By John Schmeelk
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As I wrote on Wednesday, despite the Knicks’ continued winning, a huge red flag with the word “defense” printed on it was being raised from the top of Madison Square Garden.

Over their last 15 games, the Knicks were the fifth-worst defensive team in the league. It looked like more of the same against the Nets last night until Mike Woodson called a timeout with 5:33 to play in the second quarter.

After that timeout, the Knicks gave up only seven points the rest of the half and led at the half by four points, 52-48. In the second half the Knicks only allowed 38 points and held the Nets to 45 percent shooting. Brooklyn was 3-for-13 from behind the arc and only got to the free-throw line five times.

The change in effort level was even more telling than any numbers. In the first half, after only a couple passes and a screen the Nets were getting a wide-open look. The Knicks watched as the ball moved to the open man. Shots were rarely contested, especially from behind the three-point line.

All that changed at the five-minute mark in the second quarter.

The Knicks came out, and whatever Woodson said to them changed their entire focus level on defense. Defensive rotations when the Nets swing the ball were tight and crisp. The Knicks were closing out on open shooters like it was early November again. All the malaise the team had showed defensively the past three weeks was gone. The effort, intensity and focus were back.

Tyson Chandler looked like the Defensive Player of the Year down low, and Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith were engaged on defense again. It was a pleasure. The Knicks’ defensive efficiency rating for the game (100) would put them around 10th in the league, a decent spot.

The defensive performance during the final 30 minutes of the game shows that New York has it in them to be a good defensive team if they want to be. Over the course of the year, the Knicks have shown the tendency to increase their defensive intensity in fourth quarters, getting stops when they need them the most. It’s certainly an important ability to have, but seeing the effort more consistently over the course of entire games would be even more encouraging.

Sometimes it is difficult to just flick a switch when it is needed, and such an attitude can get a team into tons of trouble against better opponents.

The Knicks are a veteran team, however, and this might just be a way for them to pace themselves over the course of a long season so they are fresh when the postseason arrives. The most important thing to take out of the Nets game is that the Knicks are still capable of playing that top-notch defense when they want to.

Over the past month, I started to doubt that. It was a true statement game, and the Knicks said that they are not only the best team in New York, but also a top team to be reckoned with in the NBA.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

– The Knicks’ ball movement in this game was good as well. The Nets began double-teaming Anthony every time he caught it in the third quarter and he responded by making the quick pass, which often resulted in an open shot for the Knicks. It was beautiful to watch. I can’t say one bad thing about how Anthony has played this year on offense.

– Chandler might just be one of the best returns on an investment that the Knicks have ever made. He has turned into one of the best finishers in the league and provides a gigantic target for the Knicks’ guards on high screen-and-rolls.

– I wonder if Raymond Felton’s bruised hands have something to do with his brutal shooting. He has never had a particularly good jumper, but in recent games he hasn’t been able to hit the broad side of a barn. Even from 15 feet, where he used to be consistent, the shots aren’t falling. If he needs to rest a few games to get healthy then he should do it. Otherwise, teams are going to keep going under the high screen-and-roll and force him to make jump shots.

– Smith took it to the basket on Wednesday night and stayed away from the difficult step-back, long-range jumpers. It should come as no surprise that he had a great game.

– Being at the Garden last night, I was once again reminded of how overwhelming and loud it can be during timeouts. It was so much better to watch a game at Barclays Center, where they let the game bleed.

You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.

Is the Knicks’ defense good enough for them to be considered a legitimate title contender? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…

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