For the first time this season, the New York Knicks finished a game with but a single-digit margin separating them from their opponents.
They must be slipping, right? This whole surprising start is probably just some charade now, right?
Maybe not, if a come-from-behind road win over the San Antonio Spurs—the Knicks' first successful stroll along the River Walk since 2003—is any indication.
If anything, Thursday's 104-100 outcome at the AT&T Center is indicative of a team with "For Real" pasted across its collective forehead.
Or, in the case of J.R. Smith, tattooed.
It was one thing for the Knicks to come out with guns blazing in the Western Conference's toughest building. New York seemed ready to extend its historically-hot shooting, hitting five of its first six attempts from deep and 7-of-10 through a chunk of the second quarter. The Knicks came into the night leading the NBA in three-point percentage and appeared none too ready to slow down.
It was another thing for the Knicks to see their stroke go cold, to clank their next nine from deep, to see their field-goal percentage dip from the 60s in the first quarter to darn near 40 in the early fourth, to watch as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and their carefully-constructed supporting cast pushed the Knicks around with a brand of physical basketball that was positively Popovichian. By the 7:13 mark of the fourth quarter, the Spurs seemed well on their way to another home victory, an 89-77 edge seemingly too much to overcome.
And it was something even bigger, even more impressive, when the Knicks not only withstood the Spurs' onslaught, but bounced back with a bevy of body blows of their own. With a 25-6 run, the Knicks turned a 12-point deficit into a seven-point cushion with less than a minute to play.
Engineering such a dramatic turnaround in crunch time is reason enough to give doubters of the Knicks' 5-0 start cause for pause. But it was how New York extended to its perfect 6-0—the best the franchise has seen in nearly two decades—that has the team looking like a threat in the early going.
That is, Carmelo Anthony, the league's leading scorer, contributed nary a point of his own to the Knicks' comeback. Stranger yet, he finished the game with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting from the field, marking his first single-digit scoring effort since early March.
So how did the Knicks do it? How did they escape San Antonio victoriously with 'Melo struggling to score and Amar'e Stoudemire still in street clothes?
As it happens, New York is anything but a one-man team. Raymond Felton kept alive the sizzle of his Knicks redux with a game- and season-high 25 points along with a team-best seven assists. Jason Kidd contributed in a timely fashion on the defensive end (three blocks, two steals) and even more so offensively, with a pair of treys to validate the aforementioned fourth-quarter run. Tyson Chandler had himself a double-double—his first of the 2012-13 season—opposite Duncan. JR Smith and Rasheed Wallace (SH33D!) combined for 27 of New York's 34 bench points.
On the whole, the Knicks weren't always stingy defensively, though they clamped down as a unit when the occasion called for it. By the time the final horn blew, the Knicks had held the third-most efficient shooting team in the NBA to a 43.7-percent mark from the field.
It wasn't always pretty for the Knicks, but it was gritty and, more importantly, effective enough to warrant a victory.
There's no dismissing this outcome as an anomaly, either. The Knicks were an elite defensive team under Mike Woodson last season and have only continued that trend thus far this fall. They came into the evening tops in the Association in scoring defense and defensive efficiency and seventh in shooting defense, per Team Rankings.
As for the reserves, their 34-point output actually checked in a shade below their collective average of 36.2 for the season.
Such scoring balance is nothing new for these Knicks. They feature eight players averaging better than five points a game. All with Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert and Marcus Camby combining for as many minutes as you and me.
Which is to say, these Knicks might just be getting started. Every game of the 74 remaining will be another opportunity for New York to regress back to the mean. Or, in a fashion typical of the Empire City, tell the mean to go...ummm...regress itself.
To be sure, the Knicks will come back to earth at some point. They'll lose games, find themselves face-to-face with frustration and hit their fair share of bumps in the road, as any team would.
But there's something more to these Knicks than just a cap clogged with expensive stars and AARP cardholders. There's a certain cohesion that hasn't been there in some time, an identity staked to the sort of defense and toughness that (dare I say it?) hearkens back to the salad days of the 1990s.
The days when the Knicks and the Heat used to be blood rivals, and poor, little Jeff Van Gundy would get caught in the crossfire.
The Heat are the glitzier, more glamorous outfit of the two now. They employ the best player on the planet and can put the ball in the basket better than any group in the game.
But Miami, which rode its smothering defense to the NBA title in June, has yet to prove that it can stop anyone, especially when set up against opponents with size. The Heat's small-ball arrangement has yielded a few blowout wins, a handful of close calls and a trio of defeats—to the formidable front lines of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies. And, of course, the Knicks.
Are the Knicks legitimate title contenders?
The Sandy-inspired adrenaline that drove the Knicks to that 20-point drubbing of the Heat at Madison Square Garden on November 2 will be long gone by the time these two teams meet in Miami on December 6.
But, if the early returns are worth considering, so too will any trace of a Knicks squad that was a bloated parody of itself not so long ago, for which the Larry O'Brien Trophy seemed little more than a post-apocalyptic pipe dream.
The maulings may look better on paper, but for these Knicks, the road to the top of the East will be paved with the same grit and determination that helped the Heat become champs.
And that the Knicks displayed so memorably in the Alamo City.