NEW YORK — At right around .500, the New York Knicks’ 21-22 season record is a vast improvement over where that mark ended up last year (17-65). But it’s also very representative of the Knicks’ potential for growth tempered by the growing pains of learning how to win more often.
Both were very much on display during a rollercoaster ride of a game in the Knicks’ annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day game at Madison Square Garden on Monday afternoon.
On one hand, New York did exactly what it needed to in building an 18-point lead over the NBA’s worst team, the Philadelphia 76ers (5-38). On the other hand, the Knicks managed to cough up that lead, were narrowly close to losing in regulation and were in some trouble during overtime. But then, from a positive standpoint, New York, with its best player limited due to a sore ankle and its star rookie sensation benched late (due to his own injury), was able to rally from a four-point deficit in overtime to force a second extra session and avoid what would have been the Knicks’ worst loss of the season.
Yes, in end, New York’s 119-113 double overtime win, pushing the Knicks’ all-time record in MLK Day games to 20-10 (including 20-9 at MSG) — its second straight victory on the holiday after losing its previous four games on MLK Day — had a lot for Knicks fans to like and yet a lot from which their team can learn.
From one frame of reference, star forward Carmelo Anthony was able to play through 49 pain-riddled minutes in his first game back after missing New York’s two previous contests with a sore ankle, and saved the Knicks with a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds; and he hit a big shot to give New York some needed separation late in the second overtime, and finished with a team-high seven assists and just as many rebounds. However, he also missed 21 of his game-high 28 shots (matched by Philadelphia guard Ish Smith, who only made eight field goal attempts himself, while dishing out a game-high 16 assists with only four turnovers).
Smith’s play was yet another dual-side coin for the Knicks, who while forcing Smith to miss often, were unable to keep the quick and crafty 6-foot, 175-pound guard from getting into the paint at will and (when not forcing up his own tough shot) creating for others.
Although New York couldn’t, on its own floor, easily close out a team with a 2-22 road record this season, after building a big lead, there were still the positives of rookie forward Kristaps Porzingis’ 16th double-double (16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 12 rebounds) of the season, center Robin Lopez’s very similar 16 points (on 6-of-11 shooting) and 10 rebounds, guard Arron Afflalo’s team high 25 points (on 8-of-17 shooting) — including 19 after halftime — and key contributions late in the game, off the bench, from forward Lance Thomas (12 points) and guard Langston Galloway, who scored eight points and had three assists while making all four of his shots from the floor.
And while the Knicks allowed 33 fourth-quarter points, and were outscored by 16 points in the fourth quarter until Anthony’s game-saving shot at the end of the period, New York held Philadelphia to nearly as many (34 points) over the middle two quarters (18 in the second and 16 in the third) and ultimately got the stops it had to after Anthony’s big shot, and again in the second overtime, when the Knicks absolutely had to have them.
But among all of the various positives and negatives that were so symbolic of the Knicks’ inconsistent ups and downs so far this season, there was one principle area that remained as constant as it has been all season for New York.
Free throw shooting, something which no team has been better at than the Knicks, who are shooting a league-leading 81.7 percent while the rest of the NBA is below 80 percent.
Perhaps more than anything — as much as Anthony’s clutch 3-pointer, which tied the game 96-96, with 3.4 seconds left in regulation — foul shooting is what saved the Knicks from an embarrassing loss (even if January’s 76ers, which have two wins, including a season-best 25-point victory over Portland, at home, in their prior game and have as Anthony, Galloway and New York head coach Derek Fisher all attested to, played with a much quicker pace and a lot better overall than Philadelphia’s season record would indicate).
Surpassing even their own season NBA-best percentage, the Knicks coolly sank 25 of 30 shots (83.3 percent) at the line, where they scored seven of their 11 points in the first overtime. That included 2 of 2 from their worst free throw shooter, seldom-used reserve forward Lou Amundson, who at a paltry 50 percent for the year, is the only Knick under 73 percent at the line.
