NEW YORK — In the end, ESPN’S SCHOENE projection system had it exactly right.
Most who heard of the the system’s preseason prediction of 37 wins for the New York Knicks this year, coming off of New York’s 54-win, Atlantic Division-winning campaign last season, mocked the idea that the Knicks (37-45) would fall so far.
Several Knicks players and head coach Mike Woodson casually dismissed the idea that their team could have a year like that, and team owner James Dolan said he expected an NBA title just before New York opened the season in late October.
Yet for much of the year, it could have actually been worse.
Following a 3-13 start, which yielded a low watermark record of 21-40, it took a 16-5 finish and winning their last four games just for the Knicks to make the SCHOENE prognostication accurate.
The last of those victories came as New York showed some fight against the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors (48-34), to win its season finale, 95-92, at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
With three starters (Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton) out, other Knicks stepped up to help New York rally from a 21-point deficit.
Initially point guard Kyle Lowry scored 17 of his team-high 22 points, while making as many shots (six) in eight attempts as the Knicks did in 23 tries during an opening quarter that ended with Toronto in front, 28-21.
That advantage balloned to as much as 57-36, following an 11-3 run, but guards J.R. Smith (game-high 30 points on torrid 13-of-19 shooting) and Toure’ Murry (15 points) split the final eight points of the first half to draw New York withn 57-44 by haltime.
A 12-2 spurt at the start of the third quarter extended an overall Knicks run to 20-2 and closed the gap to just 59-58.
Moments later, with the Raptors in front, 61-58, just past the midpoint of the period, the Charlotte Bobcats defeated the Chicago Bulls at home, to lock Chicago into the four seed and simultaneously clinch the three seed for Toronto in the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs.
Seeing that result, head coach Dwane Casey elected to rest his entire starting five throughout the fourth quarter, for a team that supplanted New York as Atlantic Division champions, in a year that the Raptors were supposed to be lottery-bound while the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets (who ended up as the six seed) were thought to be the only true contenders for the Atlantic title.
Toronto will now have the homecourt advanteage against Brooklyn in the first round of the East playoffs.
“The mindset was to make sure our guys didn’t get hurt and get rest and we did that,” Casey said.
Falling behind, 65-60, the Knicks went on an 11-5 run an took a 71-70 lead before the game entered the final quarter tied, 74-74.
Forward Steve Novak, who played a key role in the Knicks’ success as a 3-point specialist last year, made his only shot (a 20-footer) to cap an 8-3 run and give the Raptors an 85-81 edge with 6:27 left, but New York later took control with a 13-5 spurt.
Smith tied the game, 90-90, on a dunk with 2:14 left, and tried to put the Knicks ahead on a driving layup.
He missed, but center Cole Aldrich (13 points, game-highs of 16 rebounds and five blocks), grabbed one of his game-best seven offensive boards and followed Smith’s attempt with a putback dunk to put New York up for good, 92-90, with 1:23 remaining.
A right baseline jumper by Smith extended the lead to 94-90, with 21.8 seconds to go, but reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough (11 points, team-best nine rebounds) scored on a putback of his own, to cut the margin in half, 94-92, with 13.9 seconds left.
Hansbrough was also fouled, but he missed the free throw.
Novak grabbed the offensive rebound, but Dwight Buycks (two points on just 1-of-7 shooting) missed a 3-pointer. That shot caromed out of bounds off of the Knicks, to give the Raptors another chance with 5.5 seconds to play, but Smith stole the inbounds pass and was fouled. He made the first free throw and missed the second, to leave the door open for Toronto with 1.6 seconds left.
However, the Raptors had trouble inbounding in the backcourt and ended up with a pass going back toward their own basket, to reserve guard Nando de Colo (12 points), who raced across midcourt only to fire a long 3-pointer that was short, off the front of the rim, and which came slightly after the final buzzer anyway.
Rookie Tim Hardaway, Jr., who played in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend, as one of the few bright spots for New York this season, had 18 points.
Taking a pragmatic approach to the season, Hardaway said of missing the playoffs, “It is terrible and feels bad but it is a learning experience. You have to learn from it and get stronger.”
Although the Knicks had separate winning streaks of four games twice, five games and eight games, they were only 16-45 in all other contests this season, while enduring losing streaks of five, seven and nine games.
“We held ourselves to huge expectations and had big shoes to fill,” said Smith, last year’s NBA Sixth Man of the Year, who missed the first five games of this season on a drug-related suspension. “Unfortunately, we didn’t fill them the way we wanted to. Hopefully, we take that as motivation for next year.”
New York finished one game behind the team head coach Woodson led before the Knicks — the Atlanta Hawks (which also held the tiebreaker over New York) — for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
Woodson pointed to his team’s inability to overcome injuries and adversity this season the way it did last year.
“As the injuries piled up, all you can do is relate to the year before when we had injuries,” he said. “You figure you plug a guy in and get it done. We were never able to get that accomplished. It had become a struggle early on… the last month, month-and-a-half, we played Knicks basketball like it should be played, so I am excited about that.”
Speaking in that tone, Woodson sounded ready to get back to work this summer and build on the momentum of a solid finish to an otherwise underachieving and disappointing season.
There’s one major problem with that, however. Woodson had been on the hot seat all season, and there’s a slim chance at best that new team president Phil Jackson will elect to retain him in favor of moving on to a different head coach in the offseason.
While beating the Raptors gave the Knicks a better home record (19-22) than road mark (18-23), what hurt New York the most with failing to catch the Hawks, and other teams above them in the East standings, was taking too much for granted at the Garden this season, especially against inferior competition.
The Knicks had one such loss of note at MSG in each month, from December through March.
In December, Boston (25-57), a team the Knicks would later rout twice, blew New York out by 41 points, following consecutive Knick wins by 30 and 38 points over Brooklyn and Orlando, respectively.
The following month, Philadelphia (19-63) beat the Knicks by four points. In January, Sacramento (28-54) defeated New York in overtime. And last month, the Knicks coughed up a 17-point lead in a six-point loss to Cleveland (33-49).
“I think we got ahead of ourselves during the season and overlooked games,” Smith admitted. “We are supposed to grind it out.”
If Smith stays, he and/or the rest of the Knicks whom Jackson choose to keep will have plenty of time to learn that lesson as they watch the playoffs television, during the only time in Anthony’s 11-year NBA career (the last 3-plus years with the New York) that the Knicks franchise player missed the postseason.
Anthony is a free agent and could opt to leave New York this summer. He’s the first domino around which all successive player moves in restructuring the Knicks’ roster will be based. J
Jackson, a league-record 11-time champion as a head coach, but a rookie as an NBA executive, will have to figure that move out first, after the Knicks signed forward Lamar Odom earlier in the day. New York doesn’t have much flexibility in terms of salary cap space until the following summer, in 2015, when Jackson can make some serious moves to try to get the Knicks back on track.