NEW YORK — A lot has changed since New York Knicks shocked the Cleveland Cavaliers and spoiled LeBron James’ homecoming on the second night of the season.
On Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, Cleveland (10-7) paid New York (4-16) back with a 90-87 victory that simultaneously continued the Cavaliers’ turnaround and the Knicks’ downward spiral toward the bottom of the league.
Only Detroit (3-16) and Philadelphia (1-17) — which until Wednesday night, was one loss shy of equaling the most of any team to start an NBA season — are worse than New York, which failed to score over the final 3:05 and is off to the worst start in its 68-year history.
Cleveland’s fifth straight win and New York’s sixth consecutive loss was supposed to feature an intriguing battle on national television between the teams’ two best players, James and Carmelo Anthony. But emerging star Kyrie Irving outdid them both, as James swapped roles with his point guard.
“I took over the point guard duties as far as distributing the ball,” James said. “And [Irving] took over the scoring. We needed it.”
Accepting the unlikely role of facilitator, James dished out a game-high 12 assists (all but seven of the Cavaliers’ total of 19), as Irving made more shots (12) and scored nine more points (37) than James (19 points on seven made field goals) and Anthony (season-low nine points on four made field goals) combined, while taking half the number of shots (18) as James (17) and Anthony (19) together.
“Bron did a heck of a job tonight of just finding me and setting great ball screens for me,” Irving said. “[Center Anderson Varejao] and [forward] Tristan [Thompson] and everybody just kept feeding me. I felt like I was in great rhythm.”
At the other end of that spectrum, was Anthony, who said, “One of those nights. Same looks I get every game. I didn’t make them tonight. I wasn’t there for my team offensively.”
Guarded closely by James, Anthony missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer 8½ seconds after Irving made a nice drive along the left blocks to extend the slimmest of leads to three points, with 10 seconds left.
After a close first quarter (featuring eight lead changes and five ties) ended with the Cavaliers ahead, 25-24, New York scored 13 of the first 15 points of the second period (with Anthony and James on the bench), to lead, 37-27.
Eleven of those points came from second-year reserve guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who led the Knicks with 20 points in 21½ minutes, after making four of five 3-pointers in the second quarter.
A three-point play by starting forward Quincy Acy (career-high 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting) gave New York its biggest lead, 46-35, but seven points from Irving, including a 3-pointer just before halftime, helped Cleveland close the half on a 9-2 run, to get within 53-50 by intermission.
An Acy jumper off of an assist by Anthony pushed the Knicks’ lead to 59-52 in the third quarter, but nine points from Irving keyed a 14-5 stretch to that put the Cavaliers up, 66-64.
However, just as Cleveland did to end the first half, New York ended the third period on a 9-2 spurt, go back up, 73-68.
The Knicks twice went up by seven points in the final quarter, but the Cavaliers chipped away and took the lead for good, 86-85, with 3:54 left, on a James 3-pointer, off of an assist by Irving.
An Irving steal led to a breakaway dunk for James, to make it 88-85, before a layup by starting center (and usual forward) Amar’e Stoudemire (18 points, nine rebounds) brought New York to within 88-87.
With 2:19 left, Anthony drove to the hoop for an apparent go-ahead layup, but was whistled for a questionable travelling violation, to account for the Knicks 21st and final turnover.
Neither team was able to score over the next couple of minutes, as Anthony missed an attempt at tip-in.
That set the stage for Irving to blow by starting shooting guard Iman Shumpert (who was held scoreless on four shots in 25 minutes) before floating a nice teardrop layup over the outstretched right hand of Stoudemire.
“[Head coach David Blatt] id a great job of drawing up the play and my teammates trust me enough, and the coaching staff trusts me enough to clear out one side and give me a chance to get the best shot possible for our team and make a play. I was thankful that they instilled that confidence in me to have the ball at the end of the game.”
Following a time out, Anthony created a bit of separation driving around James on the right wing, but just as what occurred when he missed a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute, with the Knicks down three points each, time in their previous game (at home, against Brooklyn), Anthony was off target.
Shumpert alertly tapped the ball out to the left wing for a wide open 3-pointer that was made by starting point guard Jose Calderon, but that shot was released about one second after the final buzzer.
Averaging a league-low 17.5 free throw attempts per game, New York took just six foul shots (making five) while Cleveland went 21-for-26 at the free throw line.
Back on October 30, the Knicks rebounded from a 24-point, season-opening home loss to Chicago with a 95-90 win in Cleveland. The game was the Cavaliers’ season opener and kicked off James’ second stint with Cleveland, where James spent the first seven years of his career without an NBA title, before defecting to the Miami Heat, which James helped lead to four straight NBA Finals appearances and a pair of league championships.
James is now imparting what he took from those experiences to try to turn the Cavaliers into winners.
“I bring up the times that I had [with Miami], as part of the leader I am, bringing up the past, [things] that could help our team succeed in the future,” he said. “It’s not about what you practice, it’s what you preach as well. You’ve got to go out and do it. You gotta talk it, but you’ve got to walk it as well. As a leader of this group, I come to work every single day, ready to get better, and these guys just follow my lead. It’s always great to be around a group of guys that’s willing to learn, that want to learn, to get better.”
As for Anthony and the team he’s trying to lead, the Knicks will seek to avoid their second seven-game losing streak when they travel to face the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night. New York defeated Charlotte at home, one game after its win in Cleveland, to mark the only time the Knicks have been over .500 (2-1) this season.