NEW YORK — The more the 2015-16 NBA season rolls on, the more we learn — both good and bad — about the New York Knicks and their slow but steady climb back to respectability from their franchise-worst season last year.
What the Knicks (15-18) may become by end of this season is yet to be answered in many ways, with 49 games still to play. But much of what New York might be capable of at its best was on full display during a convincing 108-96 win over the Detroit Pistons (17-15) at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
STOPPING THE BLEEDING DURING A TOUGH STRETCH
Coming home following a season-high-tying four-game losing streak, the last three of which were on the road, the Knicks seemed to be overmatched on paper against one of the NBA’s biggest turnaround teams, as the Pistons arrived in New York with already more than half of the 32 wins they had last year.
That was especially true considering they normally have trouble with talented big men and quick, athletic guards like Detroit’s Andre Drummond and the Pistons’ leading scorer, Reggie Jackson (20.1 points per game).
Things looked as expected early on, with Detroit jumping out to a 20-13 lead after seven minutes, with the Garden crowd uncharacteristically quiet as if it was working off the last effects of a post-holiday hangover.
But the Knicks, clad in their old school uniforms (from 1953-61) showed some grit, in closing to within 26-25 by the end of the opening quarter, leading 50-49 at halftime, opening a 79-72 lead after three periods and building an impressive 18-point lead in the final two minutes.
NO LONGER HOME COURT PUSHOVERS
You only had about a one-in-six chance of seeing New York win on its own court last season, when the Knicks went just 7-34 at MSG to tie Minnesota for fewest home wins in the league.
That probability is 50-50 this season, as New York, in its final home game in the 2015, already surpassed its Garden win total of last year, by evening its home record this season at 8-8.
While that’s far from the pace at which the Knicks would ultimately like to be MSG, New York is no longer a stop where visiting teams can automatically expect to collect a win before moving on to the next destination. That in itself if a big step in the right direction for the Knicks.
BEATING A WINNING TEAM WITH SOLID TEAM PLAY
Extremely patient offense centered around selfless, crisp cutting and passing yielded 54.4 percent shooting (43-for-79), including 50 percent (8-for-16) from 3-point range, 23 assists and only 10 turnovers against Detroit.
While New York has shown a more consistent ability to play that way against losing teams (against which the Knicks are 10-5 this season), it has failed to do so on a regular basis at all against winning teams like the Pistons, even at home.
The Knicks entered the night a mere 4-13 overall, including 2-7 at the Garden, against clubs with winning records. Adding a win to the left side of each of those two dashes is something that New York sorely needed, and the Knicks got it done.
Just as important, New York won for just the second time during the seventh game of an 11-game stretch against nothing but winning teams.
“We knew we had a tough task tonight,” said forward Derrick Williams, who was the difference late with a big fourth quarter. “We know we can play with a lot of teams. We have the mindset going into every game that we can win. When you have that mindset, no matter who you play, we’ve just got to play hard, play aggressive, play team basketball and most of the time, you’ll come out with the win.”
Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who led all scorers with 24 points, added, “It was a total team effort tonight on both ends, especially the defensive end. I think we did a great job of just paying attention to detail… sticking to our schemes, and we made it happen. It was a big win for us tonight.”
CONTRIBUTIONS FROM JUST ABOUT EVERYONE
Maybe it was because the Knicks were playing the Pistons, but for one of the few times this season, New York was pretty much firing on all cylinders.
Getting a rare win against a winning team was enough. But it was the way the Knicks got that was especially encouraging.
New York was one point shy (starting guard Arron Afflalo finished with nine points) of having all five starters in score in double figures, while forward Kyle O’Quinn and Williams played major roles off the bench. O’Quinn sparked the Knicks early, making his first five shots, and Derrick Williams did so late, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter as New York pulled away. Williams showed exceptional energy and aggressiveness, particularly when he dazzled the Garden crowd with a nice cut along the left baseline for a thunderous dunk off of a nice look from Anthony. Moments later, Williams took a feed from Langston Galloway and thrilled the crowd even more with a sensational reverse slam to put the Knicks up, 93-83, with 6:22 left.
“There was more crispness to the movement, but I thought the trust level was a lot higher, head coach Derek Fisher noted. “The ball moved more frequently, in particular, in the third and fourth quarters… and [the players] were excited to play that way. It makes us wonder as coaches why they don’t like to do that all the time.
“A lot of times effort is physical, but at the highest level of performance, it’s [also] mental. So you have to make the effort and the commitment to execute the right way, make the right cut, communicate the right coverages defensively, and do all the things that are required of the best of the best. If we expect to get there one day, then we have to be committed to those things… if we’re truly committed to becoming really successful, we’ll start to do more of these things all the time as opposed to every few games or so.”
