Knicks fans had just watched their team notch a crucial 108-100 win over the Toronto Raptors, and many of them turned on the Nets game to see if their intercity rivals could give them a boost by knocking off the one team between them and a playoff berth, the Atlanta Hawks.
What they saw was yet another proverbial twisting of the knife in what has been a tortuous season for the Knicks faithful. With less than two minutes remaining and the Hawks clinging to a one-point lead, Nets guard Jorge Gutierrez drew a critical charge on Hawks point guard Jeff Teague...only to watch in horror as the refs reversed the call upon review.
Who knew a block/charge call was even reviewable?
Then, with the Hawks up three, it was time for Pierce, the man who has haunted the nightmares of Knicks fans for the better part of a decade, to plunge that final dagger. He drew a foul with 92 seconds remaining, stepped to the free-throw line...and missed. Then he missed again. The Nets rebounded a Pero Antic miss, Pierce lined up a game-tying three...and missed a third time.
Knicks fans reacted accordingly on Twitter:
Make no mistake, though: It wasn't this game that truly finished the Knicks. They were already dead. They died when they blew a fourth-quarter lead against the Washington Wizards on April 4. Or maybe it was when they blew that 17-point lead to the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers in late March, or the time they blew another 17-point lead to the very same Hawks team they're now chasing. Then again, perhaps it was that seven-game losing streak bridging February and March...or the five-game losing streak in mid-January...or even that nine-gamer way back in November.
With Friday's win, the Hawks' magic number stands at one, meaning the Knicks would have to win all of their remaining games and have Atlanta lose all of their remaining games to make the postseason.
The real tragedy of the night for New York was not the fact that Atlanta won, but that the team finally waited too long to finally conquer its ultimate nemesis, the fourth quarter.
The Toronto Raptors are a great fourth-quarter team; the New York Knicks are not. Toronto has outscored its opponents by an average of 11.9 points per 100 possessions in the final 12 minutes this season, by far the best mark in the league. The Knicks, on the other hand, rank 26th in fourth-quarter net rating, at minus-5.1 points per 100 possessions.
What makes this statistic all the more tragic is that New York has been the superior team in the first half of games, posting an average net rating of plus-2.1 to Toronto's plus-1.6. If you want to know why the Raptors just clinched the Atlantic Division title while the Knicks will be staying home this postseason, look no further than that fourth-quarter discrepancy.
It stood to reason jthen that the Knicks were in some serious trouble at the start of the final frame, nursing a one-point lead against the league's best closers.
But the Knicks soared in the fourth, thanks to a pair of unusual suspects. Power forward Amar'e Stoudemire (eight points) and shooting guard Iman Shumpert (eight points) combined for six of New York's seven made field goals in the fourth, as the Knicks widened the lead and then hit enough free throws to keep Toronto at bay down the stretch.
Shumpert in particular was a revelation in crunch time, looking confident off the dribble and playing excellent defense on the perimeter to shut down the Raptors' excellent guards before fouling out late in the game.
After the game, Woodson praised Stoudemire, who played a season-high 40 minutes, scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, per the Associated Press (vis ESPN): "He came up big tonight with the big double double. I just rode him. There were a few times I thought about pulling him, but I just stuck with him."
In truth, the Knicks won by avoiding their old fourth-quarter bugaboo: overreliance on star forward Carmelo Anthony. Woodson has become notorious over the past few seasons for calling nothing but isolation plays for Melo down the stretch of close games, and it has repeatedly failed, as The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring discussed during the All-Star Break:
Anthony has come up empty nearly every time he's taken a big shot in the past two years. This season, he has made just 8% (1-of-12) of his potential game-winning or game-tying shots in the final 30 seconds—which is even worse than last season, when he made 14% (1-of-7) of those shots.
Now consider that Anthony made an NBA-best 44.6% (29-of-65) of game-winning or tying shots in the nine seasons from 2003-04 to 2011-12, according to Stats LLC.
The coach steadfastly refused to utilize any other Knick in the team's fourth-quarter offense, and it is one of the many reasons the team has performed well below expectations this season.
Though New York finally looked like a competent team late in Friday night's game, it is likely too little, too late.
After the game, Woodson very succinctly summarized the Knicks' current situation: "We've got to hope that Atlanta loses the next three and we win three. That's the only way we have a shot."
He's right, for once: That literally is their only shot.
New York has three games left: versus the Chicago Bulls, at Brooklyn and versus these same Raptors. That is far from an easy slate. And even if they win all three, they would need the Hawks to go 0-3 to end the season. Atlanta's remaining opponents are the Miami Heat, Charlotte Bobcats...and the 15-64 Milwaukee Bucks.
Ain't gonna happen. The Knicks are finished. These could very well be the final three games for Carmelo Anthony in New York. These are almost certainly the final three games for Mike Woodson in New York. Knicks fans can only hope that new president of basketball operations Phil Jackson can find a good head coach and assemble a better roster.
It won't be easy.
All statistics courtesy of stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted.
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