NEW YORK — It took a dozen homes games into the season, but the New York Knicks (7-16) finally put together a Madison Square Garden winning streak, with a 111-106 over the Atlanta Hawks (12-12) on Saturday night.
And although the Knicks avenged a 20-point home loss in the teams’ last meeting, on November 16, they only improved to 4-8 in the same building in which they won their first 10 home games, en route to a 31-10 Garden record a season ago.
That mark, combined with an 18-5 overall start last year, pushed New York to a 54-win season and its first division title in 19 years.
While the Knicks moved out of the Atlantic Division cellar — one game ahead of last-place Philadelphia (7-18) — and are an improved 4-3 since ending a season-long, nine-game losing streak, they’re still 11 games off of the hot pace they set at the same point last season.
On the plus side, with everyone else in the Atlantic struggling as well, fourth-place New York is only three games behind first-place Boston (11-14).
For one night, the Knicks looked ready to turn their season around, even though defending the Hawks’ shooters was a losing battle, as Atlanta shot a blistering 60.6 percent (40-for-66) from the field, including 46.9 percent (15-for-32) from 3-point range.
Guard Louis Williams led the Hawks with 27 points in 28:38 off the bench, while making nine of 16 shots overall, and six of 13 from behind the arc.
But thanks to forcing 27 turnovers — the most in the NBA this season — while committing just 11, New York took 21 more field goal attempts (87-66) and made four more baskets (44-40) than Atlanta.
Many of those made buckets came from forward Carmelo Anthony, who scored a game-high 35 points on efficient 13-for-22 shooting, while grabbing six rebounds and handing out four assists.
With starters J.R. Smith (two points on 1-for-8 shooting, in 24:20; benched for the final 14:40) and Iman Shumpert (three points on 1-for-2 shooting, in 33:35) continuing their recent scoring slumps, fellow starters Andrea Bargnani (23 points on 11-for-16 shooting) and Pablo Prigioni (11 points; 3-for-6 from 3-point range) picked up the slack — as did rookie Tim Hardaway, Jr. (13 points, four rebounds), Beno Udrih (10 points) and Amar’e Stoudemire (nine points, five rebounds) off the bench.
Their contributions more than offset that of starters Paul Millsap (18 points) and Al Horford (17 points) — who each shot 7-for-9 — and Kyle Korver (13 points), along with 10 bench points from Shelvin Mack.
“I think we played with patience and good spacing,” Prigioni said. “We played good on offense and defense. We forced turnovers. We played a good game tonight.”
“You have to give them credit,” Horford said of the Knicks. “They were the more aggressive team. They set the tone from the beginning of the game. They… just wanted it more.”
An 8-2 Hawks run wiped out a 5-0 deficit, but later, down 12-11, New York went on a 15-8 spurt to open a six-point lead before settling for a 26-22 edge after the opening quarter.
Leading his team with 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting, Anthony tweaked his left hamstring and began to limp up court with the Knicks up, 40-36, midway through the second quarter. After the game, Anthony claimed he was fine and that the momentary pain he felt was “nothing to worry about,” but he only attempted one more shot and scored just two points (each at the foul line) for the remainder of the half.
Nevertheless, down 41-40, after five straight Atlanta points, New York ran off the next 12 points (seven from Hardaway, Jr.) without Anthony scoring, to lead, 52-41, before heading into the locker room with a 57-48 advantage at halftime.
After the Knicks pushed their lead to 14 points four different times in the third quarter, Korver, who was held scoreless in the first half, extended his NBA-record streak of contests with a 3-pointer to 93 consecutive games, while draining back-to-back treys, to pull the Hawks to within 68-60.
Two more Korver 3s cut the margin to just five points each time, and a Mack 3-pointer sliced the lead further, to 79-77, before an Udrih layup doubled New York’s edge to 81-77 heading into the final quarter.
Still clinging to a four-point lead, the Knicks scored 11 points in a row on an Anthony 3-pointer, a reverse layup and a trey by Prigioni, and a triple from Bargnani, to take a commanding 98-83 lead, with 5:11 remaining.
New York’s advantage dipped to no lower than 12 points until the final minute, when Atlanta used a 9-2 run to climb within 110-105, with 11.6 seconds left, but with a chance to make it a one possession game, Williams missed a rushed 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds to go.
Lacking leadership for much of their rough start, the Knicks had that role filled by Prigioni, whose playing time has increased lately with starting point guard Raymond Felton sidelined for at least a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury.
“I tried to keep pushing myself and pushing my teammates and the team,” said the 36-year-old who is in his second-year in the NBA after playing professionally for four years in his native Argentina, and for another 12 years in Spain.
“I believe we can change the situation by working hard every day and [trying] to play on hundred percent every possession… and keep going,” Prigioni added. “We can’t be sad because [of] what we did in the last 20 games. We have to look in front and keep going.”
Anthony, who as the Knicks’ best player, considers himself the primary leader on the team, offered similar words of encouragement for his squad. “We’re trying,” he said. “We’ve still got some work to do, but we’re trying to get there… one day at a time. I believe we will get there.”
One thing that could help that come to fruition is Prigioni, a reluctant but consistent 45-percent shooter in his brief NBA career, firing away as much as Anthony wants him to.
“Sometimes, he’ll turn down shots, and I’ll be like, ‘What the hell? You’re wide open, man. Shoot the ball,’” Anthony joked. “[But] these last couple games, he’s been taking [those shots] and feeling comfortable and confident enough that he can make those.”
A home date with Washington (9-13) on Monday night will begin a five-game stretch in which New York will alternate playing at home and on the road (where the Knicks are just 3-8).
That’s when Anthony vows that Smith — who earned his only Sixth Man of the Year Award last season, by being aggressive, as New York’s second-leading scorer behind Anthony (last year’s league scoring champion), but who has passively attempted just 16 free throws in his past 15 games — will return to his old form.
“He’ll change it Monday… I believe he’ll change it. We’ve got a day off tomorrow… enjoy the weather, enjoy the snow. Monday, get back into attack mode.”
Before that however, Anthony who led Syracuse University to its lone national title at the end of his only year in college (as a freshman, in 2003), admitted some fatigue after playing for the fourth time in five nights, and said he planned on getting some much-needed some rest.
But too much sleep might make him miss seeing his alma-mater play at MSG against its former longtime conference rival St. John’s, with a tipoff scheduled for noon. “If I wake up,” Anthony said, he’ll cheer Syracuse on in person.