NEW YORK — In the standings, the New York Knicks merely tied the Philadelphia 76ers to avoid keeping the worst record in the Eastern Conference all by themselves on Wednesday night.
Yet in a far more recent time frame, they continued a hot start to the second half of their season after a disastrous first half.
As the NBA’s reigning scoring champion, forward Kevin Durant, missed his second straight game with a sprained toe, the Knicks (9-37) overcame 40 points from Durant’s primary sidekick, guard Russell Westbrook, to win for the fourth time in five games, during a 100-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder (23-23) at Madison Square Garden.
While only two other players — reserve guard Reggie Jackson (13 points) and starting forward Serge Ibaka (10 points and 10 rebounds) — complemented Westbrook in double figures, New York’s star forward, Carmelo Anthony scored a team-high 31 points, and once again received help from the Knicks’ surprisingly adept youth movement, as recent D-League call-up Langston Galloway scored 18 points, reserve forward Lance Thomas had a career-high 17 points, reserve guard Tim Hardaway Jr. added 14 points and center Jason Smith chipped in 11 points and six assists.
Along with Anthony and forward Lou Admundson (who scored five points while making a team-record fifth start for a player on a 10-day contract) grabbing 10 rebounds apiece, Smith also pulled down a game-high 11 boards to post his first double-double of the season.
Rookie head coach Derek Fisher, who ended a solid 18-year playing career in the NBA with the Thunder last year, said afterwards, “Our record is what it is, but these guys are still bringing a professional attitude and mindset to work every day… even in in the face of our struggles, they’re continuing to bind together as a team.”
Galloway added, “We growing as a team,” while noting that the team is “playing with passion” since he, Thomas and Admundson have had the opportunity to infuse a previously lost club with some much-needed energy.
Impressing the Knicks so much while playing on consecutive 10-day contracts, Galloway was extended earlier this week for the rest of the season. “It’s going to help me grow as a player, and to just continue to work hard and to get better each day, and that’s what I’m trying to build on each day,” he said.
Although, Galloway also admitted that he “did not” expect to stay with the main club for this long after his brief stint with the Westchester Knicks. “Just believing in myself and having confidence,” he said, is what has keyed his success as an unexpected NBA rookie this season.
At the other end of that spectrum is Anthony, one of the NBA’s sixth-youngest to reach 20,000 career points earlier this year, before being voted to his eighth All-Star Game (to be played at MSG on Feb. 15) this month.
Like Fisher, Anthony had high praise for Galloway, saying, “Langston can play. I don’t think a lot of people know about him. He can play basketball. Even going back to training camp and preseason, we knew he could play basketball. He is great at getting in the paint and scoring the basketball.”
Recalling when ex-Knick Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere and took the league by storm, he said Galloway’s fearlessness and tremendous confidence as a young player in the league reminded him of the “Linsanity” phenomenon which generated a global following in 2012.
Echoing Fisher’s words some more on a team level, Anthony said, “Regardless of what our record is, we are going out there and doing our best on the basketball court.”
Of course, that could displease some Knicks fans, who following their team’s franchise-worst 5-36 first half of the season, were hoping for a freefall that would guarantee a top-three draft pick and a shot at the top overall selection in June.
Yet for now, it’s hard to tell Anthony and his new, extremely hungry, young supplements to do anything but what they’ve been doing — competing very hard and trying to win.
That type of effort showed up throughout the game, and especially down the stretch.
Outscored 38-18 in the paint through over the first three quarters, New York played Oklahoma City even (4-4) in that area during the final period. The Knicks also made nine of 12 free throws to key a 32-point fourth quarter, after visiting the foul line very infrequently (going 3-for-5) before the final stanza.
In a game featuring some early swings back and forth, New York scored the first four points before Oklahoma City answered with the next five, to trigger a 9-2 run that put the Thunder up, 9-6. The Knicks responded with an 11-2 spurt, to lead, 17-11, before Thunder closed the opening quarter on an 8-3 run, to get within 20-19.
Extending that stretch to 21-7, Oklahoma City scored six straight points after Thomas started the second period with a jumper, and following another Thomas jumper, the Thunder ran off an additional seven points in a row, to take their biggest lead, 32-24.
However, five points each from Anthony and Galloway capped a 13-4 burst that moved New York back in front, 37-36.
After starting guard Jose Calderon (four points and a game-eight assists, with only one turnover) kept the Knicks within 42-41 on a short jumper, a leaning, forced, pull-up 3-pointer by Westbrook with 20 seconds left on the shot clock ended a 9-4 run and gave the Thunder a 45-41 edge, before an Anthony layup just before halftime cut the margin to 45-43.
Behind five more points from Anthony, New York started the second half on an 7-3 spurt, to take a 50-48 advantage, but Westbrook (who made all 12 of his free throws, but seven of his nine fourth-quarter field goal attempts after going 11-for-21 from the floor) scored the next six points on a couple of 3-point plays, to trigger a personal 11-5 run that moved his team on top, 59-55.
Sitting out the final 3:01 of the third period, and the first 3:18 of the fourth, Westbrook didn’t score again until Oklahoma City trailed by nine points midway through the final quarter.
Mid-range jumpers by Thomas and Anthony tied the game at 61-all, before reserve forward Dion Waiters (eight points) and Hardaway traded 3-pointers to close the third quarter with the Knicks barely ahead, 68-67.
Two free throws by Hardaway and a long jumper from Thomas moved the lead to 74-71, with 8:42 left, and consecutive treys from Hardaway and another Thomas jumper pushed New York’s advantage to 82-73, with 6:03 remaining.
Galloway committed an ill-advised reach-in foul on Westbrook, which led to three free throws and ultimately seven straight points from the star point guard, to trim the Thunder’s deficit to just 82-80.
But making amends for that mistake, Galloway sank a 20-foot jumper to spark a run of 10 consecutive points that ended with four points from Anthony and a Hardaway 3-pointer which swelled New York’s lead to 92-80, with 2:34 to play.
A Jackson 3-pointer capped a 10-3 spurt that made things interesting, at 95-90, with 1:03 left, but a Thomas jumper from along the right blocks made it 97-90 and effectively ended the Thunder’s hopes, as the Knicks never led by fewer than six points the rest of the way.
Victorious for a third straight time at home, New York during that stretch, matched its home win total over its first 20 games at the Garden this year, during which the Knicks were a dismal 3-17 at MSG.
They still have to figure things out on the road, however, where they have lost nine games in a row, and haven’t won away from home since getting a victory in Boston on December 12. A quick turnaround with a game in Indiana on Thursday night will provide New York that chance before the Knicks look for their fourth straight home win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Super Bowl Sunday.