In Carmelo Anthony's return from injury, the Knicks beat his former team to stay undefeated at home.
That felt pretty big to me. The Knicks looked exhausted all night. Their ball movement wavered, their transition defense lagged chronically, they got punished for over-switching, and by the time they fell behind eight to open the fourth, the game felt like it was slipping away. Our friend rxmeister was not alone in thinking the Knicks were out of it. A couple lovely things happened to change that, though. A perfect storm of nifty play-calling and rapid ball movement propelled a bench-heavy unit to find Steve Novak for a couple threes to draw even, then the first unit forced turnovers and got inside baskets to pull ahead for good. A 17-2 run early in the fourth gained the Knicks enough ground to weather a mini run and survive the evening still undefeated at home. Not a bad outcome for a team that looked half asleep for long stretches of the evening following a rough night of travel. Notes:
- Early on, Carmelo Anthony played a lot like a guy facing his old team with a hand injury. His play was antsy and a bit rushed, as he whiffed some early shots and got lost driving into Denver traffic. Melo continued to seek out contact, though, driving a bit more patiently and roping Nuggets into fouling him with fakes. His jumper was on and off the rest of the way, but the determination to draw fouls persisted (and he eventually started to sink free throws), and upon returning from foul trouble midway through the fourth quarter, Melo made a series of crucial plays at both ends to help build the Knicks their lead. His excessively touchy defense on Andre Iguodala had gotten him into foul trouble in the third, but he came up with a big strip off Iguodala's knee late in the fourth. On the offensive end, Melo buried a short jumper off the catch, drilled a big straight-on three, passed out of a double to find J.R. Smith open for three, tipped in a missed free throw, then took Danilo Gallinari one-on-one for a face-up jumper and a diagonal drive for a lay-in down the stretch. The bandage (and, presumably, the laced up digit beneath it) clearly bothered his jumpers and free throws, but he found the net down the stretch and compensated for 10-24 shooting with persistent aggression on both ends (even if said aggression got him a fourth foul late in the third quarter).
- Jason Kidd assisted several of those late Melo shots, and in general, many components of that fourth quarter run could be traced back to Kidd. Kidd's chief contributions through three quarters were poor man defense against Ty Lawson and in switch situations, a couple threes off the catch, and a couple drawn fouls on perimeter, one of which got him elbowed in the skull for like the fifth time this season and prompted him to shoot around at halftime wearing a Ranger's helmet. It was a decent enough game until the fourth quarter, when Kidd just took over. His passing anchored the second unit run early in the fourth, then he added a couple molasses-slow drives for an assist and lay-in, a backcourt steal to feed an uncontested Ronnie Brewer dunk, a couple extra passes to find Melo open for jumpers, a beautiful alley-oop to Tyson Chandler out of a timeout, and a few moments of stellar help defense to force Denver turnovers. And he did this all while intermittently icing what appeared to be a baby fist protruding from his scalp, as if Ty Lawson's elbow impregnated Kidd's skull with some tiny humanoid creature that immediately tried to bust out of there. I assume Kidd is day-to-day with evil skull babies.
- Tyson Chandler's help defense didn't always arrive on time, but that didn't actually bother me in this one. The Nuggets are a dangerous enough rebounding team that it's often wiser to hope your guards can stop penetration and stay home to mind the glass. And that's what Chandler did. Half of his twelve rebounds came on the offensive backboard (which is also great), but even with just six defensive rebounds, he did a terrific job of boxing out and pursuing caroms to limit Denver's second opportunities. And on offense, aside from those o-bounds and countless tip-outs, Chandler finished some particularly fancy alley-oops and made some tough catches to draw contact (and miss almost all his free throws, but still...)
- That was a big reason the Knicks won: Denver is typically dominant on the offensive glass, but the work of Chandler and loitering guards limited them to just five second chances. Considering how unusually well the Nuggets shot (56 percent overall), the Knicks had know choice but to take away their best weapon, and they did it.
- Raymond Felton spent most of the evening breathing Ty Lawson's farts as Lawson blazed to the rim and shot poorly enough (4-15) that Mike Woodson felt comfortable leaving him on the bench until there were just a few minutes remaining in the fourth. To his credit, Felton didn't pull jumpers to the point that it felt egregious (at least not to me. I was surprised to find that he'd shot that badly.) and made some beautiful finishes and kick-outs off the dribble. He wasn't remotely a factor in the fourth quarter, though.
- Ronnie Brewer definitely didn't win the battle of the Brewers (Corey had 15 points), but had a quietly productive outing by jumping passing lanes and cutting through space on offense. That big tip-in at the third quarter buzzer stands out.
- J.R. Smith continues to be the most bizarre. He shot a miserable 5-19 from the field (that big three down the stretch notwithstanding), but ignited great ball movement with some drive-and-kicks and played a crucial role in stifling Denver's second opportunities by throwing his weight around below the rim and leaping for eight tough defensive rebounds. He's on a weird streak of failing in every readily identifiable regard while occasionally making important contributions in the margins of the action.
- J.R. also nearly finished a ridiculous lefty dunk off a lob from Pablo Prigioni out of a beautiful set play.
- Kurt Thomas hit his jumper.
- Steve Novak didn't have an impact outside of that huge fourth quarter spurt, though I guess he deserves credit for not getting totally manhandled (or manimalhandimaled) by Kenneth Faried at any point (that I saw).
- Pablo Prigioni's stint was short but productive. He hit his only shot (a three-pointer that was so casual and sedentary that, in retrospect, I wonder if Pablo might have been seated) and dished out five assists in the pick-and-roll without committing a turnover.
- Though the Knicks actually ended up shooting decently from downtown (12-30), they shoot poorly inside it and needed every one of their 37 free throw attempts to keep pace with Denver's fast-breaking, paint-dwelling offense. New York shot a poor 26-37 from the stripe, though, and we'd be yelling about that now if they hadn't pulled out the win.
- The number disparities across the board are pretty stark: Denver scored 62 points in the paint to New York's 32 and 25 fast break points to New York's five (just eight of those in the second half, though). So, Denver got much easier shot opportunities, but New York got way more of them. They attempted 86 field goals to Denver's 72 and 37 free throws to Denver's 29 thanks to 16 forced turnovers (to just nine of their own) and 13 offensive rebounds (to, again, just five by the league-leading Nuggets).
- Also nice: Though I'd say their transition defense improved minimally, New York held Ty Lawson to four points in the second half after he dropped 19 in the first. Part of that was just Lawson's usual late-game struggles.
- On that note: Thank you, JaVale McGee. Thank you for everything. I'm not exaggerating when I say McGee's spastic, aimless play was every bit as important to New York's comeback as Jason Kidd and Steve Novak were.
So yeah, I think that was a big win. The Knicks looked their worst for stretches of that one-- relying on iso offense, over-switching and failing to help on defense-- but pushed the right buttons to win anyway. After four games in five nights, three of which were on the road, and two of which were without Carmelo Anthony the Knicks managed to improve their win percentage. This pleases me.
To Brooklyn they go for a re-match with the Nets, after which the year's longest home stand will keep them at the Garden until almost Christmas.
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