I don't know about you, but that was the one I was looking for. The Knicks have been a winning team in 2014, and they've beaten some tough opponents, but there have been too many hiccups and near-collapses (and that one actual collapse in Houston) for me to feel like they were really turning around. I was waiting for something solid and convincing, free of terror. That was that. Thursday night, the Knicks just handled the Heat. They didn't do it with any fluky performance and, most important, they didn't blow a lead along the way. They just put together a solid, steadily upward effort against a very good, if lethargic, bunch o' Heats.
That place between flukiness and flakiness is what made the win so gratifying. The Knicks didn't do anything wildly unsustainable on offense. They didn't dump 20 threes on the Heat or anything like that. They just took decent care of the ball and hit a handsome portion of their shots. Carmelo Anthony led that charge, contributing every which way to New York's humming attack-- isolation makes, makes off the catch, makes in transition, zippy entry passes and kick-outs, rebounds, and so forth. Everything. Raymond Felton shot poorly behind the arc, but initiated most everything else by puckering Miami's defense over picks. Guys made use of the open space created therein. Iman Shumpert was deadly catching off Melo isos and Felton drives, canning four of seven threes and extra-passing for a couple other buckets. Andrea Bargnani popped effectively to the elbow, either rocking into a mid-range jumper or driving against a stirred defense. Kenyon Martin and Amar'e Stoudemire finished their pick-and-rolls, and when they didn't, they were quick to seek second opportunities.
While the offense was extra efficient without being absurd, the defense was bad, but sustainably so. The Knicks showed last season that with enough firepower and possessions, they could get away with letting opponents shoot really well. They just had to rebound and dominate the turnover exchange and generally make sure opponents couldn't shoot well AND a lot. And the Knicks did that against Miami. The Heat got open looks by pushing up the floor, baiting the Knicks into silly switches and doubles, and pinging the ball around to an open man. And they shot well on those open looks. But they didn't shoot THAT well, and once Norris Cole faded, only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade produced anything. New York got the takeaways and defensive rebounds necessary to withstand 23-32 shooting from those two combined. It didn't hurt that the Heat blew some open looks, tossed some passes away, and shot miserably (11-21) from the free-throw line.
The Heat threatened late. They'd been "toying" with the Knicks by lollygagging through three quarters, but that cockiness or conservation of energy or whatever proved fatal. Miami jacked up the intensity late only to find the Knicks unusually resilient. Every time the Heat bit a few points off the margin, the Knicks responded. Ray Allen's four-point play felt scary until Shump retaliated with a catch-and-make three. Chris Andersen tipped in a LeBron miss, then the Knicks came back with a tough Melo and-one and a Felton pull-up three. LeBron muscled his way to an ugly, frustrating and-one out of a broken play, then Felton dropped in another pull-up jumper. LeBron drilled an impossible baseline jumper, but Melo came back a few plays later with a strip and a sparkling entry pass to a Felton lay-in. Then he drilled the three that put the game away for good in the final minutes. A Knicks team with a bad habit for letting breakdowns burgeon nipped every single Heat rally in the bud.
So there's that sweet spot I'm talking about. The Knicks didn't win by playing perfectly. They also didn't win despite playing terribly. Either event would have been irksome in some way. They played juuuuust right, and I feel very satisfied having watched them, just like CircleL4 said. I'd been waiting for a while to feel this way. Some notes:
- The early offense did not bode well. I counted three shot-clock-buzzer-beating heaves in the first five minutes of the game.
- Beyond the usual silly doubles and switches leaving guys open in the weak corner, the Knicks struggled just because they played "big" frontcourts against Miami's spread floor and someone like, say, Kenyon Martin isn't used to checking his man out to the three-point line. He kept helping off Rashard Lewis, which is the one thing you can't do against Rashard Lewis.
- The third quarter decided the game because it included one of New York's finest offensive flurries of the season. Shump got himself three consecutive threes off a flare screen, a catch off a backcourt turnover, and a step-back. (Then he unleashed the wildest and most violently awry heat check I've seen in a while). Then it was Melo's turn to chip in with a quick three out of a timeout and a decoy catch-and-three out of a Felton-Amar'e pick-and-roll. Then Bargnani lost Chris Bosh with an up-fake and ambled all the way to the rim for an and-one lay-in. Then the ball hopped all the way around the perimeter out of a Melo isolation to find an entry angle for a big Amar'e dunk. Then Amar'e missed in close to set up a fucking massive Tim Hardaway Jr. put-back dunk that made the earth shake and magma rain from the heavens. It was a stereotypically Woodsonian lineup with that unappetizing Melo/Amar'e/Bargnani frontcourt, but it won the game in the middle of the third there.
- Bargnani got embarrassed a few times, but he quietly had some defensive highlights, blocking a turnaround Michael Beasley jumper and drawing a charge on a full-speed LeBron drive.
- Toure' Murry is a masterful turnover-forcer (though his gambling gets him beat pretty often) and handles the ball capably in transition, but, again, those last-second fast-break passes to guys already under the rim help nobody. Either make a play earlier or just pull back. He'll learn.
- I really can't find anything better to describe Melo's game than "everything". Not that he dominated the ball or took all the shots. He just dabbled in every kind of offensive look. Felton was in many ways the Knicks' engine with all that driving and creating over picks, but Melo was whatever else the Knicks needed at a given moment. He was the attention-drawer when Felton deferred, the decoy shooter when Felton ran pick-and-roll, the creator when opportunities presented themselves, the finisher when New York pushed, and the bully when the Heat dared to let him isolate. In 42 minutes, Melo never leaned on any one skill for too long, which is special.
- J.R. Smith didn't play a second. Fine with me.
That was the game, in words. I'll bring you more of the game in GIFs and pictures and stuff whenever I wake up tomorrow, which will be late.