early-lead-isn’t-safe NBA, but New York improved to 15-2 when leading after the first quarter and the Knicks are just 7-8 when trailing after the opening period.
Another interesting trend concerning leads that continued for New York is the number of games the Knicks have played in which either they or their opponents have opened up a lead of at least 20 points – something which has occurred in half of New York’s 32 games this year, with the team opening up such a lead not surrendering it in those games.
Fortunately for the Knicks, they’ve been on the right side of that more often than not, having held such a lead 11 times while trailing by that type of margin five times this season.
New York ultimately led San Antonio by as many as 25 points in the final minutes, but it took a while to get there, with the help of a freak break, when 13-year reserve guard Stephen Jackson (a former 20-point scorer in his prime, now averaging just 7.2 points per game in a limited role) injured his ankle when he missed a left corner jumper and tripped over a courtside waitress who was serving a drink (presumably, not an extra-large soda) to New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Neither Bloomberg (who was okay) nor Jackson (no points, 0-for-2 from the floor) returned after that.
The Spurs scored six straight points to lead 9-5, but an alley oop dunk by Chandler capped a 17-8 run that put the Knicks up five points before they settled for a 22-19 lead after the first quarter.
An 8-2 spurt to start the next period pushed New York’s edge to 30-21, and the Knicks led by eight points three more times in the quarter, but San Antonio closed the final 5:08 of the first half on an 8-2 run to get within 42-40 at halftime.
A layup by star forward Amar’e Stoudemire (10 points in nearly 21 minutes in his second game of the season while returning from offseason knee surgery) gave New York the game’s first double digit lead, 66-55, and the Knicks took a 67-60 advantage into the final quarter, which they started by scoring the first 10 points, to lead 77-60, just 1:36 into the period.
A short pass in the lane by point guard Pablo Prigioni (six points, career-high-tying nine assists, three steals, one turnover in 27 minutes) led to an unlikely but exhilarating dunk that rocked the Garden crowd and gave New York a 92-72 lead with 5:38 left.
Smith cut behind the Spurs’ defense in the lane as Prigioni drove along the right blocks and made a low, routine pass that was simply intended to set Smith up for a catch and a layup. Smith instead caught the ball waist high while leaping with his back to the basket, and made a quick, remarkable reverse dunk that caused the Knicks’ bench to stand up and waved towels in stunned approval.
While the crowd was still buzzing over that play, reserve forward and three-point specialist Steve Novak (15 points, 5-for-6 shooting, all on three-point attempts) made MSG roar with delight by hitting a right-corner trey to extend New York’s lead to 95-72, before a Stoudemire hook shot added two more points to that margin, with 3:33 remaining.
Evaluating his progress in coming back to the lineup, Stoudemire said, “I felt better. I definitely felt more comfortable defensively after watching so much film and listening to the coaching staff.”
Earlier in the week, Stoudemire reiterated some comments he made when he first came to New York a couple of seasons ago, when he again admitted that no one had ever “taught defense” to him – which in itself, is a referendum on the failed coaching philosophy of ex-Knick coach Mike D’Antoni, who coached Stoudemire for eight years in Phoenix and most of two years in New York before resigning from the Knicks toward the end of last season to make way for the defensive-minded Woodson to lead the Knicks.
Prigioni meanwhile, was a major spark in the win and a bright spot for the Knicks with starting point guard Raymond Felton remaining out for a few more weeks with a broken finger.
“With Raymond out, everybody needs to do something extra,” said the Argentinian Prigioni, who at 35 years of age, is the oldest rookie ever to play in the NBA. “I will try to focus on these two or three weeks till Felton comes back, and try to give all that I have for the team, and then come back to my [regular] role.”
Prigioni drew high praise from his good friend, fellow countryman and teammate on the Argentinian national team in last summer’s Olympics, Ginobili, who said, “He does what he has always done… just sets up teammates for open shots. He is very clever… getting steals and good position defensively… he is not going to give you 20 points, but if there is someone open, he will find them. He is a great point guard.”
Though Prigioni has proven he can at least effectively play the point, the main point for the Knicks’ success for one game was all about defense, something that as the cliché goes, can travel.
Seeking to follow through on that point, New York will fly south for a Saturday night road game at the Orlando Magic (12-20), as the Knicks go from one extreme to the other – after stopping a seven-game win streak, they’ll now play a Magic team which has lost its past seven games, in a rematch of New York’s 99-89 victory, which came at the same site, one game prior to the Knicks’ November win in San Antonio.
After that, New York will return to the Garden for home games against Boston (on Monday night) and Chicago (on Friday night) next week, with an in-between stop in Indiana on Thursday night.