Well, the four straight double-digit wins were a bit easier on my intestines, but tonight's narrow victory over the Sixers was the most impressive of the bunch. There are nights when the shots just won't fall and the only way to come out with a win is to dig in defensively and pull the opponent down with you. The Knicks did just that, compensating for their own horrible shooting by smothering the Sixers on the other end of the floor.
Philadelphia started the game missing absolutely everything whether or not the shots were well contested. New York looked decent on offense to start, but then they were like "Oh, is missing shots the thing tonight? Y'all didn't tell us this party had a theme!" and adjusted their offensive execution appropriately. The two teams met in the middle (but closer to Philly's end) and kept things ugly on both ends of the floor for the rest of the night. Amar'e Stoudemire was the only Knick to find any rhythm offensively, and he carried the team through a succession of Sixer runs. In the fourth, Jeremy Lin shook off an awful three quarters of shooting and made some big baskets for New York, then calmly sank eight straight free throws to keep Philly at arm's length and seal the win.
- New York had some defensive breakdowns-- Stoudemire granted Elton Brand way too much room and the Knick frontcourt as a whole allowed too many offensive rebounds in the first half, then the wing friends gave up a bunch of open jumpers in the second half. Other than those lapses, the Knicks played some goddamn defense. My word. For the most part, they didn't switch, but when they did, everybody was on the same page and match-ups were swapped decisively and seamlessly. Especially in the first half, New York's strategy was to scrunch into the paint and deny easy shots and passing lanes. It worked brilliantly, as Andre Iguodala and the rest of 'em looked flustered off the dribble and blew tons of possessions. New York's defense wasn't quite as consistent in the second half, but they compensated for that somewhat by keeping the Sixers off the glass (just two offensive rebounds after eight in the first half, by my count).
- Had the pace not been so slow and the Knicks not been struggling themselves, Philadelphia's game-opening offense could have doomed them early. They missed their first FOURTEEN shots and didn't sink a field goal until almost the four-minute mark of the first. New York was still only up eight at the end of that period.
- Amar'e really got to cookin' soup in this one. He found a lot of great looks cutting to the basket and navigated all the way to the rim for easy finishes. When he didn't have those lanes, he sank some tough shots from around the free throw line and drew contact to get to the line. Defensively, Stoudemire had a pretty rough first half against Brand, but held him scoreless in the second half(!). 'Twas a really nice, heartening game that included some genuinely high-flying plays, one of which was a HUGE trailing block on Brand in the fourth quarter.
- Now's as good a time as any to mention that Brand's ability to block shots has baffled me for twelve years now. I swear his arms telescope sometimes.
- Carmelo Anthony opened the game with some touch, then struggled to find the net for the rest of the evening, both on some bad, plainly inaccurate shots with no follow-through and some nice looks off set plays that just wouldn't fall. He did have that one gorgeous touch pass to Amar'e, though, and did a pretty splendid job of directing Iguodala toward help and away from the rim.
- Jeremy Lin's ghastly shooting in the first three quarters was offset somewhat by the fact that Jrue Holiday also struggled, but it was ghastly nonetheless. The Sixers (who, let's not forget, are the most efficient defensive team in the NBA) hounded him early on and kept him on edge with the ball in his hands. He looked a little uncertain off the dribble and just didn't get much lift on his jump shots. Lin summoned the will to take over in the fourth quarter, though. He scored three big, big baskets-- one off a perimeter pump fake and drive, one off a fake and sidestep at the rim, and one off an obscene crossover to lose Holiday and slice to the right side of the rim. He then sank ten free throws in the game's final six minutes (the Knicks managed only one field goal during that stretch) to deal the seal. For a youngster, Lin's ability to shake off bad play and come through in crunch time is pretty admirable. Some of the Knicks ugliest wins since he became a contributor (think back to Toronto and Minnesota) were the result of Lin not backing down despite poor numbers. He's got that good amnesia.
- Special shout-out to one of Lin's best outlet lobs of the year. He tossed a perfect arcing pass that just cleared the defender's fingertips and hit Melo in stride for an easy dunk.
- Tyson Chandler didn't have his best outing. He played some brilliant interior and help defense, especially in the first quarter, but seemed to let a lot of rebounds slip out of his grasp. In an interesting and somewhat puzzling move that paid off, Woodson chose to sit Chandler through the entire fourth quarter. The Sixers had gone small, so Woodson matched 'em with Melo at the four and Amar'e at the five. At least I think it was a match-up thing. It's possible that Woodson had a problem with the way Chandler was playing, or maybe he just wanted to show off and shut down the Sixers even without the best defensive player on the floor. Or maybe Tyson was telling this really hilarious anecdote and Woodson was too enraptured to let him leave the bench. Whatever the case, it worked out.
- To my eye, Landry Fields had a pretty nice first half with some great finishes off the dribble, but Woodson gave him the early hook again in the second half (which leads me to believe he messed up some defensive plays, but I can't confirm that). J.R. Smith gobbled up pretty much all of Fields's second half minutes and used them to miss a bunch of shots (but play decent defense and snaggle some tough rebounds).
- Iman Shumpert also played 25 minutes at the two (Fields played 18, Smith played 29) and had a quietly useful outing. Shump's offense was a little weird-- he dropped some passes and missed a couple shots baaaadly-- but he grabbed eight rebounds and put in some terrific defensive possessions against Lou Williams, including superb effort off the ball.
- Jared Jeffries wasn't making shots, but was starting to get rolling defensively before re-injuring his right knee on a blocked layup attempt.
- Baron Davis was uniformly bad in his return from a hamstring injury. He came up with a couple steals, but hit just two of seven shots in 12 minutes and simply abandoned the ball on a few possessions. Like, he'd dribble at the top of the key, then just be like "fuck this, I'm bored" and stop dribbling the ball and walk away.
- Thaddeus Young put the embargo on Steve Novak. After ten minutes of Steve being unable to get the ball where he wanted it (and offering only intermittent help on the other end), Woodson pulled him in favor of Shump 'n' Earl in crunch time.
- I know that blowing close games has been kind of thing for Philadelphia, but...wow. Quite a few boners (Iguodala's missed layup down three with two minutes remaining comes to mind) and plenty of poor decisions as well. And when they finally did execute and cut the deficit to three with a few seconds left, they just didn't bother to foul or go for the steal. I'm not complaining, but it was weird.
- I don't know whether it got fixed or I just got used to it, but MSG's camera to open the game was slightly higher than usual and just left of center. I was legitimately seasick during the first quarter.
- Clyde on Amar'e's huge fourth quarter rejection (I'll post video tomorrow): "Elton, Branded by Amar'e!"
- Spencer Hawes went 1-7 for the Sixers and missed some shots as badly as anyone has ever missed shots. I lost track of which basket he was shooting at sometimes.
- Will Smith sat courtside near Spike Lee (who traveled to Philly for the game) and the two of them made faces and yelled at each other throughout the night. When MSG showed Big Willie looking glum once the game was decided, Clyde said something about a "Depressed Prince". Like "Fresh Prince" but "Depressed" instead of-- oh, okay, you got it. Just making sure.
And that's all! Tonight's win wasn't the cleanest or the prettiest, but it was quite an achievement. Good teams win bad games, and the Knicks looked the part tonight, matching an elite defensive team stop-for-stop on the road, then finding a way to keep their lead down the stretch. The win moves them to 23-24 and just three games back of Philly for the division lead. Wonderful stuff. New York's got a night off, then they'll see the Raptors again on Friday.