Last night, the New York Knicks recorded what was probably their biggest win of the year, defeating the San Antonio Spurs—who hold the best record in the NBA at 29-5—by 13 points to improve their record to 20-14.
Raymond Felton had 28 points and seven assists, Amare Stoudemire had 28 points and nine rebounds, and Wilson Chandler added 31 points and nine rebounds. The Knicks shot 54.9% from the field and had only six turnovers, but forced San Antonio to commit 16. New York was without Danilo Gallinari, who will miss two to three weeks with a left knee sprain.
But does this win truly mean the Knicks are contenders in the East?
A single "big win" does not determine whether a team can hang with the big boys or not, but you can't ignore the change in attitude this Knicks team has from the teams in the past decade. Obviously, having Amare and Felton—two veterans who have been around the block helps—helps, but this team is a confident group every time they step onto the court. They expect to win every game, and that goes a long way in professional sports these days.
What impressed me the most about last night's victory was that the Knicks defense went from porous to lock down as the game went on. Here is the breakdown in points scored by the Spurs by quarter:
First = 35, Second = 34, Third = 26, Fourth = 20
Against a team as disciplined and fundamentally sound as the Spurs, you can't look past the fact that the Knicks are digging deep come the second half. I also love the adjustments Mike D'Antoni is making at half time. His team is making improvements on defense between quarters, which that is a relief considering the debacle of a defense New York has had over the years.
It wasn't just last nights game, either. The Knicks have seemed to really turn on the after burners in the fourth lately, playing really solid defense when it matters.
One game I can recall was the Christmas Day game against Chicago. With just over 10 minutes to go, the game was tied 87 all with the Bulls scoring the first four points of the quarter to knot it up. From that point forward, New York completely shut down Chicago, holding them to no points for about eight and a half minutes and jumping out to an eight point lead, which would end up being the margin of victory.
Stoudemire has been a big help, blocking over three shots a game in his last five. But I think the difference maker on the defensive side of the ball this year has to be Wilson Chandler. Here is a guy playing the four who is undersized and over-matched most of the time yet still finds a way to play above average man defense, block shots, and get the Knicks going in transition.
When you have the best scoring offense in the NBA, if you play solid defense every game, then you will win a majority of the time. When the Knicks are playing sound defense, they do not lose—end of story.
Right now, they are nestled comfortably in the sixth slot in the East, five games ahead of the seventh seed Pacers. They are only a game and a half out of fifth place and two and a half behind Orlando for the fourth seed. If they can string together some wins against some of the tough opponents coming up on the schedule, you could see the Knicks in position to shake up the East even more.
If the season were to end now, the Knicks would be visiting the Chicago Bulls in the first round, a team they have taken care of twice already this season. I have confidence in them, but it isn't realistic to say they can beat Miami or Boston (when healthy) in a seven game series. The talent just isn't quite there yet.
The Knicks will make the playoffs, and they are on their way to becoming the beasts of the east again. I think this year is only a prelude of bigger and better things to come.
So, Knicks fans, I leave you with this: Be proud that our team is back on the map again, and be very excited that we finally have the right mix of young talent combined with veteran leadership because it will lead us to greatness, I can guarantee that.
Oh, and pray to the basketball gods that Denver does the smart thing and decides to trade Melo to New York before the deadline closes.