NEW YORK – To get back on track after limping into the NBA All-Star break with a pair of losses, and coming out of the break with two more defeats, the New York Knicks desperately needed to face a team going through the same kind of struggles as their own.
They did, on both accounts, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.
In a battle of teams seeking to end four-game losing streaks, the first-place Knicks (33-20) built a 20-point lead early in the third quarter before holding on for a 99-93 victory over the last-place Philadelphia 76ers (22-32), who fell 11½ games behind New York in the Atlantic Division.
One day after having his college jersey number 15 retired at Syracuse (where he stayed for only his freshman year while leading his school to a national championship), star forward Carmelo Anthony made a season-high 16 free throws (in 18 attempts) to lead the Knicks with 29 points, as New York took 15 more (35-20) foul shots and made 10 more (27-17) than Philadelphia.
Forward Amar’e Stoudemire scored 22 points while making all but one of his 10 field goal attempts in less than 22 minutes off the bench, and starting point guard Raymond Felton and reserve shooting guard J.R. Smith added 14 points apiece for the Knicks, who got back to their early season recipe of success that included better defensive intensity, crisper ball movement and aggressively attacking the rim.
“We want to get back to playing the way we were playing earlier in the year,” said Felton. “Pushing the ball and being aggressive.”
On defense, Felton said, “We trapped a couple of times on the screen-and-roll. We are our best when we are aggressive defensively and offensively.”
Although five 76ers scored in double figures, only starting point guard Jrue Holiday (game-high 30 points) and forward Evan Turner (21 points, game-high eight assists) provided any sort of threat in trying to deny New York just its second win in seven games following its sweep of a five-game home stand, that came right after a 17-point Knick loss in Philadelphia.
Anthony was active early, making two free throws and assisting on a layup by guard Jason Kidd (three points, two assists) during a 6-0 run that gave New York a 13-7 lead by the mid-point of the opening quarter.
Five straight points from Turner though, tied the game, 14-14, before the Knicks held a slim 24-22 lead as the period ended.
New York’s bench, behind six points from Stoudemire, and four each by Smith and point guard Pablo Prigioni (four points five assists), started the second quarter on a 17-2 surge that extended the Knicks’ lead to a commanding 41-24.
Giving the 76ers some needed bench help, forward Lavoy Allen scored six of his 10 points during a 12-6 run that cut New York’s advantage to 47-36, to help keep Philadelphia within 52-40 by halftime.
Consecutive three-pointers by Felton and guard Iman Shumpert (four points), and a driving layup by Felton however, pushed the Knicks’ lead to a game-high 60-40, just 1:16 into the third quarter.
But, Turner and Holiday each scored six points, during a 25-13 run which trimmed that margin to just 73-65, just before New York took a 76-67 edge into the final period.
Stoudemire started that quarter with eight points during an 11-4 spurt that increased the Knicks lead to 87-71.
“I am being aggressive and executing,” said Stoudemire. “I was able to establish good post presence. I was being aggressive, [yet] taking my time and taking what the defense gave me.”
After the 76ers had missed their first seven three-pointers of the game, Holiday made three treys in four attempts to bring Philadelphia to within 94-84.
Moments later, five straight 76er points sliced their deficit in half, to just 98-93, with 43.9 seconds remaining, and Philadelphia was still alive after Anthony missed a three, but Turner misfired on a short jumper with 13.9 seconds left, to end the 76ers’ chances.
“For the most part, I thought we came out ready to play and our defense was really good in the first half,” said head coach Mike Woodson, who stopped his first four-game losing streak since taking over as the Knicks’ coach about two-thirds of the way into last year’s lockout-shortened season. “The bottom line is that we had to win this tonight. This was a must game for us.”
While he was happy with the win and seeing his team build a big lead, Woodson was displeased with New York’s inability to put away an inferior opponent on the Knicks’ home floor. “We get a big lead [in the second quarter]… [but] as the game wore on, we were kind of up and down.”
Summed up simply by Woodson’s best player, Anthony said, “We got tired of losing… tonight we played aggressive.”
Echoing those thoughts, Stoudemire added, “After losing four straight… tonight, we came out with the intensity we needed.”
Center Tyson Chandler (five points, game-high 12 rebounds) chimed in, saying, “Four [straight] losses will wake you up. We stopped the bleeding tonight and we have to stop the slump we have been in.”
That “slump” has continued for the majority of New York’s season thus far, as the Knicks have played .500 ball (15-15) ever since a dominating 18-5 start.
Still, they have managed to hang on to the division lead over that time, and remain two games ahead of intra-city rival Brooklyn, with whom the Knicks are presently tied in the win column.
New York will next host Golden State (33-23) on Wednesday night before playing three of four games on the road, with the only home game in that stretch being a date with the defending champion Miami Heat, which will be seeking revenge for a couple of early-season, 20-point losses to the Knicks.
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NOTES: The retirement of Anthony’s jersey drew the largest crowd ever (35,012) to see a basketball game at Syracuse’s Carrier dome. Anthony’s eighth-ranked alma mater lost to long time Big East rival, 11th-ranked Georgetown, 57-46, putting an end to the nation’s longest active home winning streak at 38 games. Georgetown’s Otto Porter had an Anthony-like game, scoring 30 of his team’s first 45 points, while ironically sharing the first name of Syracuse’s mascot.