The San Antonio Spurs, owners of the best record in the NBA, got much more than they bargained for on a night that could only be characterized as "special," as the New York Knicks made a big statement and rocked a raucous Garden for 128 points.
The Spurs (now 29-5) entered the night having won 14 of their last 15 and owners of one of the 10 best starts in NBA history, but just barely kept pace with a hot Knicks team, who shot a stinging 55% from the floor.
Not long after the Knicks got the bad news about starter Danilo Gallinari, who will miss at least two weeks with a sprained left knee, the Knicks rose to the occasion, flexing their offensive muscle and depth.
Ronny Turiaf got the start at center and had a quiet evening, but the Knicks got 24 off the bench from Shawne Williams (9), Toney Douglas (9) and Bill Walker (6), more than making up for Danilo's average of 15.
In a scene not played out at Madison Square Garden for a decade, perhaps since the old "Jeff Van Gundy" chants, the Knicks fans were in a frenzy, chanting "MVP," and "DE-FENSE," and cheering from their feet down the stretch, finally roaring as the seconds wound down.
Joe Frazier, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Michael Kay, Pauly D, Penny Marshall, and of course Spike Lee turned out to cheer on the league's scoring leaders.
Clyde Frazier noted the "playoff atmosphere" at the sold-out Garden on a number of occasions.
The Spurs, led by Tony Parker's 26, had six players in double figures, including 13 from George Hill off the bench. DeJuan Blair (7.3 PPG) played above himself, shooting 67% (8-12) for 17 points. Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Richard Jefferson rounded out the Spurs' starters with 15, 14 and 13 points respectively.
But the offensive story of the night was the New York Knicks.
It was Wilson Chandler's turn to lead New York with a game-high 31 points, upping his points-per-game average to a very serious 18.
Amar'e Stoudemire, the team's emotional and points leader, poured in 28 points and snatched nine boards while Raymond Felton managed the game of his year, fending off Tony Parker and adding 28 points of his own. Both players hit key shots down the stretch to shut the Spurs down for good.
There were eight ties in the first half, but the Knicks kept the lead for the most part and hit the locker room up by three, 72-69.
The Spurs would tie it again three and a half minutes into the third quarter, but following the theme of the evening, the Knicks pulled away again, leading by as many as eight with six and a half to go in the period.
New York took a six-point lead into the fourth quarter and would hold San Antonio to just 20 points in the final period. The Spurs managed to cut the lead to three, but again the Knicks made it six, and with the score 115-109 with five minutes left in the game, Felton and Stoudemire hammered the final nails into San Antonio's coffin.
Tim Duncan missed a layup. On the Knicks ensuing possession, Stoudemire posted up, but passed it out to a moving Felton who netted a three-pointer on the fly from the left side of the hoop to make the lead nine.
Tony Parker came right back and hit a floater, but again Felton matched him as he did all evening, pulling up and hitting a jumper from 21 feet, again nothing but net.
On the next play, Duncan had trouble with Stoudemire in the paint and missed a post-up spinning jumper, falling to the ground. Felton snagged the rebound, reset, then charged the basket up the middle, clanging a teardrop off the back of the rim. Landry Fields grabbed a high rebound over three tired-looking defenders who seemed rooted to the ground. He tossed the ball to Stoudemire who banged around in the key and plopped it in to give the Knicks their biggest lead of the night 122-111 with 3:28 to go.
At the very next stoppage—the Knicks fouling Tony Parker on a strong drive, Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich surprisingly emptied his bench, sitting all five starters, even though the game was far from over.
While an unusual move, it made sense on a number of levels. First, Popovich read the writing on the wall which said the Knicks were too energized, vibed, on, whatever you want to call it, to lose this game. Secondly, and evident on the Fields rebound, the Spurs' hunger just wasn't there. And, finally, with the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics looming tomorrow night in Boston, Popovich did not want to expend any of his team's energy that could be used to avoid a second loss in a row.
It's a long season, and Popovich may have even given in to the Knicks in a long-term effort to harden up his team, teach them a lesson about playing with heart. One game doth not make a season this early.
A jovial, yet even-keeled Mike D'Antoni played it down when asked if this were the most gratifying win of the season, answering "Every win is gratifying...this was a good one...and we needed this to kick off the road trip.
"We're a fairly confident group without being crazy. We have the record of 20-14, that's about where we should be, and we just got to get better and we got to get better in a few areas and keep developing our young guys...[so] if Amar'e or Raymond have an off night, they can step in."
When a miffed Popovich was interviewed following the game, he was asked: "What was it about the Knicks defense in the fourth quarter that shut you guys down?"
Popovich replied, "I have no idea...it's just basketball. There's nothing tricky going on out there. They were more aggressive. They were more physical. They were hungrier than we were and it showed in a lot of ways...turnovers, second chance points...you know that kind of thing. But if we score 115 points, I expect to win the basketball game...and our defense was pathetic. It was the worst defense of the year for us."
When asked why he decided to pull out his starting five with three minutes to go and the game not exactly out of hand, a snippy Popovich cut off the reporter, "I did. I did that. Absolutely. That's exactly my fault. And we have another game tomorrow. It's a long season. The chances of winning the game were not good."
The victory was just what the Knicks needed before heading out on a tough four-game west-coast road trip in what will be another critical test of the Knicks mettle.
|Jan. 7||at Phoenix Suns||10:30 PM|
|Jan. 9||at Los Angeles Lakers||9:30 PM|
|Jan. 11||at Portland Trailblazers||10:00 PM|
|Jan. 12||at Utah Jazz||9:00 PM|