NEW YORK — Fifty wins for the first time in 13 years — check. A division title for the first time in 19 seasons — check. And now, the two seed in the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs — once again, check.
One by one, the New York Knicks (53-27) have been achieving their lofty team goals this year.
But, that doesn’t mean they’re satisfied, even after their 15th win in 16 games, during a 90-80 victory over the Central Division champion Indiana Pacers (49-31), in New York’s penultimate home game of the regular season, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Capturing their first league championship in 40 years is next on the Knicks’ wish list, but long before they can dream of that, they first have to end an 11-year drought without a playoff series win.
So, although much is yet to be decided, such as New York’s impending first-round playoff series with the seventh-seeded Boston Celtics, Sunday’s matchup between the Pacers (who will be the three seed in the East) and the Knicks might have served as an Eastern semifinals preview.
Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who tweaked his left shoulder in the third quarter before sitting out the final period with New York in control, ignored that notion for now, saying simply, “It was a statement game just for the simple fact that we wanted to lock up that second seed. We’re not looking ahead to Indiana. We have to focus on Boston and take care of business.”
Describing how he incurred the latest of his many varied injuries he’s dealt with this season, Anthony said, “It was kind of hard to explain. I was going in one motion and [reserve forward Sam Young] kind of ripped my arm back. My first instinct was to grab my shoulder. It was weak. I had to get my bearings and shake it out a little bit. It’s sore.”
But, not sore enough to prevent Anthony from missing the start of the postseason, or possibly even the regular season finale at MSG, on Wednesday night, against the Atlanta Hawks.
“I’ll be fine,” Anthony insisted. “I’m just going to take it day by day. I don’t think I’m going to play tomorrow (in Charlotte), but Tuesday is our day off, so we’ll see what happens after that.”
Still, Anthony was somewhat ambivalent about the importance of playing against Atlanta, even though the Knicks might be wise to do all they can to beat the Hawks and push them down to the six seed, depending on how things work out in the East before then (New York is 2-0 this year against Atlanta, but 0-4 against the Chicago Bulls, who are trying to catch the Hawks for the five seed, and who could meet the Knicks in a possible Eastern semifinal series, should they finish in the six spot).
“We don’t want to risk any injuries, but if guys want to play, then they should play,” said Anthony.
Yet, after saying, “I always said today was a real important game for us to come in and lock down the second seed. It was a big game for us,” Anthony also added, “Now guys can get their rest, I can get my rest, and come back full speed and ready for the playoffs.”
Anthony led all scorers with 25 points, but he missed 14 of his last 19 field goal attempts after making his first four shots while singlehandedly giving the Knicks a 9-2 lead and scoring their first 11 points, to help New York to an 11-10 edge.
His shooting struggles after that point ended his streak of seven straight 30-point games, which ties him for the second-longest such string in franchise history, as Anthony (28.7 points per game at tipoff) tries to hold off Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (28.1 points per game) for his first league scoring title with only three days left in the season.
Playing his second-most minutes (34) of the season, reserve forward Chris Copeland scored 20 points on 8 of 12 shooting from the floor, and Sixth Man of the Year favorite, guard J.R. Smith added 15 points for the Knicks, who forced 26 turnovers while committing just 11, to hold a sizable 33-9 advantage in points off turnovers.
Many of the forced errors made by Indiana came as a result of the active hands of New York’s defense, which totaled 11 steals by six different Knicks, including a game-high four by 40-year-old reserve guard Jason Kidd, who despite failing to score in 30 minutes, also contributed five assists and four rebounds.
New York scored the last eight points, over the final 3:43 of the opening period, to lead 23-15, and Copeland scored the next eight Knicks points to ignite an 18-6 run that gave his team the game’s biggest lead, 41-21, five minutes into the second quarter.
Guard Lance Stephenson (team-high 22 points) made a pair of three-pointers though, to cap a 19-6 answer for the Pacers, who trimmed their deficit to just 47-40 by halftime, and closed to as little as five points after scoring the first basket of the second half.
But, forward Iman Shumpert scored half of his 10 points, as Anthony had four points, and then Smith, the last four, during a 16-8 spurt that extended New York’s lead to 63-50 late in the third quarter.
The Knicks responded though, with 15 of the next 22 points, to take a commanding 84-69 lead with 5:40 remaining, on a run that started with five points from point guard Raymond Felton (11 points) and which ended on a Smith three-pointer that forced a Pacers time out.
Indiana could get no closer than the final margin thereafter, as New York clinched its best conference finish since 1994, marking just the fifth time the Knicks have been seeded in one of the top two spots in the East since the year after their first championship, in 1970.
Head coach Mike Woodson said he had considered putting Anthony back in the game if the lead had fallen to fewer than nine points, but that that wasn’t necessary. Twice down the stretch, Anthony got up off the bench to go back in, and each time, Woodson called him back to protect his superstar’s health safely on the bench.
With key front court players, all-star center Tyson Chandler and reserves, Kenyon Martin and Rasheed Wallace all expected to return from injury for the postseason, Woodson looked ahead, saying, “As a coaching staff, we will start to prepare for the playoffs on Wednesday (hours before the Atlanta game)… once we get some healthy bodies back Thursday, we will start practicing and see who is healthy for the playoffs.”
Regardless of who that may be, Anthony knows that an already heated rivalry between the Knicks and Celtics will be taken up a notch, especially after the Knicks ended the Celtics’ reign of five years as Atlantic Division champions this season.
” We are looking forward to that matchup [against Boston],” he said. “We know what kind of series it’s going to be. It’s going to be a grind out battle. A tough series, a physical series, and we’re looking forward to that… I did envision us at the top of the Eastern Conference. I did envision us winning our division, eventually. This playoff series is very important to myself, very important to us as a team, as a city, as an organization.”
Like New York, Boston has struggled with its own injuries, including the loss of star point guard Rajon Rondo for the season, in late January.
“They have had their ups and downs with injuries, like us,” Woodson said of the Celtics, before he predicted, “It is going to be a good series.”
Tensions should be running high for the series, given the recent history between the teams.
Recalling the way his first season as a Knick ended two years ago, with Boston’s first-round sweep of New York, Anthony admitted, “It’s in the back of our heads.”
This year, the Knicks won the final three regular season meetings with the Celtics after Boston took a six-point contest in New York, in an early January game that featured some chippy play and personal on-court insults toward Anthony that afterwards, incited the Knicks’ best player to wait for Boston’s Kevin Garnett by the Celtics’ team bus.