Wagner: Knicks Showing the Most Growth Among East’s Muddled Middle

Measuring growth can sometimes be a relative endeavor. While the New York Knicks haven’t yet made the more significant strides they still hope to achieve this year, none of the teams they’re fighting with in the NBA’s Eastern Conference have shown as much improvement as the Knicks (15-13) have this season.

That much was demonstrated yet again on Tuesday night, when the Indiana Pacers (15-15) had a good chance to move ahead of New York with a head-to-head win in the mostly muddled East, only to blow a 15-point third-quarter lead, and once again fall behind the Knicks in the standings, after a 118-111 loss at Madison Square Garden.

A little more than one-third of the way into the season, things are going largely the way they went last year, with the same two clear leaders at the top — defending league champion Cleveland (20-6) and Toronto (20-8) — each off to good starts and the same two teams — Brooklyn (7-20) and Philadelphia (7-21) at the bottom of the conference.

The 10 teams in the middle (and Miami, having fallen off dramatically from a season ago) are all separated by a mere four games, including the top seven teams from that group sitting within just two games of each other.

Yet while most of those teams made significant offseason roster changes in trying to take the step, only New York and Milwaukee are on pace to improve off of the seasons they had last year as the rest of cluttered portion of the East has fallen backwards (some teams more than others).

The Knicks (who were 13th in the East last year, with 32 wins) are just about on pace to win 12 more games this season, while Milwaukee (12 in the East, with 33 wins last year) is due to win eight more games than a season ago.

Chicago and Orlando (42 and 35 wins last year, respectively) are currently set to roughly do the same as they each did last year, while the six Eastern Conference playoff from last season teams not named Cleveland and Toronto are all on pace to win fewer games this season that last. The same for Washington, a non-playoff team last season, which is presently due to win about five less games than last year.

Last season, a quartet of Eastern Conference teams (Miami, Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte) won 48 games, along with Indiana at 45 and Detroit (securing the final playoff spot in the East) at 44.

Yet so far this year, Boston is pacing at one less win than last season, Charlotte about three fewer, Indiana four less, Detroit nearly five fewer, Atlanta seven less and Miami a staggering 22 fewer than in 2015-16.

Of course, none of that means things can’t change over the final roughly two-thirds of the season, but it does have New York keeping pace in its search for a three seed in the East this season.

On a night when Boston (16-12) overcame a 17-point, third-quarter deficit to win in overtime in Memphis (to hold onto third place in the East) and Charlotte erased a 19-point, second-quarter hole to beat the Los Angeles Lakers at home, the Knicks’ own rally moved them a half-game ahead of Chicago (and into fifth place), as they ended a three-game losing streak overall and a seven-game skid against the Pacers, and won for the first time in 13 tries this season when trailing after the third quarter.

Other signs of growth were the particular ways in which New York responded to adversity against Indiana.

After starting well, up 18-10, the Knicks allowed the Pacers to score the next 10 points while letting Indiana close the opening quarter on a 14-2 run.

New York rebounded from shooting just 29.2 percent (7-for-24) in the period to score 98 points on 57.8 percent shooting (37 of 64) thereafter. And while the Knicks’ 64 points over the middle two quarters was all but a wash with the 63 points New York allowed in those frames, the Knicks, when they had to the most, buckled down defensively and limited Indiana to 24 fourth-quarter points on just 36.4 percent (8-for-22) shooting.

They also got a glimpse of what they ultimately hope to become on a more regular basis, with their three best offensive players — star forward Carmelo Anthony, second-year budding star forward Kristaps Porzingis (playing in his 100th NBA game) and Derrick Rose — leading the way, helped by solid contributions from starting center Joakim Noah and New York’s bench.

With the Knicks down 81-66 late in the third quarter, Anthony (who has been inconsistently great and bad at various times this season) began to flash back to when he won his only NBA scoring title while leading New York to 54 wins and its only division title since 1994, in 2013.

Crossing up forward Paul George and making George fall backwards, Anthony hit a step-back, right wing jumper to ignite an 18-6 period-closing run which ended with Anthony making consecutive 3-pointers in the final 36 seconds of the quarter, sandwiched around a Paul jumper.

