NEW YORK – Although Joe Johnson didn’t help his team approach the kind of history made by President Barack Obama earlier in the day, he did carry the Brooklyn Nets to their first-ever victory at Madison Square Garden as a representative of its current New York City borough.
Just a few hours after President Barack Obama highlighted a special Martin Luther King Day as the first African-American inaugurated for a second term as a United States president, the Nets’ African-American hero on Monday (who shares his last name with two former U.S. presidents) finished as hot as he started to help Brooklyn (25-16) to an 88-85 win over the New York Knicks (25-14) in the home team’s annual MLK Day matinee.
Despite missing all seven of his field goal attempts over the middle two quarters, Johnson (team-high 25 points) scored 11 points while making four of his first five shots from the floor to get the Nets out to a 21-19 lead before accounting for 10 of Brooklyn’s 23 points fourth-quarter points on four-of-eight shooting from the field.
The Nets, who led for most of the opening half, and by as much as 10 points, trailed following a dominating third quarter by the Knicks, who lost for just the second time in 21 games this season when leading after three quarters.
New York, which had just five turnovers (14 fewer than Brooklyn), was also defeated for the first time in 16 games this year when finishing with a turnover total in single digits.
A close game at the outset was tied four times over the first 6:21 until the Nets went on a 9-4 run behind five points from Johnson.
Two free throws by star point guard Deron Williams (14 points), who singlehandedly had almost as many assists (12) as the Knicks (14), kept Brooklyn’s lead at five points before a trio of free throws brought New York to within 26-24 as the first quarter ended.
Starting the second quarter on a 10-5 run, the Nets increased their lead to 36-29 on a three-pointer by reserve guard Keith Bogans (eight points, four rebounds) about five minutes into the period, and after a pair of free throws from Johnson, a foul shot by forward Reggie Evans (three points, nine rebounds) extended that margin to a game-high 45-35.
That lead was matched moments later on a jumper by center Brook Lopez (14 points, 11 rebounds) which made the score 47-37 before star forward Carmelo Anthony (game-high 29 points) scored the final four points of the half to bring New York to within 47-41 by intermission.
Anthony, who averaged 37 points per game in the teams’ three previous meeting this season, started seven of 15 from the floor, but ended just four of 14 from the field and missed a chance to tie the game in the final seconds.
“They gave me different looks,” said Anthony, who was bothered by the changing defenders assigned to slow down the NBA’s third-leading scorer. “They put [forward] Reggie Evans out there, [forward Gerald] Wallace, Joe Johnson, [forward Chris] Humphries, they threw different bodies at me. They gave me different looks.”
Falling behind 52-43 on a three-pointer by Wallace (eight points), the Knicks rallied with a 17-8 surge to grab a 63-60 lead on an Anthony jumper, and a driving dunk by forward Amar’e Stoudemire (15 points, six rebounds) kept the same advantage for New York, 68-65, going into the last period, during which the Knicks had no answer for Johnson.
Before that, Bogans made a lucky three-pointer (that first hit the rim and the top of the backboard during the first minute of the fourth period) which if missed, might have led to a different final outcome.
Guard J.R. Smith, whose 16 points in 38 minutes were right around his league-leading average of 16.7 points per game among NBA reserves, later gave New York a 75-72 lead on a three-pointer with 9:07 left in the game.
Fellow reserve guard C.J. Watson’s only points of the game immediately answered that shot with a game-tying three-pointer before Johnson made consecutive threes to start a personal 8-2 run that put the Nets up 83-77, but the Knicks scored the next seven points, with Anthony making two free throws to give New York its final lead, 84-83, with 40.9 seconds remaining.
With Smith initially guarding him closely however, Johnson made a pull-up jumper from the right wing as Smith let him go just before Johnson rose for what proved to be the game-winning shot with 22.3 seconds to go. That clutch shot being his final three-point attempt of the night, Johnson finished an impressive five-of-eight from behind the arc.
Smith confessed that he didn’t play good enough defense through the entire play. “We have a saying, ‘Hands down, man down.’ And, I did a good job guarding most of the way but not at the end.”
Seconds later, Anthony seemed to have a good look at a short jumper along the right baseline, but he missed everything with 11.9 seconds left, and he was forced to foul Williams, who sank two free throws to give the Nets a little breathing room at 87-84.
“I [just] missed it,” said Anthony. “It’s a shot I normally make.”
Point guard Jason Kidd (11 points, one assist, no turnovers, game-high six steals) was intentionally fouled less than a second later to keep the Knicks from getting off a potential game-tying three, and that strategy worked great for Brooklyn, as Kidd, a normally reliable free throw shooter (who led the Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003), made just one of two foul shots.