One main reason that Anthony was even given a chance to send the game to overtime, as New York struggled (just 7-for-22) and couldn’t stop Philadelphia enough (11-for-21) from the field in the fourth quarter, was that the Knicks made four of their five free throws in the period.
In sharp contrast, one of the biggest reasons the 76ers were unable to finish the task of getting anything more than a moral victory after they came all the way back from their huge hole against New York was that they were an awful 52 percent (13-for-25) from the foul line, including just 7-for-15 in the fourth quarter.
“[Getting to the line] was a big part of [our] late-game strategy… trusting that all five guys out there are good free throw shooters and you don’t have to worry about who catches the ball if they get fouled,” Fisher said. “It just speaks to the daily work that goes into something as simple as free throw shooting. It’s [often] been the difference between winning and losing [for us]. We’re playing [a lot of] close games and we’re [about] a .500 team, it’s definitely helped us squeeze out a handful more [wins].”
Regardless of the Philadelphia’s record, Fisher was happy with the win, but noted his team’s continuing, sometimes elusive search for more consistency, and in a case like losing all of a 76-58 lead with 1:13 left in the third quarter, the need to maintain the same sense of urgency for 48 minutes (or more, if necessary).
“[In the] fourth quarter, still, our guys coming off the bench needed to understand the importance of every possession,” Fisher said.
“In pro sports, any time you figure out a way to win [it’s a positive],” Fisher said. “You obviously want to learn from everything that happens out there, but you can’t be upset about winning when you’re playing against the best players in the world, every single night, basically.
“If your team figures out a way to fight [through] injuries, and [you’re] up, down, whatever happens, and you figure out a way to win, you take that [as a big positive], but you still have to learn so that you can try to get better.”
Equally thankful for the win, Porzingis had a slightly more critical take on the Knicks blowing losing their big lead, while saying he should be okay for New York’s next game, on Wednesday, at home against Utah.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” he said. “I guess I stepped wrong or something and my foot is a little bruised now. It’s not too bad… I didn’t take any x-rays… it’s not too serious… I expect to be back on Wednesday (at home, against Utah). I’m young, I recover quick.
“There’s a lot of bad in the win. It’s a good win, we’ll take the win, but there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve got to look at and we’ve got to learn from that. But I like that mentally, we were able to play through all of the bad moments of the game and we were able to win the game at the end.
“It’s extremely hard. I always want to be out there on the floor. [It’s tough] especially to sit there on the sideline knowing that I might help the team in those situations, but I’m really proud of the team. Everybody made big plays at the end, and [that] without me, we were able to win the game.”
Not wanting to gamble with any further damage to Knicks’ future, both in this season and well beyond, Fisher said, “As we got into the overtimes, it wasn’t worth the risk at this point in the season to have [Porzingis] out there for another five or another 10 minutes.”
Still dealing with his own injury, Anthony admitted that he thought things were safe with New York comfortably in front.
“That was kind of a moment where I [thought] I could decompress a little bit and then I looked up [at the scoreboard later] and the lead just kept getting cut and cut and cut, so at that point I knew it was going to be a longer [day],” he said.
Crediting the 76ers more than maligning his own team, Anthony added, “A win is a win. We’ll take it regardless of how we did it. Philly’s not playing the same way they played earlier in the season… they’re playing a lot different than the way they were playing earlier in the year.
I don’t think we took them lightly [when we were up by 18], but the way they play [now as opposed to before], they have a chance to stay in games. They’ve been improving that [lately]… regardless of their record, they’re playing a lot different now.”
Nevertheless, an 18-point lead against a 5-win team at home, win 13 minutes left in regulation, is something that should be put away a lot easier than needing Anthony’s late heroics and two overtimes before barely pulling out a win.
It’s all part of the roughly .500 Knicks toeing the line between winning and losing as they continue to learn how to win more often.
But in the meantime, it’s a good thing that when it comes to going to the line, that New York keeps doing that better than anyone else.