NEW YORK – Thursday night’s nationally televised showdown between the second-best teams in each conference was supposed to feature a battle between the NBA’s top two scorers.
With Kevin Durant being the only healthy player of that duo however, J.R. Smith did his best Carmelo Anthony impersonation only to be stopped in the end. Smith missed a potential go-ahead jumper from along the left baseline with 1.8 seconds left as the Oklahoma City Thunder (45-16) barely held on for a thrilling 95-94 over the New York Knicks (37-22) before a boisterous sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Durant scored a team-high 34 points (more than five above his league-leading average of 28.7 points per game) and made 14 of 15 free throws to singlehandedly offset the Knicks’ perfect 14 of 14 shooting from the foul line.
While Oklahoma City won its third straight game, New York was trying to do the same after losing Anthony (the NBA’s second-leading scorer, averaging 28.2 points per game) to a right knee injury just prior to rallying from a 22-point first-half deficit to win in Cleveland, and then winning in Detroit without Anthony one night before playing the Thunder.
Smith’s game-high 36 points on 14 of 29 shooting from the field, including 6 of 13 from three-point range, were certainly Anthony-like, but while he (in 36 minutes off the bench) rebounded from a scoreless first quarter to already post a personal season-high with 31 points over the middle two periods, Smith misfired on 5 of his last 6 shots, including a rushed three-pointer and an off-balance 17-footer on the Knicks’ final two possessions.
“It was a high-scoring night [for myself], but it doesn’t mean anything coming out with a loss,” said Smith, standing just above the carpeted Knicks logo in the New York locker room after the game.
“I tried to get my spot where I wanted to get to,” said Smith of game’s last play. “I really should have went to the basket. It didn’t work like that… my jumper was good all night until the fourth quarter.”
Trailing by the same 95-94 count one trip earlier, the Knicks came out of a time out with 38.6 seconds to go, 21 seconds on the shot clock, and plenty of time to try another option, or have Smith or anyone else attack the basket.
But, Smith, after missing 3 of his previous 4 shots, took the inbounds pass and just six seconds after the time out, hoisted a rushed, left-wing three that fell short. The shot was only partially contested and Smith had a decent look on it, but especially at home, with the Thunder over the foul limit, the wiser move might have been to opt for more patience and perhaps run a pick-and-roll or a ball screen to free a drive to the rim.
Ignoring that play, head coach Mike Woodson only commented on his team’s last chance. “It was so sluggish the way we go into [the play]. We didn’t fire off of it like we should have. I was trying to get guys going in different directions. The play was for J.R. and I thought once he actually caught [the ball and], looked up at the clock… and faced up, he could have gone with it… he could have ripped through and went to the rim, but he didn’t. He settled for the jump shot.”
Although he was disappointed in that decision, Woodson acknowledged that Smith had “made a couple of those in the past that won games for us [this season].”
Woodson was also happy with the effort that his team showed without its best player in Anthony against last year’s NBA Finals runner-up and a serious title contender again this year.
“It was a hell of a game,” Woodson said, saying his team “played their hearts out [against] one of the best teams in the league. I was very pleased with our play.”
He likely wasn’t that satisfied in the opening quarter however, when New York committed one-third of its 21 personal fouls and the Thunder made (10) and took (12) nearly half of the 21 free throws it made in 25 attempts, while going on a 19-3 run to lead 23-13, before taking a 35-26 advantage into the second period.
Often exploiting the Knicks’ lack of transition defense, point guard Russell Westbrook made 5 of 9 shots from the field and all four of his free throw attempts in the first quarter, while scoring half of Oklahoma City’s first 30 points.
Westbrook would only score six points on 3 of 13 shooting while failing to get to the foul line the rest of the way, however.
A short jumper by Durant provided the game’s biggest lead, 39-28, less than two minutes into the second period, but half of Smith’s points on the night came in the period, and half of those 18 points came during a 20-9 run that tied the game, 48-48.
The Thunder answered with an 11-2 spurt, to lead 59-50, but three-pointers by point guard Raymond Felton (his only trey in eight attempts, while scoring 16 points on 16 shots) and Smith closed that gap to 59-56 by halftime.
Neither team could make a basket in the third quarter until Smith made a jumper 4:12 into the frame.
That bucket got Smith going again, as he scored over half (13) of the Knicks’ 25 points in the quarter while New York allowed Durant to get nine, but allowed only seven other points in the period.
Forward Amar’e Stoudemire (16 points on 16 shots, eight rebounds) scored six points and Smith added five during a 15-4 surge that put the Knicks ahead 75-69 before Smith drilled a 27-foot three-pointer in the final seconds of the quarter to keep the same margin for New York, which led 81-75 after three periods.
Whereas Woodson went with a smaller lineup down the stretch of a close loss to Miami on Sunday, and vowed afterwards to begin forcing opponents to instead match up with his team, Woodson actually went even smaller, with a four-guard over much of the fourth quarter against Oklahoma City.
Using that decision to his advantage, the 6-foot-9 Durant scored six points to key a 12-4 run that gave the Thunder an 87-85 lead with 8:27 left.
The Knicks regained a 90-89 edge on a Smith three-pointer almost five minutes later, and after a Durant jumper, a layup by Felton put New York up 92-91, with 2:58 to go.
After two free throws by Durant, Stoudemire gave the Knicks their final lead, 94-93, on a pair of foul shots with 1:50 remaining, but Durant scored the game’s final points on two more free throws a dozen seconds later.
Felton committed New York’s 14th and last turnover, but Durant and Westbrook missed short jumpers to give the Knicks another opportunity.
That’s when Smith, who became the only Knick besides Anthony to reach 30 points this season, had the first of his two chances to finish playing the hero role.
However, it wasn’t meant to be, as Smith missed a three-pointer with 32.9 seconds left before ending the game on a tough, step-back jumper that came up short with Westbrook’s hand in his face.
Crediting Westbrook on the play, head coach Scott Brooks said, “I thought the last play, Russell did a good job of locking in and challenging himself to get a stop.”
Brooks also praised Smith, saying, “He was making some tough shots. He’s one of the guys in this league that you can guard him well and he can make a tough shot. He probably made seven of those [tonight]. You couldn’t do anything else to make him miss. He was in the zone. A couple of times, we lost him in transition, a couple of times we switched and then didn’t communicate the switch well enough.”
Considering that the Knicks played without Anthony after enduring a late arrival from Detroit, Felton was proud of his team for very nearly beating one of the league’s best teams.
“We didn’t get to bed until 3:30 in the morning. Overall, it was a great game, a great performance by [Smith], a great performance by the team. I feel like we showed a lot of fight out there… everything is really positive. The only negative thing is we didn’t win the game, [but] definitely a lot of positive things [to take] from this game.”
Having Anthony, whom Woodson said remains in a “day-to-day” status, back as soon as possible, would be the biggest cause of optimism for New York, which after a home date with Utah on Saturday night, will embark on what should be a difficult five-game western road swing.