NEW YORK — The New York Knicks have made some good strides since their franchise-worst, 17-win season last year. Aside from a few key holdovers, they largely overhauled their roster; their head coach Derek Fisher has showed some growth in his second year (even if on a slow and limited basis); star forward Carmelo Anthony has adapted his game to become more of a team player, exhibiting greater trust in his teammates (both new and old); New York’s defense has improved; and although the Knicks (23-27) keep slipping a few games under .500 each time they reach that mark, they’re winning and competing a lot more than they did a year ago.
Yet all it took was one visit by the NBA’s best team to return New York right back to what it used to be on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
Maybe not for the first 14 minutes, when the Golden State Warriors (44-4), after scoring the first seven points against the Knicks, allowed the next 14, scored a season-low 18 points in the opening quarter and then gave up the first four points of the second period, to trail, 24-18. At that point, Golden State had more turnovers (nine) than made field goals (seven) before New York went up by as much as 27-20.
However, then reality set in, as the Warriors simultaneously reminded everyone why they’re the defending NBA champions — who are off to the best 48-game start in league history — and what the pre-revamped Knicks looked like over the prior two seasons.
Golden State got its next eight field goals without committing a turnover and finished the final 10 minutes of the half with 14 field goals and two turnovers. And even with its reigning league Most Valuable Player — the game’s best shooter, Stephen Curry — not taking a single shot in the second quarter, the Warriors still doubled their uncharacteristic 7-for-17 (41.2 percent) first-quarter shooting with sizzling 14-of-17 (82.4 percent) shooting in the next period, to lead at halftime, 55-49.
Things took off from there for Golden State, en route to an easy 116-95 victory, even with little help from the league’s leading scorer.
That, of course, would be Curry, who while dribbling in the fourth quarter, received an accidental gash in his forehead from Anthony’s fingernails. He eventually finished with 13 points (nearly 17 below his season average of 29.7 entering the game and his third-lowest scoring output of the season) while being held to his worst shooting percentage (29.4 percent) of the season, as he missed 12 of 17 shots, including eight of 11 from 3-point range.
But while Curry followed his shot-less and scoreless second quarter with just two points on 1-of-6 shooting in the third period, the rest of the Warriors went 11-for-15 (73.3 percent) in the third quarter to open a commanding 82-65 lead going into the fourth period, when Golden State led by as much as 25 points in the final three minutes.
Propelling the Warriors over the middle two quarters was Curry’s other half of the Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson, who made 14 shots for a third straight game — a span in which he’s shot a scintillating 65.6 percent (42-for-64).
Completely contrary to Curry’s night, Thompson (who scored 34 points) had his best shooting game of the season (77.8 percent), making 14 of 18 shots from the floor, including 5 of 6 from 3-point range. Thompson was nearly automatic, with most of his damage coming while Curry was quiet. He had 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the second quarter, followed by another 12 points (on 5-of-6 shooting) in the third period. All of that came after Thompson went scoreless on only one shot attempt in the first quarter.
“That’s the advantage we have with our back court,” head coach Steve Kerr said of Curry and Thompson (who by himself, outscored the Knicks’ starting back court of Arron Afflalo (five points) and Langston Galloway (nine points) by 20 points, while taking seven fewer shots. “If one guy’s not shooting well, the other guy is. It’s very rare that both of [them] have poor shooting nights [in the same game].”
Kerr, who recently returned to the team after missing considerable time at the start of the season, added, “I was thrilled that the team was doing well, but at the same time, I was so disappointed to be missing out on what was happening.
“We’re well aware that this is uncommon to have a group like this, to have a run like this, to be coming off a title, playing the way we are [this season]. This is kind of an era that we should relish and take advantage of because it’s not always going to be like this. I missed all that when I was out.”
One might think Golden State wouldn’t be all that intense after a bad first quarter, coasting to a mark of 40 games over .500 on the last night of January, but as he showed his team and New York early in the game, Kerr still demands more.
“Coach Kerr got on us pretty good,” Thompson said. “He had a terrible clipboard throw… he was very animated on the sideline and we responded well to it. He wanted us to pick it up because we only come to the Garden one time a year.”
Forward Draymond Green — who with 20 points on perfect 9-of-9 shooting, 10 rebounds, and a game-high 10 assists, posted the NBA’s first triple double with a minimum of five field goal attempts since Wilt Chamberlain did the same in 1967 — admitted of his coach, “He broke the clipboard and then threw it. It was probably well-deserved.”
So was that something that happens infrequently with a team as great as the Warriors?
“You’d be surprised.” Green said. “[Kerr] expects perfection and we’re never there.”
If that’s the case for Kerr and Golden State, how much more so for Fisher and New York?
Yet despite the good start, the Knicks, for one of the rare times this season, ultimately reverted to their former selves — a version of their team that they’ve mostly been able to shed this year — during the Warriors’ 11th win of at least 20 points this season.
In contrast to New York’s stagnation as the game wore on, Golden State posted at least 30 assists for a seventh straight game.
“That’s what we want to do,” Kerr said. “We want to move the ball. We’ve got a very skilled roster… they’re committed to each other, they’re unselfish, so we feel like we should get 30 assists.”
Curry added, “It’s mental focus, just being locked in. The first quarter tonight, we weren’t locked in, [then] we found it… that’s our biggest challenge, [to] stick with what makes us successful.”
