NEW YORK – Offsetting the star power of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and even Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, MVP contender Carmelo Anthony was carrying the New York Knicks on his back for as long as the Los Angeles Clippers would let him.
That moment came in the final quarter, as the Knicks couldn’t get over the hill — or more specifically, Grant Hill, who along with others, cooled Anthony down and took him out of the game.
After scoring 38 points to keep New York (32-17) within a point of Los Angeles (36-17) through three periods, the NBA’s second-leading scorer was held to just four points on two field goal attempts in the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ 102-88 win before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden and a national television audience on Sunday afternoon.
Crawford meanwhile, scored 11 of his team-high 27 points in the quarter, as the ex-Knick made 5 of 9 shots in the period to finally put his former team away while Anthony struggled to receive the ball down the stretch, via a deluge of Clipper double and triple teams — and sometimes, the Knicks’ team-wide neglect in realizing that staying with the earlier hot hand of New York’s best player would probably have been the Knicks’ best chance to pull out a win.
Anthony’s benching at the start of the fourth quarter — when Los Angeles scored seven straight points to lead for good, 78-71 — also didn’t help, and was a strategy that was later reconsidered by head coach Mike Woodson, who on Friday in Minnesota, reached 50 club wins faster (72 games) than any coach in Knick history.
“I sat Melo to start the fourth, to give him a blow,” said the former Clipper player. “In hindsight… maybe I shouldn’t have done that… I went back with our starters and at that time, Melo cooled off and we couldn’t get into an offensive flow.”
After playing all of the game but 4:38, Anthony reasonably took the heat off of his coach, saying, “There’s no reason [for Woodson] to blame himself for [resting me to start the fourth quarter]… I don’t think he wants me to play [all] 48 minutes.”
While Crawford led the way for his newest team on his old floor, Paul (25 points, game-highs of seven assists and four steals) and Griffin (17 points, game-high 12 rebounds) overshadowed the perfect shooting of reserve guard Eric Bledsoe, who scored 13 points in less than 19 minutes while making all six of his field goal attempts.
In contrast, point guard Raymond Felton (20 points, five assists), who left the game with a neck sprain in the third quarter before returning, was the only other Knick besides Anthony to score in double figures. He also evened Anthony’s four turnovers as the two totaled half of New York’s uncharacteristically high 16 turnovers.
Early on, Paul made his first three shots from the floor and his nine points matched the Knicks’ collective scoring as Los Angeles took a 15-9 lead after five minutes, and although a driving layup by Anthony tied the game, 17-17, an alley oop dunk and a free throw by Griffin helped the Clippers score the last five points of the quarter to hold a 22-17 edge as the period ended.
With Anthony resting to start the second quarter, Crawford was one of four different players to score for Los Angeles, which ended a 13-0 run with the first eight points of the frame, to lead, 32-19.
But, Anthony, who made all nine of his free throw attempts, sank the six he tried in the second quarter while making half of his six field goal attempts in the period to finish the quarter with a dozen points and at one time, get New York to within 47-42.
However, a three-pointer and a jumper by Paul, sandwiched around a pair of Anthony free throws, gave the Clippers a fairly comfortable 52-44 lead by halftime.
The third quarter though, belonged to Anthony, who exploded for 18 of the Knicks’ 26 third-quarter points, including 13 during a 17-6 run that turned a 10-point New York deficit into the Knicks’ first lead (61-60) since they held a 5-3 advantage after a Felton jumper just 83 seconds into the game.
Los Angeles responded to take a four-point lead on three separate occasions before an Anthony three-pointer brought New York to within 71-70 heading into the final quarter.
One of the game’s three oldest active players (along with the Knicks’ Kurt Thomas and Jason Kidd) helped change the game from there, as the 40-year-old Hill (two points in over 15 minutes), a former scoring star during the 1990’s, frustrated Anthony defensively after playing only 3:21 over the first three periods.
“I thought [Hill] was the difference in the game,” said head coach Vinny Del Negro, who is only six years older than Hill.
Paul added, “[Hill] is smart. He never rests. He’s always guarding you and messing with you. He understands how you can’t give a guy a steady diet.”
Such as the one Anthony was feasting on when he put 24 shots (including desperation half-court heaves to end each of the first two quarters) before the fourth quarter. Anthony made 13 of those while knocking down half of his ten three-pointers over that period. But, with Hill and others limiting him thereafter, Anthony made just one field goal in the last quarter, going nearly eight minutes between his 38th and 39th points.
“He denied [me],” Anthony said of Hill. “I heard their coaches yelling, ‘Don’t let him touch it’ [about me getting the ball].”
Regarding the overall strategy on stopping him, Anthony said, “They started doubling more on the pick-and-rolls, getting the ball out of my hands.”
Still, it was New York’s defense allowing 31 fourth-quarter points, which bothered Anthony the most. “That’s not usually like us,” he said.
Eight points by Crawford keyed a decisive 19-6 run that put Los Angeles ahead to stay, 92-80, with 4:06 remaining.
“It’s always special to come back to the Garden,” said Crawford, who was a good scorer on some struggling Knick teams for more than four losing seasons before he was traded to Golden State in a cap-clearing move.
Three stops later, with his sixth team in 13 NBA seasons, Crawford is finally on a legitimate championship contender, but is still fond of playing in the world’s most famous arena, though the Clippers’ shared home (with the Lost Angeles Lakers) at the Staples Center, is his most beloved venue today.
“[The Garden] is my favorite arena to play at besides Staples,” Crawford continued, before adding, “I enjoyed my time [in New York]. It was fun, it was great. There was a lot of excitement.”
Focusing more on the game, Crawford praised Anthony and credited Hill for his defensive effort, saying, “Carmelo Anthony is probably the best scorer in the world, and I don’t think anybody can stop him. But, [Hill] definitely played great defense [on him].”
Felton followed Anthony’s only made field goal of the fourth period with a layup to cut Los Angeles’ lead to just 92-86, but five straight points from Paul and a couple of free throws by Griffin put the game out of reach before Crawford closed the scoring and provided the game’s largest lead on a three-pointer in the final minute.
The Clippers, who ended the 2012 calendar portion of their schedule with a season league-high and franchise-best 17-game winning streak, won for just the fourth time in twelve games, in Paul’s second game back from a nine-game absence due to injury.
Their victory also ended a five-game home winning streak for the Knicks, who were coming off of split of a two-game road trip following a sweep of a five-game home stand.
New York will host the Toronto Raptors (18-32) on Wednesday night and won’t play again until the following Wednesday, with the all-star break in between. The game with the Raptors will be the first of four regular season meetings between the teams to take place within a span of 38 days.