Opening Night Jitters: Knicks Blow 25-Point Lead, But Start Season with a Win

NEW YORK — A fresh Garden, a revamped team and a mixed start.

New York Knicks fans got their first regular season looks at the newly refurbished Madison Square Garden which houses their team’s retooled roster on Wednesday night.

While they seemed to enjoy the Knicks’ enhanced digs, New York’s inconsistent performance provided a tale of two different halves that ultimately ended well for the home crowd, despite some very nervous moments along the way.

With the third and final phase of the $1 billion Garden renovation having been unveiled for the first time last Friday for the Knicks’ last preseason game, New York (1-0) opened its 2013-14 season with a 90-83 victory over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), hours after team owner James Dolan reportedly told his club’s front office and coaching staff that he expects them by the season’s end, to deliver the franchise’s first NBA title since 1973.

Although a nerve-wracking, season-opening victory doesn’t come close to accomplishing that, the reigning Atlantic Division champions cruised to a 25-point halftime lead and then fell behind by a point, before closing on a 10-2 run that served as a much-needed Heimlich maneuver after the Knicks choked away a huge edge in less than 20 minutes.

“We had to buckle down and get back to how we started the game,” said last year’s league scoring champion, Carmelo Anthony, who led all scorers with 19 points on 7-of-16 shooting from the field.

“The first half was a phenomenal first half,” Anthony added, before admitting, “We let our foot off the gas in the third quarter.”

That was the period which Milwaukee started 29-13 and finished with 33 points, to enter the final quarter down just 74-64, after trailing 56-31 at halftime.

Center Zaza Pachulia (13 points, team-high 11 rebounds) led the Bucks back with eight third-quarter points off of a Milwaukee bench that dominated New York’s reserves, 54-20.

The key difference between the two halves was in each team’s ability (and inability) to take care of the ball, especially with Bucks starting point guard Brandon Knight playing less than two minutes after straining his hamstring early, his backup, Luke Ridnour, sitting the game out with back spams, and their counterpart, Raymond Felton, briefly sitting out in the second half with his own hamstring tweak.

During the opening half, the Knicks forced twice as many turnovers (16) as they committed (eight), yet that trend was reversed after intermission, with New York losing the ball 14 times while forcing just seven turnovers.

“I think we fatigued a little bit,” said head coach Mike Woodson. “I thought their pressure picked up and we backed off a little bit and got sloppy with the ball. That’s not us. Last year, we led the league in not turning the ball over. You have to give them credit for the pressure they applied in the second half.”

Joining Anthony (who had a team-high 10 rebounds) as starters reaching double figures in scoring were Felton (18 points), Iman Shumpert (16) and Tyson Chandler (10), who also contributed six boards and a game-five blocked shots.

Newcomers off of New York’s bench — Andrea Bargnani (six points), Metta World Peace (four points, four rebounds), rookie first-round draft pick Tim Hardaway, Jr. (five points) and Beno Udrih (two points) — added only marginal production offensively in their first games as Knicks.

Aside from Bargnani (who finished 3-for-5 from the floor after missing his first four shots as a Knick), New York shot a blistering 62.9 percent (22-for-35) from the field in the first half, while racing out to a 15-6 lead and settling for a 24-18 advantage after an opening quarter in which eight different Knicks scored.

Leading 30-23 more than four minutes into the second quarter, New York pulled away with a 26-8 run to end the first half.

However, a 22-7 third-quarter spurt the other way cut a 60-36 Knicks edge to just 67-58 late in the third quarter, and the Bucks got to within 74-71 after scoring the first seven points of the fourth period.

Two free throws by Shumpert increased New York’s lead to 80-75 a little past the midpoint of the quarter, but a three-pointer by forward Caron Butler (14 points) tied the game, 80-80, and 1:27 later, forward John Henson (five points) made one of two free throws to give Milwaukee its only lead, 81-80, with 3:13 left.

Anthony missed a driving layup on the Knicks next possession, but Chandler, who had a putback dunk off of an earlier Anthony miss (to put New York up 78-75), had another, to give the Knicks the lead for good, 82-81, with 2:36 to go.

Following a missed jumper by guard Gary Neal (team-high 16 points), Shumpert misfired on a three-pointer that eventually resulted in a tip-in by Anthony.

Chandler then stripped Pachulia for his third steal, which led to an Anthony jumper that extended New York’s lead to 86-81.

Guard O.J. Mayo (13 points) hit a jumper to keep the Bucks within striking distance with a minute left, but an alley oop dunk from Chandler off of a nice lob pass by Felton pushed the Knicks’ lead to 88-83.

A block at the other end by Chandler turned into a Felton layup that closed the scoring and effectively ended Milwaukee’s chances with 26.1 seconds remaining.

Interestingly, head coach Larry Drew, a former NBA teammate of Woodson’s for five seasons on the Kansas City Kings during the 1980s, had the same take on what New York did to his team as Anthony said of the way the Bucks were able to come back against the Knicks.

“We allowed them to speed us up and [we] played totally out of character,” Drew said of New York’s defense.

Meanwhile, Anthony said of Milwaukee, “They sped us up a little bit. We made some turnovers that we don’t normally make. We have to fix that. There are a lot of things we can learn from tonight.”

There won’t be much time to do that, though, before the Knicks next game. New York travels to Chicago on Thursday night for its first road game of the season, as the Chicago Bulls (0-1) will play their home opener and look to build off of their four-game, regular season sweep over the Knicks last season.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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