Few people gave the New York Knicks a good chance to win on Sunday.
Although the Knicks (23-33) came away victorious, even less probably view New York’s shocking 94-90 win over the San Antonio Spurs (41-13) before another sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden and a nationally televised audience as anything more than a momentary deviation from the norm rather than a season-changing turning point.
It’s largely up to the Knicks to convince the doubters otherwise, but the fact that it took New York more than two-thirds of its season to finally give the type of elusive defensive effort it needed to give all year is a strong indication that NBA’s second-worst team since the end of December beating one of the league’s best since the start of the season likely won’t be a portent of things to come.
For one day though, New York — and its defense — found itself.
Coming into the game with merely as many overall wins in nearly twice as many total games as the Spurs (who had been 22-6 on the away from San Antonio) had played on the road, the Knicks overcame a staggering 21-5 deficiency on the offensive glass and 19 turnovers to the Spurs’ 11 the only way they could — with their best defensive game of the season.
That was the key in helping New York make one more field goal than San Antonio (34-33) despite taking 23 fewer shots (91-68).
Allowing under 100 points for only the ninth time this season, the Knicks very unexpectedly held the Spurs to just 36.3 percent shooting, including 20.7 percent (6-of-29) from 3-point range while shooting 50% overall and 64.3 percent (9-for-14) from behind the arc themselves.
Winning for just the 10th time in 33 games this season after trailing at halftime, New York shot just 8-for-23 in the third quarter, but went 4-of-6 from 3-point range while limiting San Antonio to just 17 points on 7-for-23 shooting in the period to turn a 48-42 deficit at intermission into a 69-65 lead going into the final quarter.
That was just enough of an edge to keep the Spurs from regaining the lead again, and an 11-5 run — fueled by a 3-pointer and two jumpers from forward Carmelo Anthony (team-high 25 points) — turned an 81-81 tie with 3:43 left into a 92-86 Knicks lead in the final minute.
After giving up 120.5 points per game in its previous four games, including a regulation season-high 131 in an eight-point loss to the Denver Nuggets (with Denver missing three starters) in its prior game on Friday night, New York avoid the embarrassment of suffering a winless homestand of at least five games (spanning more than 40 such homestands) for the first time in its history.
The Knicks attributed the stark turnaround from one game to the next to an in-depth film session and three-hour practice they held on Saturday in which New York’s players had more input in the defensive game plan put forth by the coaching staff than at any other time during the season.
“We always believe they’re capable of [playing good defense],” head coach Jeff Hornacek said. “[But] are they willing to do it? I think the practice and looking at the tape, them talking amongst themselves about trusting each other, I think the trust came out today. You saw guys getting up on the ball. If they got beat, someone rotated, then we had the second rotation [and] the third rotation.
“A lot of times it may look like you’re scrambling around but you’re just helping your teammate. Hopefully they understood that today, why they did that.”
If they did, it’s puzzling why it took 56 games to come to that realization.
Starting shooting guard Courtney Lee (nine points, five assists) didn’t have an answer as to why that was the case nor did he care to look back to figure out why.
He said, “I don’t know, but it happened, and it’s good that it did happen, and we’re moving forward.”
One thing that was different and helpful lineup-wise was the 17 minutes off the bench for reserve forward Lance Thomas, who was playing for the first time in four weeks, returning from injury.
“His defensive intensity, his aggressiveness helps the other guys,” Hornacek said. “That’s the type of effort that can snowball to other guys. If you’re watching Lance and he’s guarding someone and getting all over them, you almost have to do that to your guy, so he sets the tone that way.”
Generally, that was the case against most of the Spurs.
As 25-year-old star forward Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 36 points (13-of-27 shooting), the Knicks made San Antonio’s other star forward, LaMarcus Aldridge, work for his 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting, while holding future Hall of Famer and the Spurs’ fourth-leading scorer this season, Tony Parker (three shots in 31 minutes), to his first scoreless game since the 2014 NBA playoffs. It was also Parker’s first regular season game without a point since 2007 and his first scoreless regular season game in which he played more than two minutes since 2004.
Lee said of Thomas’ impact, “That’s that kind of competitor that we’d been missing… he’s gonna be huge for us.”
Anthony added, “Lance came in and gave us great minutes defensively. It’s good to see him back healthy… in the rotation. He’s a big piece that we’d been missing.”
Others noted and appreciated Thomas’ defensive leadership as well.
“Lance is always a player that brings the right mindset to the team,” said forward Kristaps Porzingis (16 points, seven rebounds, four blocks). “We need that. We really missed him. For me, [his absence] was one of the main [reasons] we were so bad defensively. Now that he’s back, he’s gonna bring us back that defensive edge.”
Thomas said, “I’m so happy to be back here competing with my team and finding a way to affect the game. I don’t know any other way to play this game… my teammates deserve my effort, my fans deserve my effort… so no need to change the script now.”
