Carmelo Anthony was magnificent, scoring 35 points despite suffering a hamstring tweak in the middle of the game. Amar'e Stoudemire ignored the shoddy condition of his knees and played in his fourth game in five nights, despite the fact that his own coach admitted he would have sat under better circumstances, per Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal.
The Knicks played like a team with its back to the wall.
But playing with heart doesn't necessarily win basketball games. The Knicks came out on top 111-106 because they played hard and smart. With bigs Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin hurt, and Stoudemire limited, coach Mike Woodson was finally forced to play the kind of lineup that had helped the Knicks to the playoffs the past two years: a smaller lineup with Anthony playing power forward.
Those small lineups—which many Knicks fans had been clamoring for—started and ended the game for New York.
At first blush, it might have seemed counterintuitive to go small against a team like Atlanta, which boasts a pair of fine scoring bigs in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. But the Knicks players held their own because they know how to win while playing small.
The Knicks' Way
Last season's Knicks team did not do many things well on defense. It gave up far too many open looks, particularly from three. But what it did do well was force turnovers, particularly with its smaller lineups. The Knicks could win games even when the other team shot a high percentage, because they limited the number of opponent's possessions through their domination of the turnover differential.
But Mike Woodson decided long ago that the smaller lineups were not conducive to winning, no matter how much winning the Knicks were actually doing. He scratched the "Melo at the 4" lineups for more traditional looks, and the Knicks' record plummeted.
New York stopped playing the lineups that worked in a feeble attempt to "match up" with other teams. No matter how many times the bigger New York lineups failed, Woodson kept trotting them out there, falling back on lame excuses:
Asked Woody why Pablo doesnt start when he usually helps NYK get back 2 last yr's principles. "The East is big, man." Cites need to match up— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 10, 2013
Woodson suggested he feels Eastern Conference is too big and tough to match up with defensively w/ 2 smaller guards on the floor.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 10, 2013
On Saturday, however, Woodson's hand was forced by Kenyon Martin's injury, and the small lineups returned. The Knicks held a nine-point lead at halftime mainly on the strength of forcing an astonishing 14 Atlanta turnovers. SB Nation's Seth Rosenthal couldn't help but notice the similarities to last year's team:
That was '12-'13 Knicks defense. Hawks hit most of their shots, but attempted very few because of turnovers. Knicks 50 FGA, Hawks 32 FGA.— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) December 15, 2013
And the Knicks didn't let up, forcing 27 turnovers from the Hawks by the end of the game. Horford and Millsap combined for 25 points, but that was offset by 12 turnovers, nine from Millsap alone. They didn't shut down the Hawks, who shot 60.6 percent during the game, but they did what they do best on defense, and it was enough.
This victory was a triumph of the Knicks playing (and winning) their own way.
The Right Players Played
It's not enough for the Knicks to play small if they aren't playing the right players with Melo.
One of the biggest factors in the Knicks' pathetic start to the season has been the play of J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton. Felton has hurt the Knicks with his complete inability to guard his position, while Smith has been dangerously erratic on both ends of the court.
Though Felton is out with an injury, and the Knicks have played better with him on the bench, Smith has hurt the Knicks repeatedly, and Mike Woodson has steadfastly refused to bench him, particularly in the fourth quarter.
But Mike Woodson finally caved on Saturday night and made the move that Knicks fans have been begging him to make for months: He benched Smith down the stretch.
The results were tremendous...at least for the Knicks.
Felton had already been replaced by the far superior Pablo Prigioni, who put the Hawks away in the fourth with his shooting and playmaking. After the game, Woodson, per Herring, credited Prigioni's maestro work in the pick-and-pop for helping to jump-start the struggling Andrea Bargnani, who finished with 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting, his most efficient game in weeks.
More surprisingly, Woodson kept rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. in the game in place of Smith, who was shooting just 1-of-8. Hardaway played 27 minutes to 24 for Smith and rewarded the team with perhaps his most complete game of the season: 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting, four rebounds, two assists and three steals.
Woodson said he wouldn't really say that he "benched" JR Smith, but that he felt Hardaway was playing better.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 15, 2013
Prigioni and Hardaway combined for seven of the Knicks' 14 steals. In a game where forcing turnovers was paramount, their play in the passing lanes probably meant the difference between victory and defeat.
Smith didn't take his demotion well; cameras caught him pouting on the sideline of the win. Considering how much this team needs wins to stay alive in the playoff race, his body language was disturbing. But Prigioni, ever the assist man, was there to cheer him up.
Will the Knicks Keep this Up?
Knowing Mike Woodson, definitely not. Woodson has shown no inclination to stick with smaller lineups once Kenyon Martin (and eventually Tyson Chandler) returns from injury.
He has continually suffered from the delusion that size equals defense, even when that "size" comes in the form of a Bargnani-Stoudemire frontcourt. According to NBA.com (subscription required), the Knicks score 101.5 and give up 105.2 points per 100 possessions. But when both Stoudemire and Bargnani are on the court, the Knicks score 91.8 and give up 116.1 points per 100 possessions in 124 minutes.
So the Knicks score fewer points and give up more points, but hey, to use Woodson's own words (via Herring), "The East is big, man."
So long as the Knicks brass continue to stress "size"—results be damned—they will see very few results as positive as the win earned by the small-ball lineup.