By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks put together one of their best performances of the season on Thursday night against one of the league’s best teams.

It’s only fair to point out that the Spurs were playing their fourth game in five nights and weren’t firing on all cylinders, but the Knicks still showed why they should still be considered one of the best teams in the NBA despite their recent struggles.

One characteristic we have seen this Knicks team show several times this season is their ability to rise to the occasion. They haven’t done it every time (Lakers on Christmas, both Chicago games, at Memphis), but many times when the Knicks see a top opponent in front of them they play their best basketball. They’ve beaten the Heat twice, the Spurs twice, the Lakers at Madison Square Garden and the Nets two out of three times. In those games you could see the Knicks playing harder than they had in others.

On Thursday night, from the first whistle, it was fairly obvious that all of Mike Woodson’s words about defense the past few days had gotten through to the team. There was a focus and effort level on defense that hadn’t been seen since the second half against the Nets on December 19.

They actually maintained that defensive intensity throughout the game, something they really hadn’t done since early November. Give Woodson credit for showing that defense was a priority by starting Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler together. The entire team picked up the theme and the Knicks looked like a top defensive team for the first time in a long time.

It was the type of effort and execution that the Knicks will have to display more consistently if they want to hold onto the two seed and go deep in the playoffs. I also liked some of Woodson’s adjustments, including less switching (though we saw more from Jason Kidd on the Tony Parker pick-and-roll as the game went on) and very little or no double-teaming at all. The Spurs still had too many open threes, but the Knicks will take those as opposed to free runs at the basket any day.

Offensively, I loved that Woodson gave Pablo Prigioni more time as the point guard, and it paid serious dividends in the pick-and-roll. We saw Chandler much more involved as the roll man, and the Knicks got a number of open looks as defenses collapsed on Amar’e Stoudemire careening toward the basket. Without Raymond Felton, the team is missing one of its best penetrators and pick-and-roll players. Prigioni has to step up into that role and at the same time limit Kidd’s minutes.

Stoudemire looked a little better. He still looked very slow on the move to the basket, but he seems to have pretty good ups when jumping to the rim. If he can start getting his mid-range jump shot to fall, he will become even better. It’s pretty obvious that Stoudemire will be the focal point of the offense while Carmelo Anthony is off the floor as the roll man for Prigioni. Last night’s lineup of Prigioni, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland and Stoudemire is almost impossible to cover on the pick-and-roll because there are so many shooters on the floor. Defense, obviously, would be a huge question mark for that group.

Finally, Anthony continues to get it on offense. He has finally figured out how important it is for him to move the ball quickly and not hold it, allowing defenses to set. He isn’t interested in getting his own best shot off, but rather the best shot for him or his teammates. He is a dream offensively, and that is not understating things.

The Knicks have been frustrating at times this year, looking downright uninterested against some of the mediocre and bad teams in the league, leading to losses. But it’s in games like the one on Thursday night, which often come against the best teams, when they look like potential champions.

Knicks fans hope those are the team’s true colors. There’s only one way to prove it: Do it consistently.

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

The Knicks have won some tremendously impressive games this season. Are victories like the one on Thursday night making you believe that the Knicks have it in them to win it all? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…


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