Earlier, Green said, “What makes this team special is that we share the ball. We don’t care about stats. Whoever is scoring that night is scoring… it’s not [about] chasing stats.”
Meanwhile, not only was New York’s defense much poorer than it normally has been this season — while allowing 98 points on 62.5-percent shooting over the final three quarters — but its offense also looked like the old, Anthony-led isolation Knicks of the prior two years.
Anthony, who has made a concerted effort to be more selfless, while averaging a career-high 4.1 assists and 7.6 rebounds (tied for the second most in his career) per game this season, led New York with 24 points while making nearly half (eight) of his 18 shots. He also grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds.
But he also dished out just two assists — only the 11th time in his 44 games this season he’s had fewer than three assists, as his teammates shot a combined 34.7 percent (25-for-72), while they too often, fell back into the bad habits of those who are still (and no longer with) New York over the previous two years, as they watched and waited for their star to do something.
That’s not what helped the Knicks make progress this year, and perhaps seeing first-hand the way the Warriors — who are on pace to win what would be a record 75 games this season — continue to make history, following the best start to a season ever (24-0) and now the same after twice as many games this season, New York can reevaluate how important sticking to basic, fundamental principles is at each end of the floor.
The Knicks had largely done a good job of that this season against other elite NBA teams, even in tough losses, like in a one-point defeat in San Antonio, and in letting a game get away late during an overtime home loss in which New York mostly outplayed Oklahoma City.
But against the Warriors, the Knicks showed the same old troubling signs from Fisher’s rookie year and from the season before he arrived in New York.
That is where they again can learn a lot from the NBA champs.
Backup center Festus Ezeli (who is averaging 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 17.8 minutes this season) said before the game, “It’s incredible how much everybody got better, but that speaks to the character of this team. We are not satisfied with a championship. We want more… when we came in [during] training camp, we were hungry.
“It felt amazing to win a championship. There’s kind of a euphoria that comes with winning, and when you win a championship, you just feel like you’re on top of the world. You don’t feel that way after that. You feel a drop-off. We all want to feel that high again. We want to feel that euphoria from winning a championship again, and I think that’s what makes us hungry.
“You should have seen some of the text messages we were having back and forth in our group chat, just talking about, ‘Man, we can’t wait to get back in the gym, or wait to get back to practice [in the summer].’
“With these guys, you can see the hunger every night. It’s a special team to be around for sure.”
Again, if even Golden State can approach the game that way after what it has already achieved, how much more should New York, every time out?
While the Warriors currently project to exceed the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ all-time best regular season record of 72-10, and would love to make history in that regard, they have simultaneously kept their record-setting season in its proper perspective.
“[Surpassing the Bulls] was not the goal coming into this year,” Ezeli said. “Our goal was to win [another] championship, and if [winning more than 72 regular season games is] something that we can accomplish along the way, it’s very special. I think it’s a huge accomplishment to get, but that’s not the goal for the year.”
Green concurred, “It’s just one of those things where if it happens, it happens. It’s not something that we talk about on a daily basis. It’s tough to do. With all these games, it’s not really something to focus on. We focus on getting better each and every day and trying to get ready for the playoffs. If that happens, great. If not, so be it.”
He insisted that the best start the NBA has ever seen to this point in the Warriors’ season is merely, “Forty-four wins, four losses, [nothing more].”
Thompson called it, “A very special feat.” But he also said, “Obviously, we don’t want to stop it now… it’s something we should be very proud of. It’s the most elite company you could be in… but we’ve got bigger things to do.”
And Curry, always looking further ahead, added, “A great accomplishment… hopefully, we’ll stay on that pace.”
Of course, having a considerable talent advantage over a team like the Knicks and being a very tight-knight squad makes it a lot easier for Golden State to do that than it is for New York to take the next step in its own level of development.
“We’re a deep team, that’s obviously been the story for the last two years,” Curry said. “It’s no secret that we have so many different options out there. You don’t get to 44-4 without that… we’ve got a great chemistry.”
And having the right leaders, like Kerr, keeping a good balance between knowing when to break a clipboard and when to break from practice, helps as well.
“The coaches do an amazing job of making this very fun,” Ezeli said. “There’s a lot of monotony to the NBA season with watching film and playing games… [but] every once in a while, we just break practice and we go bowling.
“I would never have thought that going bowling would help our basketball game, but it really does help with our chemistry. We’ve played football, we’ve played baseball, we’ve done a bunch of other things… getting to know each other outside the game.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson the Knicks might learn from the final three quarters against Warriors on Sunday night is that if even Golden State’s process of trying to continually evolve and not rest on its laurels of being a defending champion with a ridiculously good record of 127-24 (including the postseason) over the past two years — while now having more road wins (22) this season than New York has home wins over its past two seasons — isn’t enough yet for the Warriors, then certainly the Knicks should work that much more to stick with what had been working better for themselves.
“We’re not really paying much attention to [our] record,” Kerr said. “We’re just trying to get better, but we don’t take winning for granted, that’s for sure.”
Neither should New York, not even for one game — especially when the Knicks, despite their modicum of progress this season, still have a long way to go to begin emulating the golden standard they witnessed up close in their own building.
All photos by Jon Wagner, NY Sports Day