50 wins, man, and I think the fiftieth may have been the most impressive of the lot. Playing shorthanded in one of the least hospitable arenas in the country, the Knicks weathered a whole lot of offense from the Thunder and eclipsed it with some brilliance of their own.
The Knicks-- especially with Tyson Chandler as their only interior defender-- weren't going to stop the Thunder, and they definitely didn't. Oklahoma City shot an absurd 58 percent from the field, hit half their threes, and outscored New York at the free throw line. New York responded by producing more offense-- not necessarily better offense, but more. As has been the case in a few hallmark wins this season, the Knicks took exceptional care of the ball (six turnovers to 12 for OKC) and loitered around the offensive glass (19 offensive rebounds, nine for Carmelo Anthony alone) to stack up possession time and shots, amassing 97 field goal attempts to Oklahoma City's 78. They did themselves an additional favor by pulling those extra attempts from behind the arc to hit 15 of 34 threes overall. Melo had another brilliant offensive performance and got the support needed to topple the mighty Thunder as well.
Overall, the Knicks flooded Oklahoma City with offensive poise and persistence to drown out all the buckets they allowed on the other end. Looking back, there were a couple points at which I figured the Knicks were doomed. Early on, it felt to me like they were straining for tough shots and like Carmelo Anthony had finally hit an offensive wall. When the Thunder regained a lead in the mid-fourth, I worried the Knicks' good fortune had run dry. But goddamn, the Knicks did so much in between and made such big plays down the stretch to somehow outstrip an insanely efficient OKC performance.
Let's talk about it!
- The bench carried the Knicks through some trying early stretches. The Thunder bottled Melo up early, then sent him and Iman Shumpert to the bench with two early fouls apiece. OKC had a window to take over, but Jason Kidd and Chris Copeland slammed it shut. It was kinda nuts, actually. The last four minutes of the first quarter were all Copeland drive-and-kicks and Kidd threes (He hit 3-4 in the first! That leg wasn't messing around.), then the second quarter saw Cope-- essentially playing center with Chandler out-- erupt for some threes over Kevin Durant, some blow-by buckets past Nick Collison, a couple gritty offensive rebounds, and a block on fucking Russell Westbrook. Chris Copeland! Dude was like Komondor Anthony out there when the Knicks desperately needed a second-unit boost.
- Melo hit his first two shots, but had an otherwise dreadful first quarter. Serge Ibaka funneled his drives toward help defense, then used the split second afforded by the arriving help and Melo's pump fakes to recover and swat things. Then Melo picked up a second foul and departed, as mentioned above. The statute of limitations on that foul trouble permitted a return a few minutes into the second, at which point Melo commenced cooking soup. He hit threes off the catch, he hit twos off the bounce, and he rumbled into the paint for finishes, sometimes after a few extra attempts. All that work in the paint was most impressive. Melo didn't draw a shooting foul in this game. Not one! All four of his free throws came on last-ditch intentional fouls in the final seconds. He spent the whole night bulling through contact to tip the ball back and back and back at the rim until it obeyed him, rarely wasting any effort to grouse about the non-calls. In darker times, I feel like Melo might've snapped and let the lack of calls affect his performance, but this is April Melo and April Melo is unflappable. He won't flap.
- Raymond Felton keeps grinding out these quietly marvelous offensive performances. Aside from a three off the catch (that dropped), the li'l penguin made a point of attacking exclusively. That meant getting turned aside by Ibaka few times, but it also meant a lot of heady passes and dribbles out of traps to reach the paint and create. Felton played the whole first and made up for some trouble finishing with dribble-drive feeds to a Chandler dunk and Kidd three (he also grabbed three offensive rebounds in the first quarter, which felt like an optical illusion). After sitting most of the second quarter, he took over-- again-- after halftime. Ray kept right on driving over Chandler and Melo picks, pocketing Kendrick Perkins a few times to drop three beautiful floaters in the third, draw a bunch of fouls in the fourth, and kick out to initiate ball movement all the while. His most important play of the game came with under a minute left, when he drove diagonally into the paint, slipped, and mishandled the ball, only to flail desperately with one flipper and slap the ball out to the arc, where J.R. was waiting to spot up. Felton's performance throughout the second half was pivotal and mandatory, too, because he kept getting hung up and making Chandler guard Reggie Jackson on the other end.
