NEW YORK — Nearly six weeks ago, the New York Knicks began to turn an awful start around against the similarly bad Brooklyn Nets with a 30-point win on Brooklyn’s home floor.
On Monday afternoon, the now-thriving Nets (17-22) returned that thrashing and left the Knicks (15-26) reeling again.
Putting behind the memories of a December 5 defeat that ended a season-long, nine-game losing streak for New York and which dropped Brooklyn to just 5-14, the Nets led the Knicks for all but the first 59 seconds during an easy 103-80 victory in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day game at Madison Square Garden.
With future Hall of Fame starters Paul Pierce (three points) and Kevin Garnett (six points, six rebounds) each taking just four shots while combining for single digits in points, forward Joe Johnson scored 20 of his team-high 25 points in the opening half and forward Andray Blatche netted 19 points and a team-high 12 rebounds to lead Brooklyn.
While Johnson’s scoring all but canceled out a team-high 26 points from forward Carmelo Anthony, shooting guard Alan Anderson’s 15 points and 13 from guard Deron Williams more than offset J.R. Smith’s 15 points and 11 from Tim Hardaway, Jr.
“When we first played them, they embarrassed us,” Garnett admitted. “We wanted to come back and get sort of a payback and kind of redeem ourselves.”
Johnson added, “We talked about it, calling it a payback game, and we came out and we responded.”
Far more in sync offensively, the Nets tallied almost twice as many assists (25-13) and shot 49.3 percent (37-for-75) from the field, as the Knicks made just 24 of 71 shots (33.8 percent).
It was the second straight time that New York — which shot just 34.9 percent in a 15-point home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night — hovered around the same dismal shooting rate while starting a crucial, season-long eight game homestand.
The loss was also the Knicks’ fourth straight overall, following a season-high five-game winning streak. Each of the defeats has come by double digits, something that the Nets — winners of seven of their past eight games — led by over the final 19½ minutes, as chants of “Broooklyyyyn” rained down from visiting Nets fans that were in attendance.
Head coach Mike Woodson attempted to clarify his team’s problems on each end of the floor, saying, “They got us in a rotation game… where… we get to scrambling. We’re one man short in terms of rotation [and] not where we needed to be… they made shots all over the place, and we couldn’t make shots.”
What particularly irked Woodson was the recurrence of a common theme all season, in which the Knicks let their offensive woes affect their defensive intensity. “When you’re struggling to score, you’ve got to make sure your defense is where it needs to be to keep you in there until your scoring comes around,” Woodson said.
Trying to explain why the Knicks have allowed the level of their offensive success to dictate their defensive effort, Chandler said, “When you’re having such a hard time scoring, and then they score a bucket, it just seems like it’s more points than it actually is. I think guys just get frustrated out there, to be honest.”
Giving a more pragmatic explanation of the same, Anthony said, “I thought they pressured us a lot, sped us up. It just seemed like we just couldn’t get into our sets, get into our offense the way we normally know how to, and on the defensive end, we were just… scrambling the whole game.”
After an Anthony jumper gave New York its only lead, 2-0, Brooklyn scored 10 of the next 12 points before the Knicks answered with a 6-2 run, to get within 12-10.
But the Nets responded with an 11-2 spurt, to go up, 23-12, before settling for a 27-16 lead after the first quarter.
A pair of free throws by Johnson capped a 16-7 run that pushed Brooklyn’s advantage to 46-28, with 3:54 left in the first half, and the Nets took a 52-38 lead to the locker room.
Scoring the first six points of the third period, the Knicks trimmed their deficit to 52-44, but as New York went cold again, Brooklyn used a 17-6 surge to lead, 69-50, before the Nets entered the final quarter with a 71-55 edge.
That margin never got lower the rest of the way, and it got as high as the difference in the final score on four other occasions during the final period.
As reigning Atlantic Division champions, who won 54 games and earned a two seed in last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, the Knicks — who expected to defend their division title this season — are well off of the pace they hoped to be on at the midpoint of their season, as they sit in third place in the Atlantic, three games behind second-place Brooklyn.
Although Anthony refused to single anyone out for the loss, he took the opportunity (when asked to do so) to comment on the play of point guard Raymond Felton, who scored nine points on just 2-of-11 shooting, while handing out six assists and committing three turnovers.
“I don’t like putting pressure on people… but when Ray plays well, we play well,” Anthony said. “That’s a known fact.”
There was also much that Anthony and Chandler — New York’s primary locker room leaders — said that pointed to their former teammate last season, rookie Nets head coach Jason Kidd, perhaps outcoaching Woodson and motivating Brooklyn more than Woodson did for New York.
“The only thing that kind of bothers me is today, we didn’t even fight,” Anthony said. “I felt like we didn’t fight as a team. Those guys from the jump ball just came in and it felt like they owned us.”
Chandler disagreed that the Knicks weren’t ready. Rather, he pointed to strategy issues.
“I think we came to play, it’s just, they out-schemed us,” he said. “Joe [Johnson] played in Woody’s system and he knew how to exploit it, and the same can be said with Jason [Kidd]… I don’t want to switch [defensively]. I personally don’t like it. I think you come with a defensive plan and every guy kind of mans up and takes up on his responsibility. I think switching should always be last resort.”
Anthony didn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy, but he does want New York to commit to something defensively. “Whatever it is, we’ve just got to do it,” he said. “If we’re going to switch, then switch. If we’re going to stick to our schemes, then stick to [them].”
Regarding what Brooklyn did offensively, Anthony was more in agreement with Chandler. “They played to the mismatches,” he said of the Nets. “That’s something that Jason does well, even when he was here.”
On that, Chandler added, “They played to our defense as far as their offensive scheme, knowing our rotations and knowing what we wanted to accomplish and kind of putting us in vulnerable situations, having to switch a lot and also taking our help guy out of the rotation.”
Noting the Knicks different approach from their previous game against the Nets, Anthony said, “I think our mentality last game against them was a lot different. Today, I know, Tyson said, ‘They out-schemed us,’ but they played to the mismatch. When Joe Johnson… or Blatche had a mismatch, they utilized that. We just got caught up in the scramble all game.”
Once a dominant 18-6 on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, New York has dropped its past four games on the holiday.
Trying to forget their poor first half, the Knicks will start the second half of their season in the third game of their homestand, as they host last-place Philadelphia (13-28) on Wednesday night.
Having already stated he would opt out of his current contract, with the possibility of either resigning with New York or become a highly coveted free agent for another team this summer, Anthony displayed a mix of frustration tempered by continued optimism on the subject of the Knicks’ record at the halfway point.
I didn’t think we would be in this situation,” Anthony said. “Honestly, I don’t really know how to deal with situations like this. I’m learning, this is the first time for me, but we’ve got to keep it going because we’ve got a lot more games to play… we’ve got to do something… I’m not worried. I’m not at that point yet because I still think that we can figure it out.”