FISHER AVOIDED OVERCOACHING
The reason Williams was able to take over the game the way he did was because Derek Fisher, whose choices of whom to play of late as rightfully come into question, showed some growth by dictating the matchups on the floor, rather than allowing Detroit to do the same to New York.
Although the Knicks went unconventionally big down the stretch, with Williams and forward Lance Thomas alongside Anthony up front, Fisher never hesitated with doing so because he knew he had to stay with the hot hand in Williams to get a win.
Similarly, Fisher also doled out 33 minutes to the previously struggling Jose Calderon at point guard, because Calderon — who had 15 points, on 5-of-6 shooting, four assists and no turnovers — had earned that time by playing well earlier in the game.
MELO CONTINUING TO STRIKE A MUCH BETTER BALANCE BETWEEN SHARING AND BEING THE FIRST OPTION
The final shot attempts won’t show it — with Anthony taking 24 shots (making 11) and no other Knick reaching double figures in shot attempts — but the Knicks’ top star also led his team in assists, with six (the 12th time he’s done so this season), and often passed up shots he might have taken last season and in years past, while showing more trust in his current group of teammates.
As a result, Anthony, who has posted six or more assists six times this season, is already more than halfway to reaching his career-high of the 11 times he’s accomplished that same feat in a single season.
THE KNICKS CAN (LITERALLY) FINISH BIG IF THEY HAVE TO
Although the Knicks won’t always go as big as they did in the fourth quarter against Detroit, it was refreshing to see that they could if they have to again, using the win over the Pistons as a reference point.
“That’s why we created the roster the way it is,” Fisher said. “But guys have to go out and perform in a way that will allow me [to have more lineup options].”
Anthony added, “It worked tonight… I’m not saying every night it’s going to be like tonight, but tonight it worked for us. We was real big from the 2 (shooting guard spot) on down.”
ANOTHER DIFFERENT OPTION STEPS UP IN CRUNCH TIME
It was also good for the Knicks to know that if Kristaps Porzingis (10 points) isn’t available in the fourth quarter at other times, someone else like Williams, or Thomas (who has shown the same before) can step up to help Anthony down the stretch.
“It was fourth-quarter time,” Williams said. “I just wanted to be aggressive, get to the line. That’s what I do best, attacking and creating mismatches.”
LOPEZ AND THE REST OF THE KNICKS’ DEFENSE BOUNCING BACK AGAINST A TOP BIG MAN
Eight days after center Robin Lopez and Fisher (for leaving Lopez in) were lambasted for allowing Nikola Vucevic to pretty much do as he pleased during a 107-99 Orlando Magic victory at the Garden, Lopez and his teammates did as good of a job as anyone has all season on 20-20 man Andre Drummond (he of the five 20-20 games this year, while the rest of the NBA has one combined such game, courtesy of Dwight Howard).
Averaging 18 points and 16 rebounds this season, Drummond, who was last season’s NBA rebound champion with 13.5 boards per game, is trying to become the first player in the league to average at least 16 rebounds per game since Dennis Rodman did so in 1996-97.
Consider Lopez unimpressed. Or at least unintimidated.
With 11 points and seven rebounds himself, to go along with a season-high six blocked shots (one shy of a career-high) and good low post defense, Lopez, along with the help of several others, neutralized the 13 points and nine rebounds totaled by Drummond.
Frustrated head coach Stan Van Gundy said, “Lopez blocked six shots, You know why? He played hard. Robin Lopez was a major factor in the game… he played a lot harder [than our bigs].”
New York also slowed down Jackson, who despite dishing out a game-high nine assists, with only three turnovers, had to work hard for each of his 17 points, on just 6-of-17 shooting.
NOT LETTING THE SCORING GO TO WASTE
Reaching triple digits for just the 13th time in 33 games this season, the Knicks improved to 11-2 when scoring at least 100 points. Now they just have to figure out how to turn around their awful 4-16 mark when being held under 100 points, like they were during every game of the four-game losing skid they just stopped. Either that, or New York will have to keep finding enough offense to get to at least 100, when the Knicks thus far, have been very hard to beat.
The Knicks won’t play again until the calendar turns to 2016, when they’ll play at Chicago on New Year’s night before concluding a difficult stretch with a home-and-home against Atlanta before continuing a southern trip to Miami and San Antonio.
For one night against Detroit, though, New York looked as good as it has all season. The trick now is to carry over the final effort of 2015 into 2016 on a far more consistent basis.
“I think, [tonight], everything clicked a little bit better,” said Calderon. “I think, [tonight], we found the way we want to play and hopefully we can build from this win.”