Anthony (who tied the Knicks’ season-high, held by himself and Porzingis, with 35 points) made it five straight 3s by making his next three shots from behind the arc in the final period. He finished 7-for-11 from 3 and 13-of-25 overall.

Supplementing Anthony’s heroics, Porzingis (21 points, eight rebounds, three blocks) made three of four 3s in the fourth quarter while point guard Derrick Rose (with whom the Knicks are 14-9, but just 1-4 without him, counting a loss in Phoenix during which he was limited to only 10 ineffective minutes due to back spasms) made a triumphant return with 24 points and six assists.

Noah, who had been the recent brunt of criticism among Knicks fans and the New York media, recorded only his second double-double of the season, with 11 points and just as many rebounds.

Off the bench, forward Justin Holiday (seven points, four rebounds, three assists and a game-high plus-16 in 21 minutes), point guard Brandon Jennings (five points, six assists) and center Kyle O’Quinn (six points, six rebounds) each played helpful roles in the win.

“We’re a dangerous team when we get guys going like that and it’s coming from different areas,” Anthony said.

That can bode well in the long run for the Knicks, who despite having a slim chance of representing the East in the NBA Finals this year, have for now, a pretty good opportunity at capturing the three seed in an otherwise highly competitive conference this season.

If New York could do that, and knock off the six seed in the first round of the playoffs (after missing the postseason each of the past three years), the Knicks could roll the dice against perhaps second-seeded Toronto with decent odds at pulling off an upset as a No. 3 seed.

Doing that, and even losing easily to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals might be attractive enough to help lure a top free agent for a Knicks team that will have a good amount of cap space next summer, along with a first-round draft pick and a pair of second-round picks.

Thus, staying close to the pack (in the way New York was unable to do in recent years) beyond Cleveland and Toronto, will continue to be significant for the Knicks even if they’re not ready to be legitimate contenders this season.

Not only for that reason, but the victory was also an especially important one coming off a western trip during which New York started with two wins before dropping three straight games.

Holiday said, “It was a very big win especially after losing that last game on the road (in Denver) and the standings [being close right now]. To have a team like [Indiana] battling for the same spots as we are, to come out and beat them, was big for us. We want to obviously stay in a certain area as far as standings go, and we obviously want to beat a team that’s close [to us in the standings] as well.

“With the standings as tight as they are, it’s a big win for us. We want to stay close to the other teams.”

O’Quinn couldn’t echo those sentiments enough.

“This was a must, must must-win coming back [home] with the fans that have supported us,” he said. “This was a really, really, really, really big win for us.”

Noting when the Pacers led by 15 points, head coach Jeff Hornacek said, “We were kind of playing like we did those last three games of the road trip… [this] was a big win for us, being that first game back.”

Keeping in mind an 11-4 turnaround after a 3-6 start to the Knicks’ season, Anthony said, “I do think that we’re far ahead of where we [were] a couple weeks ago… of course, there are some things we have to do better, but we’ll keep working. I don’t think we’re far off from where we want to be.”

Noah and Porzingis were each more cautiously optimistic.

“Let’s not get too excited,” Noah said. “[The Pacers] still scored 111 points. That’s a lot of points. We still have a lot of work to do… [but] we’re happy that we won.”

Sensing some team-wide complacency when the Knicks were a season-best four games over .500 (at 14-10) recently, Porzingis added, “Everybody was feeling comfortable, playing good, and we forgot maybe about the details that took us there. And that’s what’s important. These last three games [before playing Indiana] kind of put our feet on the ground. With this game [against the Pacers], it’s the first step back on the right track, but there’s a lot to learn from this game, I think.”

Porzingis continued to caution, “We’ve got to figure it out from the beginning just to have a better start of the game and not put ourselves in a situation like that (being down by 15 points). We’re happy we won the game, but we won’t be able to win every game like this.

“We’re not there yet. We play off of our talent a lot… we can still grow so much as a team. We’re just getting started… we’ve got to see the big picture and keep growing as a team.”

So far, the Knicks have grown the most of anyone in their class and this year, they’re keeping pace the way they need to.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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