Assessing their notable defensive improvement for one game, the Knicks credited the drastic change to simply playing harder as well as to the film session during which the players convinced Hornacek and his staff to allow New York’s bigs to play up high more frequently rather than hanging back as they had been doing before.
“I think it was [mainly] an increase in intensity,” Hornacek said. “Some of the stuff we did, we had the bigs up a little bit more and that was in their talks. They said, ‘Sometimes we’re afraid to get up because if a guy goes by us or rolls, we’re not thinking anybody’s gonna pick that guy up.’ So they committed themselves to do it and the guys on the weak side came in and helped out. That’s great to watch. That’s the right way to play basketball.”
Anthony added, “I think it was just more of a will to do it and just… competing. I think that was the most important thing that led us to this victory today.”
Thomas said, “If you bring it defensively, energy and toughness, you can beat anybody in this league. The Spurs are a top team in this league and they’ve been for many years, but if you come ready to play, you can beat anybody. A win like this shows that if we bring the effort, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in a position to win every game we play.”
Yet, in addition to playing harder defensively, Thomas also pointed to the change in approach from a schematic standpoint, as suggested by he and his teammates.
“We voiced our opinions,” Thomas said. “We’re the ones on the floor. The coaches might see it one way on film and we see it another way while we’re on the floor, so we went through certain clips and we found some common ground where we understood where they’re coming from and we understand what they see, and we found a way to come together and figure out a certain scheme for certain situations on defense.”
Thomas said the players’ biggest recommendation was, “Let get these bigs up higher, let’s make sure we’re bumping on the roll… we have athletic bigs… guys who can move their feet, with long arms, who can deflect passes. So we want them up a little more and we just want to be more physical on defense. Teams have us on our heels when we catch the ball. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t do that to another team.”
More than that, however, the Knicks starting having faith in each other against the Spurs.
“If I got beat, I had trust that somebody was going to be back there to protect me,” Lee said. “That’s the kind of trust that we’ve got to continue to develop.”
Lee said hearing that from his peers went a little further than listening to the same voices from his coaches.
“Once you hear that, you understand, well, maybe I need to do something to gain this guy’s trust so he knows I got his back, so he’ll have my back,” he said. “Hopefully moving forward, everybody’s on the same page.”
Hornacek noted, “It’s probably more about them, talking amongst each other… telling each other they believe in each other, [that] they’re gonna help, and that gives them all the confidence to be more aggressive defensively.”
Behind that newfound self-assuredness, New York’s best win of the season has seemingly injected new life into the way some Knicks are viewing the remainder of their season.
“We’re not exactly where we want to be record wise, but a streak has to start with one win,” Thomas said. “We can’t try to be a team we’re not without going through tough things to get through. I think we went through enough tough things. Now it’s time to turn it around.”
Cautiously optimistic, Porzingis added, “Hopefully this win can push us to something good, but we’ve had a lot of games like this in the past and we thought that would be the push for us. This time, we’ve actually got to make it happen. We’ve got to come out like this every game, no matter who it is. If we’re able to beat [the Spurs] playing that type of defense, then we can beat a lot more teams.”
Admitting that some pressure had been setting in, Lee said, “We had a big negative cloud above us for a while now and we were letting that get to us. Some guys say they don’t pay attention to [it], but at some point, you get tired of it. So for us to come out and get a win against the Spurs is huge.”
Other Knicks are more guarded about what a lone win might mean for now.
“I won’t say the cloud is gone in one day,” Anthony said, before joking, “It snowed (in New York) the other day. There’s still snow outside.”
He also added pragmatically, “For us to come out and play the way that we did today, and to then take steps backwards, this game would be pointless, if we don’t move forward and continue to harp on this and build on this.”
Starting point guard Derrick Rose (18 points) summed it well, saying, “We still have a lot of basketball to play and it has to be consistent. I don’t want this to be one or two games, I want consistency.”
That, of course, is the key, especially since the Knicks have either beaten or competed well against the Spurs, when San Antonio was very good and New York proved not to be in recent years.
Three years ago, the Knicks beat the Spurs on the second day of 2014 before ending with a 37-45 record. One season later, New York upset San Antonio late in the year, during a franchise-worst 17-65 campaign. And last January, the Knicks lost a tough one-point game in San Antonio during a 32-50 season.
Thus, for all of the good feelings in the Knicks’ locker room after New York beat the Spurs this time around, there’s still the reality that the Knicks have gone 27 straight games without winning consecutive contests, and are just 9-23 since a 14-10 start.
Those types of trends don’t change into far more positive ones overnight, and with only one more game — a difficult one, at Oklahoma City — to play before next weekend’s All-Star break, followed by a trip to defending champion and Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland to start the post-break portion of the schedule, and then just 24 games left after that, there’s more reason to believe that the Knicks’ latest unforeseen effort against the Spurs will as before, not yield much long term than the lasting effect New York is hoping it’ll have.
Time will tell, but we’ve seen this story before and it never has a good ending for the Knicks.