- J.R. didn't play quite his usual game off the bench. After a first-quarter stint abbreviated for punishment purposes, his defense on Durant was as solid as defense on Kevin Durant can be, and he pulled down another seven rebounds. Smith drove only occasionally-- enough for eight free throw attempts, I guess-- and had one of those nights in which only bad shots would fall. His step-backs off the dribble dropped pretty reliably, but he shot just 2-9 on threes, mostly open and off the catch. Thankfully, one of those two makes was the aforementioned spot-up off Felton's falling slap-out. That shot-clock-beating 28-footer put the Knicks up seven with 56 seconds to go, more or less icing the game and more or less soiling my britches.
- Chandler was pretty much bound to struggle defensively given the Thunder personnel and the dearth of help around him. He spent like half his time covering guards and otherwise straying from the paint to handle switches and it didn't go so well. The Thunder got a lot of easy buckets and offensive rebounds within the space he'd vacated to roam. Especially since he managed to avoid foul trouble, it would have been nice to see Chandler trap and contest those driving little dudes a little more aggressively (I feel confident that Kenyon Martin would have clotheslined Reggie Jackson had he played, not that that's necessarily what I'm asking of Chandler). It would have also been nice for the Knicks not to slough off their men on every pick, leaving the big guy with the sore neck to guard everyone on the floor. That's always how it goes. All that said, Chandler played terrific help defense on Westbrook and Durant down the stretch and was good 'n' productive on the other end. He set monstrous screens all afternoon long, caught and finished much more dexterously out of the pick-and-roll than he did on Friday, and tipped out a few crucial offensive rebounds. And there was this:
I can watch that for hours. Days. Seriously, I started writing this sentence on Thursday and am only just finishing it because I was distracted by this ballet on stilts. Didn't know you had that, Tyson.
- It made me all warm inside to watch Felton successfully settle Chandler down after some Nick Collison shoves got him all riled up and feisty. On that note, Chandler's technical looked-- on replay, too-- like bullshit, and I assume it'll be rescinded.
- Pablo Prigioni did his darnedest on Russell Westbrook, which usually wasn't enough. These things happen. Westbrook wrecked shit, but I didn't think the Knicks (mostly Pablo, but also Kidd and Felton) defended him so poorly, save for the occasional ducked screen. Prigioni did most of his offensive work in the first half, drilling an early three, then making some useful set-up passes on the move to find the Knicks good open shots in the halfcourt and in transition. He got shelved for good after committing consecutive live-ball turnovers in the early third that ignited two OKC fast breaks.
- On that note, the Thunder finished with 25 fast break points after having just five (I believe) in the first half. That's all according to ESPN. That seems a little high, but the point is they got a bunch more transition buckets after the break, which, according to the reports out of halftime, was the plan. The Knicks committed a little spate (for them) of turnovers and it got them in trouble.
- Aside from that first-quarter three-point bonanza, Kidd's buckets came on a clever backdoor sneak in an inbound play and on a huge corner three in the fourth. He also forced a few turnovers, made some nice extra passes, and battled for some big rebounds. You know, Kidd shit.
- Iman Shumpert got those two quick fouls trying to guard Durant and played only sparse, unproductive minutes thereafter.
- Steve Novak hit two of four threes. I didn't notice him on defense, which is almost always a good thing.
What a terrific game. This whole streak-- most of this season, really-- has been so gratifyingly surreal. It's fitting that the landmark 50th win epitomized this team's style: possession hoarding, magnificence in isolation, perimeter looks created from the paint, and mediocre defense. These are the Knicks and I love them. Onward!