Mike Woodson's Knicks beat the Sixers at their own game and creep, incredibly, toward the top of the division
The New York Knicks entered Wednesday night's game against the Philadelphia 76ers knowing a win was vital if they were to have a realistic chance of winning the Atlantic Division and securing a favorable playoff seed. But the 82-79 victory did more than just provide the Knicks with a necessary victory on the road.
It showed that New York could beat Philadelphia at its own defensive-oriented game, following the now-familiar fourth-quarter formula of stifling defense and a heaping dose of Jeremy Lin.
This, despite the fact that Lin continues to be susceptible to extended shooting slumps within games: He shot 1-for-11 through three quarters, reminiscent of his 1-for-11 against Miami, or his 1-for-12 in the second half against Minnesota back in February.
But Lin managed to score 16 points in the fourth quarter. (He had eight of his 19 against Indiana in the fourth as well.) Remember when the book on Lin was supposed to be to get physical with him? So much for that. Teams have been banging him around all year as he drives to the basket, and the Sixers were no exception. Lin kept on coming, forcing his way to the free-throw line repeatedly in the final quarter, and making all ten of his foul shots. He also had four assists in the quarter. In the biggest game of the year to date, Lin was the difference-maker in the final period.
Before that, though, it was Amar'e Stoudemire. Between Lin's early shooting woes and the difficulties Carmelo Anthony had scoring against a man who could be the league's best defensive player at small forward, Andre Iguodala, Stoudemire was the reason the Knicks led entering the fourth quarter, 59-58. It sounds strange to say that he was a dominant offensive player when he had just 17 through three quarters and 21 for the game, but keep in mind that other than Lin, no one else on either team had more than 12 points.
Stoudemire, meanwhile, was making it look relatively easy. It was perhaps the most obvious demonstration yet of the easily overlookable fact that he has been his old self for the month of March, notwithstanding the Knicks' disappointing six-game losing streak to start the month. His shooting percentage of just under 56 percent has been higher than he's posted in any month since March of 2010, back when he was leading the Phoenix Suns.
Against the Sixers, he stepped on up defense too, making a particularly athletic move to block an Elton Brand layup in transition with just over four minutes to go. It was precisely the sort of shot that was more often than not going unchallenged until just a few games ago, when Mike Woodson took over from Mike D'Antoni and immediately stressed the need for better defense.
As for the man who helped precipitate Woodson's promotion, Carmelo Anthony, his 5-for-15 shooting probably would stand out less—he had Iguodala on him, after all—if it didn't come on the heels of a 5-for-15 performance the night before against a far less talented Toronto defense. Interestingly, Anthony is shooting just under 39 percent since the coaching change, and averaging fewer shots per game than he was getting under Mike D'Antoni.
The reality is that an Anthony who is enough of a threat to attract defenders can open up the game for Stoudemire, Lin and the supporting players, while an Anthony giving full effort on the defensive end provides New York with value as well. If he can find his shot—his shooting has been consistently poor all year, with percentages by month all remaining just between 39 and 40 percent, well below is 46-percent career average—he'll make the Knicks that much more dangerous. But in Indiana, and again tonight, New York showed they could win without him doing much offensively.
That had everything to do with a shutdown defense. The Sixers scored 79 points Wednesday night, but that total was inflated by their eight three-point field goals, most of them contested. The Sixers scored 11 points in the first quarter, shot less than 39 percent from the field, and 36 percent from two-point range, with a total of 20 points in the paint all night.
With upcoming games against Toronto and Milwaukee, the Knicks, at 23-24, have a reasonable chance of getting above the .500 mark. Next week will include games against playoff teams like Atlanta and Orlando. The true measuring sticks for the Woodson Knicks, Miami and Chicago, are a few weeks away.