Without Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks played the Thunder close-- surprisingly and painfully so.
That stung. It took a special and mostly positive set of circumstances for that game to sting like it did, though. I got the feeling before tip-off that most of us sat down to watch this one praying for an unlikely win, but steeled for a blowout loss. Anything in between would spell heartbreak, and that's what we got. Playing their fourth game in five nights without Carmelo Anthony against the 44-16 Thunder, New York didn't fold. The Knicks made an impressive stand against the league's best offense and rode J.R. Smith's delirious scoring performance as far as they could. Alas, even that crazy critter's proudest night can only take one so far. Relying on J.R. when you're missing Melo is a bit like crashing your car, then hitching a ride home on a carriage driven by rabid jackals: It's exciting as hell and surprisingly functional, but the journey's rife with detours and when the dogs start drooling, you're in trouble. You know?
On a night when open shots wouldn't fall and Amar'e Stoudemire took a while to find his footing, Smith got the ball and the greenest of lights. Through the middle two quarters, he dominated. J.R. deflated OKC's second-quarter lead and built New York's third-quarter edge with a barrage of drives and step-backs, often on possessions he'd initiated with a deflection or steal. We saw a couple wholesome makes off the catch, but Smith operated primarily in his natural, cockeyed element-- tipping defenders onto their heels before launching off his own or just jolting them into orbit with abrupt transition threes.
Come crunch time, Mike Woodson could have turned to a Raymond Felton-Amar'e Stoudemire exchange that had finally produced some baskets in the second half, but pressed forward on that jackal-driven carriage. By then, J.R. had tightened up a bit and drawn the attention of the Thunder stars. In the mid-fourth, Kevin Durant harried Smith into some particularly blind, slantwise heaves that caught rim when the Knicks needed baskets to pull away. Then, down a point with 28 seconds to go, Woodson doubled down on J.R., first securing him a quick, wide-open three that missed, then letting him isolate in vain against Russell Westbrook as time expired.
It's a shame, because the Knick defense-- even as Woodson benched Tyson Chandler in a curious scheme to match small with small-- came up with crucial stops. On several near-crunch-time possessions, the Thunderbros just boned easy plays unrelated to anything the Knicks did. In the final minute, though (and with Chandler back on the floor), Iman Shumpert and Jason Kidd did what they'd done with commendable frequency up to that point in contesting two-point jumpers, one apiece from Durant and Westbrook. The stops bought New York opportunities to seize the win, but Woodson-- and I say this purely in retrospect-- called it wrong. The open J.R. three was a clean look and the fall-away J.R. two was a tough one. Either could have dropped, but they didn't, and the Knicks lost. Like DehShadow said, anyone in their right mind expected a loss, but for the upshot of that loss to be so narrow and so binary added some unanticipated pain.
Just a few notes:
- Amar'e lost most of his shots to the swatting arms of Serge Ibaka, so it was sweet to see him cram home an offensive rebound in the third quarter. He also finally got a baby hook and a jumper to fall during that stretch and chased down Derek Fisher for a violent transition block. Swatting Fisher is pretty much tee-ball, but it was fun anyway.
- Kenyon Martin finally got a full night's work and looked pretty great. His offense was limited to (surprisingly successful) lob finishes while, on the other end, he gave Durant a legitimate hard time on a few trips down the floor and used all six of his fouls in 17 minutes. If that's the quintessential Martin game-- scoring a bit in transition, being obnoxious on defense, producing memorable moments at a high rate, and generally toeing the line between disruption and destruction-- that'd be great.
- James White actually provided something in his 12 minutes as a starter. This looked like it might become The James White Game when the dude drilled a couple early threes.
- Second straight semi-meek Chandler performance on defense, no?
- SLUMP WATCH: Jason Kidd hardly shot (0-2), Steve Novak hit one of two threes, Iman Shumpert made a few plays defensively but shot a pretty ugly 1-7, and Raymond Felton kicked off his post-huge-game honeymoon with a 1-8 performance from downtown.
- No Marcus Camby, no
Steve Novak Pablo Prigioni.
That is all. I'm definitely not mad, just stung and disappointed on a night when neither of those feelings seemed likely. If you accept moral victories, I imagine this game represented one of those. The Knicks, as they do, got up to play a great team, and they damn near stole a shorthanded win in the process.