By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks were out to make a statement on Sunday, and they did it by beating Oklahoma City — one of the top three teams in the NBA — in their building. It was a statement win by the Knicks that said they are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Their good play was more than just hot shooting by J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony. They played with the type of fervor and passion that they’ll need if they’re going to win in the postseason. There could be no better exclamation point on their 12-game winning streak than that.
The Knicks’ streak has been carried by their offense, scoring 104.6 points per game and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field. They’ve hit 41 percent of their shots from behind the arc, and are turning it over less than 12 times per game. That last number is the best in the NBA during that stretch. The first part of the streak was carried by a hot Smith, and now the latter half by an even hotter Anthony. While both played well on Sunday, the win was about much more than just that.
Anthony scored his 36 not because of hot perimeter shooting, but ruggedness around the basket. He grabbed nine offensive rebounds, many on his own misses, and just seemed too strong for the Thunder in the paint. His effort level was off the charts. He simply had a will to get to the basket and score that was greater than the Thunder’s. There was also no hesitation in passing out of double-teams and making the right play. It was a pleasure to watch. Smith got to the line eight times — a good continuation of his dedication to getting to the basket — but we saw a few too many step-back jumpers late. Luckily for the Knicks, he made those long jump shots when the Knicks needed them most.
But without the help of their teammates, there’s no way that the Knicks would have scored the points necessary to beat the Thunder, one of the top two offensive teams in the league. Raymond Felton had 16 points and eight assists and did a wonderful job finding Tyson Chandler on pick-and-rolls. Chandler looked healthy around the basket. Chris Copeland showed no fear in front of the bright lights and was aggressive on offense. He scored 11 of his 13 in the first half and made the Thunder pay for leaving him alone. He also held his own on defense and on the boards, playing power forward and even center at times. Jason Kidd and Steve Novak knocked down their open threes. They showed that even when Anthony and Smith come back down to the earth with their shooting (which is inevitable), the team can still win.
This was a true effort in which the offense purred all game long. The ball and players moved along the perimeter and inside. Everyone was involved and in sync. There was very little of watching one player hold the ball while everyone else stands in one spot. Mike Woodson ran a number of different sets. The Knicks varied their looks. They were running and getting easy looks in transition and in semi-transition. It was truly beautiful to watch. It harkened back to how they played during their 18-5 start.
Perhaps most importantly, the team showed the effort, focus and intensity necessary to win in the playoffs. One of the most frustrating things about this Knicks team all year has been their inconsistency. In some games it looked like they had the wherewithal and desire to be champions. In other games they looked like they had absolutely no interest in trying hard to win a basketball game. That will happen at times during a long NBA season, but with the Knicks this season the ups and downs seemed especially stark. When they played hard enough to win, they did. It didn’t happen enough.
The Knicks have officially flipped the switch. If they keep it in the on position throughout the playoffs, they will be in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. If they play like this they should win at least two games in that series, and they could give the Heat everything they can handle. Madison Square Garden will be alive in May again, and this superstar, head coach and franchise will have shown that they are here to be taken very seriously.
– The Knicks now stand 2 1/2 games ahead of the Pacers for the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a three-game lead in the loss column. By my calculations, it puts their magic number at four for the No. 2 seed. All the Knicks need to do is win four games the rest of the way to clinch the two seed. They have two games against the Cavs and Bobcats along the way. Barring anything short of a collapse or an Indiana five-game winning streak — they still have games against the Knicks, Nets and Celtics — the Knicks should get the two seed and finish with more than 53 wins. That is a tremendously successful regular season, especially considering all the injuries that this team has gone through.
– On Tuesday I’m going to take a long look at the Knicks numbers during their winning streak and compare them to their 18-5 start. I’ve found some interesting stuff there.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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