NEW YORK — Chances are, the New York Knicks won’t overtake the Miami Heat for the NBA’s Eastern Conference crown this season, but they did take the mantle from Miami as the team possessing the league’s longest current winning streak on Wednesday night.
On an evening when Miami lost in Chicago to end the second-longest winning streak in NBA history — at 27 games (six shy of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ streak of 33 games) — New York (44-26) built a 30-point first-half lead on the visiting Memphis Grizzlies (47-24) before hanging on for a 108-101 victory at Madison Square Garden.
The win, keyed by a game-high 35 points from reserve guard J.R. Smith, was the Knicks’ sixth straight (following a four-game losing streak), matching a season high, when New York won that many contests to start the season before losing in Memphis during a chippy game that featured six technical fouls.
It also moved the Knicks to 18 games above .500 for the first time in nearly 13 years, when they finished the 1999-2000 season 50-32.
Smith’s effort came one night after leading all scorers with 32 points in New York’s 15-point win in Boston, and gave him a league-leading four 30-point games off the bench (all of which have come in the Knicks’ past dozen games).
The sometimes overly shot-happy and erratic Smith (who leads the NBA with points off the bench, at 17.1 per game) has been more aggressive with attacking the basket (he was 12-for13 at the foul line) and under control of late, a change in style that head coach Mike Woodson has been trying to cultivate.
“I see something that maybe other coaches didn’t see, in terms of his ability to score the basketball,” said Woodson of Smith, who is in his second year with the Knicks after playing his first seven season with two other teams.
“I think you’ve got to put him in the right positions and you’ve got to be demanding with him, and not let him off the hook,” Woodson continued. “Sometimes I can get away with things I say to him, and sometimes I can’t, and he fights [me]. That’s just a part of coaching [and] the coach-player relationship… but for the most part, he has responded beautifully for our team.”
Against the NBA’s second-stingiest defense (allowing just 89.7 points per game), New York started the game on a blistering pace offensively, making 17 of its first 23 (73.9 percent) field goal attempts — to lead 48-31 — and 21 of its first 29 (72.4 percent) shots from the floor, to increase its advantage to 58-34 on an alley oop dunk by Smith that forced a Memphis time out by the midpoint of the second quarter.
Guard Iman Shumpert (16 points) drained a left corner three-pointer to push the Knicks’ lead to a game-high 69-39 before the Grizzlies made it 69-41 at halftime.
That shot was Shumpert’s first attempt since making his first five shots from the field, while scoring 13 points to put New York up 15-9, a little more than five minutes into the game.
Forward Carmelo Anthony (22 points, seven rebounds) was the only other Knick to score during that stretch, but he added nine more points and Smith scored all of his 11 of his first-quarter points to help New York to a 37-23 lead before the Knicks finished the period up 37-25.
“He’s dialed in right now… he’s putting [our] team over the top,” Anthony (the league’s second-leading scorer) said of Smith.
Memphis, which lost its fifth straight road game after starting the year 19-11 away from home, allowed its most points of the season in both an opening quarter and in a first half, while New York’s 69 points before the half were most it posted in any half this season.
Things changed drastically in the second half however, as the Knicks made just 2 of 10 three-pointers after making 11 of 21 shots from behind the arc in the first half. They also began to lose their composure with some questionable officiating, and their defensive intensity sagged as the Grizzlies scored 10 points at the free throw line during a 17-2 run that cut a 71-41 third-quarter deficit in half.
Later in the period, down 80-60, Memphis climbed to within 84-70 on a three-pointer by reserve guard Jerryd Bayless (24 points), but still trailed 86-70 as the quarter ended.
Bayless then started the final period on a personal 9-3 run that trimmed the Knicks’ lead to 89-79 less than three minutes into the frame.
Smith answered with the next five points, but five points from point guard Mike Conley (team-high 26 points, game-high six assists), four by center Marc Gasol (13 points in almost 36 minutes after being a game-time decision due to an abdominal tear) and another three-pointer by Bayless keyed a 16-6 spurt that brought the Grizzlies to within 100-95, with 1:39 remaining.
With the huge lead all but slipping away though, reserve guard Jason Kidd picked the perfect time to score his only points of the game, as he made a clutch three-pointer from the right wing while getting fouled. Although he missed the ensuing free throw, New York held a comfortable 103-95 lead with 1:16 to go.
After an Anthony miss, guard Tony Allen (18 points, game-high 10 rebounds) moved Memphis as close as 103-99 with 33.3 seconds left, but point guard Raymond Felton (13 points, four assists, two turnovers) made a free throw and then hustled down his own free throw miss along the left blocks. That play led to two free throws by Smith, which extended New York’s lead to 106-99 with 26.2 seconds left.
A missed layup by Bayless and two free throws by Anthony with 17.2 seconds left clinched the Knicks’ 25th win in 35 home games this season.
Choosing to look at the positives of gaining a much-needed, late-season victory over the negatives of nearly coughing up all of what seemed an insurmountable lead, Woodson said, “You’ve got to give [the Grizzlies] credit, they didn’t quit… I was pleased with the way we played… if you could win every game going away [by] 30 [points], it would be fantastic, but it’s just not that easy sometimes… our guys didn’t crack. They made plays when it counted, and we were able to secure the win.”
Aside from New York’s hot early shooting, another major factor that helped the Knicks was their ability to slow down Gasol and former Knick star Zach Randolph, who was held to just three points (on three shots) and four rebounds, each well below his season averages of 15.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.
Said Anthony, who continually harassed Randolph defensively, “We wanted to get the ball out [of] their hands [and] double team when we had to. We did that, we stuck to our scripts, stuck to our scheme, made it tough for them down there in the post… tonight, we didn’t let them find their rhythm.”
Woodson added, “I thought it was a total team effort on [Randolph] and Gasol. When they got the ball, we tried to double them, and not let them play, They are two bigs that are really good passers out of double teams… for the most part, [we] took the ball out of [their] hands where other guys had to beat [us], and I thought we were successful in that area.”
Locked in a virtual tie for the two seed in the East behind Miami, the Knicks moved .004 points ahead of Indiana while maintaining a 2½-game lead over Brooklyn in the race to be the first team to end Boston’s run of five straight Atlantic Division titles.
Seeking a seventh straight win, New York will host Charlotte on Friday night before closing out a three-game home stand against Boston on Sunday night.
Before that however, is a college basketball bragging rights matter to settle on Thursday night between Anthony and Woodson, when fourth-seeded Syracuse meets top-seeded Indiana in an East regional semifinal matchup in Washington, D.C.
Woodson, an Indianapolis native, was drafted by the Knicks in the first round (12th overall) of the 1980 NBA draft after being the leading scorer on an Indiana team that won the 1979 NIT championship at the Garden. A year later, as a senior, Woodson, along with ex-Knick head coach Isiah Thomas, led Indiana to a Big Ten title and a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
More than two decades later, in his only year in college, as a freshman, Anthony (raised in Baltimore, yet born in Brooklyn) led Syracuse to its only national championship, in 2003.
Sixteen years earlier, Syracuse, in one of its three national title game appearances, lost to Indiana, 74-73, on a left-corner jumper by Keith Smart with four seconds left.
“We owe them for that Keith Smart shot,” Anthony said, before delivering a warning for his head coach, should Woodson decide to outwardly root for his alma mater.
Responding to the idea of Woodson donning an Indiana cap around his current team on Thursday, Anthony laughed and quipped, “He better not!”