NEW YORK — Should the New York Knicks fail to reach the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs, there will be many disheartening losses to choose from as the reasons why they might come up short.
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal has singlehandedly provided two such possibilities.
Just as he did when he beat the Knicks (33-44) by one point on a driving layup with six seconds to go at Madison Square Garden, on December 16, Beal made a 20-foot jumper with 22.9 seconds left to give Washington (40-36) a thrilling 90-89 win at the Garden on Friday night.
Guard J.R. Smith did all he could to make up for New York’s franchise player, Carmelo Anthony being severely limited due to a strained right shoulder that he hurt in the Knicks’ previous game (a 29-point home win over Brooklyn two nights earlier).
Smith scored a game-high (and season-high) 32 points while attempting just one fewer 3-pointer than his own team record of 17 he tried during a loss in Milwaukee. Back then, he only made five 3s. This time, he made half of the treys he hoisted, and he started 12-for-18 overall.
But Smith missed his last five shots, including a potential game-winning 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left, to seal only the fouth loss in 16 games for the previously surging Knicks, who had played their way back into playoff contention, behind the Atlanta Hawks.
As New York let another game get away, Atlanta (33-42) beat Cleveland by 19 points at home to move one game ahead of the Knicks in hopes of securing the eighth and final postseason berth in the East.
Although Anthony (who didn’t score over the middle two quarters) tried to tough it out, his injured shoulder did more than probalby the Wizards ever would have to keep the league’s reigning scoring champion in check.
“It happened in the Brooklyn game,” said Anthony, who was grimmacing in pain through much of the contest. “Tonight, it was a lingering effect. Throughout the game, there was no strength. Hopefully, I will be alright.”
While Anthony had five assists and eight rebounds, he missed nine of his 14 shots, including all four of his attempts from 3-point range. He also failed to get to the free throw line and finished with almost as many turnovers (nine) as points (10), while scoring about 18 points fewer than his season average.
The nine giveaways were one short of Anthony’s career high and marked only the third time in his illustrious 11-year NBA career that the star forward committed that many micsues.
Yet there was one time in particular that didn’t go down as a turnover that cost Anthony and the Knicks the most. That occured on the final possession when Anthony split the defense and began to drive down the lane, but lost control of the ball, which after a brief scramble, made its way outside the arc.
That’s where Smith could have fired a pass to forward Amar’e Stoudemire (16 points) for a possible game-winning layup, but Smith acknowledged only in retrospect later on, that he didn’t notice Stoudemire being in position for the win.
“I probalby should have dumped it down to Amar’e for the layup, but I didn’t see him,” Smith noted.
On what started the play, Anthony admitted that his injured shoulder affected him.
“I felt like I lost the ball and that was it,” he said. “Maybe from not having the strength and [not] getting the dribble I wanted.”
Even though the Wizards had already clinched a spot in the playoffs, Washington brought more energy and intensity at the start than the home team with its collective backs to the wall.
After jumping out to a 9-4 lead barely more than two minutes into the game, the Wizards used a 9-2 run to lead, 18-9.
New York scored the next eight points to stay close, but Washington responded with the final five points of the opening quarter, to lead, 27-21.
A 15-4 spurt gave the Knicks a 36-31 lead before the Wizards tied the game, 37-37, on a 6-1 run.
Consecutive 3s by Smith (who acored 19 points in the first half) moved New York ahead, 43-37, and the Knicks led 43-39 at halftime. Another Smith 3-pointer started the third quarter, but Washington scored eight of the next 10 points to close to withim 48-47.
The Knicks then took five-point leads on as many occasions before the Wizards scored seven straight points to go up, 62-60.
Scoring seven of the last nine points of the period, New York carried a 67-64 edge into the final quarter. That would seemed to have been of great benefit to the Knicks, who had been 32-9 this season when leading after three quarters.
However, Beal caught fire and scored 13 of his team-high 28 points in the final stanza.
“I wasn’t going to let us lose,” said the talented second-year guard whose alma mater (the Florida Gators) is the favorite to win its third national title on Monday night.
“The beginning of the fourth quarter, that was in our mind,” said Beal, who despite missing seven of eight 3-point attempts, made 11 of his 14 shots from two-point range.
Following Beal’s mindset, Washington ran off the first seven points of the fourth quarter, to lead, 71-67. But Smith capped a 13-6 run with a step-back jumper to put New York on top, 80-77.
Beal scored the next six points to turn that three-point deficit into a three-point lead for the Wizards, with 4:53 left.
An Anthony jumper and two free throws by point guard Ramond Felton (nine points, seven assists, no turnovers) inched the Knicks ahead, 84-83. But after Smith forced a long jumper, point guard John Wall (19 points, game-high nine assists, seven tunrovers) grabbed the rebound and quickly pushed ahead to Beal, who threw down a hard dunk and was fouled by Smith.
“I tried to make him earn two [free throws] but he made a good play,” Smith said.
He also made the ensuing free throw, to complete a three-point play that gave Washington an 86-84 lead, with 2:16 remaining.
Felton then missed a jumper, and Wall doubled the Wizards’ advantage to 88-84 on a floater along the right blocks.
That margin was cut back to two points on an Anthony jumper with 1:33 left, and after Anthony and Wall exhanged turnovers, Anthony threw a crisp cross-court pass to Felton, who drained a left-corner 3-pointer that sent the Garden crowd into a frenzy while putting New York ahead, 89-88, with 33.5 seconds to go.
All that did was set the stage for Beal to disappoint the Knicks again and help the Wizards complete a three-game regular season series sweep over New York.
Had the Knicks pulled out the win, they could have held out hope for one of the next tiebreakers with Atlanta after best conference record (since the previous tiebreaker of head-to-head meetings wouldn’t solve anything, as the Knicks and Hawks split their four-game season series).
Instead, New York no longer has any hope of catching Atlanta via a tiebreaker, which means the Knicks’ one-game deficit is in effect, two games, with five games left to play. The Hawks still have seven games remaining.
Despite their decreased odds of overtaking Atlanta, Anthony and Smith reamined positive as New York will visit the defending champion Miami Heat on Sunday afteroon, before having the next four days off prior to a road game in Toronto next Friday night.
“It makes it extremely hard,” Smith said. “But we put the pressure on ourselves from the beginning of the season to be in this situation. We don’t have any choice but to come out fighting if we really want to make it, and I think we do, so I feel good about it.”
Meanwhile, Stoudemire refelcted on a missed opportunity before sharing in Smith’s optimism.
“It was right there for us to take. We just didn’t take it. We should have won the game. It’s a game that we had in our hands, so we have no excuses now. We have to keep fighting, keep playing hard and see if we can win in Miami.”
Choosing to draw inspiration from the past, Anthony said, “We’ve been up against the wall this whole time… we’ve had some pretty good wins on the road. We wanna keep it up. We’ve got five games left. We wanna try to make this happen.”