NEW YORK — The New York Knicks keep surging as the Atlanta Hawks continute to descend in a late-season freefall.
That combination finally helped New York (33-43) catch Atlanta (32-42) in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conferece on Wednesday night.
Minutes before the Hawks (who have a .432 winning percentage) suffered a 13-point home loss to Chicago, the Knicks (.434) completed a 110-81 dismantling of their intra-city rival Brooklyn Nets (40-34), at Madison Square Garden, to technically inch ahead of Atlanta in what has become a virtual tie between the two clubs.
While New York was winning for the 12th time in 15 games, the team it caught lost for the 21st time in 28 contests.
The Knicks had five scorers in double figures, led by 24 points from guard J.R. Smith, who in addition to making half of his dozen 3-point attempts, totalled eight rebounds and a game-high six asssists.
Playing a rare complimentary role, franchise player Carmelo Anthony scored 23 points while grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds.
Reserve forward Tim Hardaway, Jr. added 17 points along with Iman Shumpert’s 10 points off the bench, and starting forward Amar’e Stoudemire added 13 points and six rebounds.
Outshooting Brooklyn (26-for-65) by a wide margin (60-40 percent), New York (42-for-70) also dominated the glass, 41-23, and had 10 more (21-11) assists, as the Nets pulled down the fewest boards for a Knicks opponent this season, and matched the paltry number of assists (which tied a New York opponent low for the year) they had in a 30-point home loss to New York on December 5.
Besides the Knicks’ two blowout wins over the Nets this season, Brooklyn won at the Garden, by 23 points, on January 20. The teams will meet for a final time in the regular season, in Brooklyn, on April 15, one day before each team closes their regular seasons.
Only three scorers — forward Joe Johnson (16 points), point guard Deron Williams (12) and forward Alan Anderson (11) — reached double figures for the Nets, who clinched a playoff berth with a home win over Houston, the night before, but who fell to 2 1/2 games behind Toronto in the race for Atlantic Division crown that the Knicks captured last season with 54 wins.
Brooklyn and New York were expected to be the only contenders for that title this season, but each got off to a bad start, with only the Nets playing consistently well since.
Back on New Year’s Eve, Brooklyn reached a season-worst 10-21 mark after a loss in San Antonio. Two nights later, New York won in the same place to move up to the same record.
But the Nets went 30-12 while the Knicks were a mediocre 22-22 after that time, leading into Wednesday night’s game.
Yet that didn’t stop Knicks fans from chanting “Brooklyn Sucks!” during the fourth quarter.
Much earlier, it was a two-on-two game offensively, with the score tied, 18-18, as Johnson scored nine points and Williams had seven to match eight points each, from Smith and Stoudemire.
Trailing, 20-19, the Knicks scored the final 10 points of the quarter to lead for good. Half of the points during that spurt came in the last 13 seconds of the period as New York converted turnovers by Williams on consecutive trips into a driving dunk by Anthnony and a buzzer-beating, right-corner 3-pointer from Hardaway.
A Hardaway jumper extended the run to 20-2, as the Knicks went up, 39-22, about 3 1/2 minutes into the second quarter. The lead grew to as much as 25 points a minute before halftime, and New York maintained that edge, taking a 63-38 lead into the locker room.
After falling behind by 27 points within the first minute of the third period, the Nets climbed to withn 74-60, and seemed to be on the verge of getting back in the game heading into the final quarter.
However, Smith scored the last five points during an 8-0 run that grew the Knicks’ advantage to 22 points, before New York moved ahead by as much as 103-70 in the final minutes.
“I have never given up hope in terms of our team and the direction where we could go and should be,” head coach Mike Woodson said.
Noting the defensive play of Shumpert, who had five of his team’s 11 steals, Woodson said, “I thought he played tremendous coming off the bench… our bench was really good. I though Iman set the tone.”
Woodson was especially happy that his team played well following a long and successful (3-2) western road trip.
“Normally, anybody that comes off the west coast [trip], that game getting back is a tough game. Our guys came out with energy and ready to play. It was a 48-minute effort tonight and we will need that the rest of the way.”
On the first day of February, the Knicks dropped to 19-28, and were 6 1/2 games behind the Hawks, who were 25-21 at the time.
It terms of paying attention to what the Hawks are doing, Woodson admitted, “We’re watching Atlanta,” yet added, “But it’s about what we do.”
Hardaway, who shot 7-for-10 after being listed as questionable prior to the game, following a slight ankle sprain in Utah on Monday night, concurred. “It starts with our menality,” he said. “We don’t worry about the other team… we worry about ourselves.”
Anthony added, “I always believed… we want to get there… despite this up and down season, it will be a big deal to get in the playoffs. That is our goal and we are fighting right now.”
With just six games left, the Knicks will continue their playoff push on Friday night, when they host Washington, which currently sits in sixth place in the East, 1 1/2 games behind fifth-place Brooklyn and two games ahead of seventh-place Charlotte.