NEW YORK — With his team having matched the New York Knicks’ franchise record for the club’s poorest start through 20 games, head coach Mike Woodson might already be skating on thin ice before the start of winter.
So, had the Knicks (6-15) lost again, after building a huge advantage on Wednesday night, Woodson might have very well been left out in the cold by team owner James Dolan.
Ultimately though, New York, after blowing a 23-point second-half lead against the severely depleted Chicago Bulls (8-12), found the will to buckle down defensively and grind out an 83-78 win at Madison Square Garden.
“I guess it sunk in. We got tired of losing,” said star forward Carmelo Anthony (game-high 30 points, team-highs of 10 rebounds and four assists), who along with several of his teammates, has vocally remained in Woodson’s corner.
Demonstrating that support on the court, however, has been a lacking and inconsistent endeavor for the team, at best.
For 2½ quarters, the Knicks — who won for only the third time in 14 games, for as many times in nine home games this year, and for just the second time in 13 contests on less than two days of rest this season — were finally able to let Woodson breathe a little easier.
New York, hampered by several poor starts at home this year, scored nine straight points to lead, 9-2.
And although Chicago (which lost its third straight game while playing without starters Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler), scored the next seven points, to spark a 15-6 run that closed the opening quarter, the Knicks responded by scoring the first 19 points of the second period, to lead, 34-17.
Aside from a pair of free throws by starting forward Kenyon Martin (three points, seven rebounds, game-high four blocks), all of the offense during that run came from New York’s bench, with forward Amar’e Stoudemire (14 points, nine rebounds, two steals) and guard Beno Udrih (eight points) each scoring six points over the spurt.
The Bulls cut the Knicks’ lead to as little as 11 points on three different occasions during the period, but a 3-pointer and a 10-foot jumper by Anthony helped New York – which was missing two starters, center Tyson Chandler and point guard Raymond Felton — maintain a healthy 46-32 edge by halftime.
A 3-pointer by reserve guard J.R. Smith (seven points) extended the margin to 64-41, six seconds past the midpoint of the third quarter, but after successfully sharing the ball offensively and locking Chicago down defensively, the Knicks got away from everything that was working for them on each end of the floor.
Suddenly, New York’s offense returned to the stagnant isolation style which has often led to its own detriment, as the Bulls began to attack the basket while exploiting a Knicks defense that decreased its intensity level.
With the help of five New York turnovers in a span of just 1:39, Chicago went on a 13-2 before a tough, momentum-restoring layup by Anthony pushed the Knicks’ lead to 68-54 as the quarter ended.
“We got comfortable with the lead and started throwing the ball all over the gym, and [the Bulls] got excited with their defense, because they were causing us to throw it away, and they got back in the game before you knew it,” Woodson noted.
While the “Fire Woodson!” chants heard in earlier games at MSG were never repeated, an obvious nervousness permeated throughout the Garden crowd as Chicago tied the game at 74-apeice, with 3:38 remaining, following an 18-2 run over of a span of 6:17.
However, Stoudemire got a steal — the Bulls’ 20th of their 23 turnovers — at one end, before he put New York up for good, 76-74, at the other, on an 18-foot jumper with 2:34 left.
It was a bucket that Woodson called “the biggest shot of the night.”
Finally cleared to play more minutes following his latest offseason knee surgery, Stoudemire has recently developed into a much-needed force off of the bench for the Knicks, who set season highs with 16 steals and seven blocked shots.
“This is the longest I have been able to play him,” Woodson said of Stoudemire, who played on consecutive days for the first time this season, after a loss in Cleveland on Tuesday night. “He has come a long way since the start of the season… his minutes are starting to grow and we are starting to benefit from it.”
Stoudemire added, “I put a lot of hard work in and it is paying off.”
As New York’s defense began to swarm Chicago again, the Bulls couldn’t get another good shot off until they made a meaningless layup in the final seconds.
Anthony closed things out by making seven of eight free throws over the final 1:29 to at least for the very short term, move Woodson back off of his coaching hot seat.
“We so desperately needed a win,” Woodson admitted. “If we had lost this game, we’d be singing the same tune… we struggle to win games, so any game we win is important to win because it keeps us in the hunt, because no one is running away with [the Atlantic Division]… eventually somebody’s going to catch fire [within the division] and start to play well, and I hope it’s the New York Knicks.”
Up next is another back-to-back for New York, which will get an opportunity to avenge a pair of earlier blowout losses. On Friday night, the Knicks will travel to play the first-place Boston Celtics (10-14), who won in New York by 41 points last Sunday, and who lead the last-place Knicks by 2½ games in the Atlantic. The next night, back at the Garden, New York will host Atlanta, which won at MSG, by 20 points, on November 16.