Williams however, repaid that favor by missing one of two free throws himself, to momentarily keep New York’s hopes alive.
But, with the Knicks out of time outs, Smith dribbled along the right sideline and although he got a good look at a desperation three-point attempt between two defenders, his shot banked off of the backboard before falling harmlessly off of the rim just before time expired.
“I thought it was going in,” said Smith, who was also surprised that Brooklyn didn’t foul him and send him to the foul line for two free throws before he could try the three-pointer.
Forward Keith Humphries had a key 13 points and 11 rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench for the Nets, and while center Tyson Chandler had a team-high 11 rebounds for the Knicks, he was held to just seven points and four field goal attempts (making three) in nearly 35 minutes, as Brooklyn held a healthy 52-37 edge on the boards.
During his inauguration speech in Washington D.C., President Obama reflected on the famous words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, addressing a large crowd with the statement, “History tells us that while these truths [that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness] may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”
Neither is, on a much smaller and different scale, executing big plays in the biggest moments of a basketball game.
Yet, with regard to those, Johnson said, “I relish those moments. My teammates and coaching staff have confidence and faith in me down the stretch… those moments down the stretch, I love to have the ball in my hands.”
He also admitted though, that despite his earlier hot hand during the fourth quarter, he wasn’t the first option to take what became his game-clinching jumper. “The play was supposed to be for Brook,” he said. “They doubled
[him] and [my teammates] kicked it out to me. I read [the play] and was able to get a pull-up jumper.”
For a pair of resurgent franchises each recovering from several years of futility a different times, the game marked the first time in almost 15 years that the Knicks and Nets met with each team at least eight games above .500, and the first time in nine seasons that the teams played each other while occupying the top two spots of the same division.
As far as that goes, Brooklyn’s fast turnaround under new interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo has the Nets just a game behind the Knicks in the Atlantic Division, as New York has stumbled to a mediocre 7-9 mark after a torrid 18-5 start under head coach Mike Woodson, who moved into that position toward the end of last season.
Carlesimo has guided Brooklyn to an 11-2 record since taking over for former Nets head coach Avery Johnson, who went from an 11-4 record and being named the NBA Coach of the Month for November, to a 3-10 stretch that cost him his job.
The teams finished their first season series since the Nets moved from New Jersey after last season, by splitting four meetings this year, something in which Smith found no satisfaction.
“It’s like kissing your sister,” he quipped.
It was the third straight MLK Day loss for the Knicks, who fell to 18-8 on the holiday since they started hosting MLK Day games each year since 1987. New York had won the first nine and 15 of the first 17 of those contests, but have since lost six of the past nine.
An NBA rule change was necessitated by the 1990 MLK Day game at MSG, when ex-Knick guard Trent Tucker caught an inbounds pass that was thrown in with just one-tenth of a second left on the clock and made a three-pointer to beat the Chicago Bulls. The league subsequently changed the rule to require at least three-tenths of a second to be on the clock in order to get a jump shot off in a similar situation.
Brooklyn’s victory was one of nine games to take place on Monday as part of the league’s overall tribute to Dr. King, a legendary champion of the civil rights for all, and particularly for African Americans, a faction of which make up most of the league’s rosters.
A couple hours prior to the tipoff between Brooklyn and New York, former Knick great and African-American Patrick Ewing received the Civil Rights Legacy Award during halftime of the Indiana Pacers-Memphis Grizzlies game in Memphis.
Starting guard Iman Shumpert, the Knicks’ first-round pick last year, playing in just his second game overall and first home game of the season for New York (following a bad ACL tear at the end of last season), struggled with just two points on one of six shooting from the field — following an eight-point performance in 15 minutes during his season debut in a win over Detroit in London, on Thursday, during the Knicks’ first-ever game outside of North America.
Born almost 27 years after Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech (which will reach its 50th anniversary in August), and of African-American descent, Shumpert said that playing on the day dedicated to Dr. King, “Was a great. It’s a great way to honor him, to play on this day.”
Veteran African-American forward Kurt Thomas, a former NCAA scoring champion who had his best professional days during a productive seven-year stint with the Knicks between 1998 and 2005, but who is seldom-used now at age 40 (in his second go-around with New York), added, “It’s an honor coming out to play on MLK Day, especially with Obama’s inauguration today, it means a lot… [my teammates] and I bounced that around a bit, and it means a lot to them too.”
Of course, it would have meant even more to the Knicks as a team, had they won, like the used to do routinely on the holiday, before failing to do so in more recent years.
A busy week for New York continues with three more games, as the Knicks hit the road for games in Boston on Thursday and in Philadelphia on Saturday before they return home to host Atlanta on Sunday.