11:51 pm Apr. 11, 2012
The Knicks trailed the Milwaukee Bucks, 94-86, with 8:52 left in the game. A Milwaukee win would have knocked the Knicks into ninth place in the Eastern Conference; only the top eight teams qualify for the playoffs.
The offense had stagnated, with only Camelo Anthony providing any consistent production. The team, which had been blessed with so much depth at one point that then-coach Mike D'Antoni wasn't sure how to fit all 11 deserving players into a rotation, had dwindled to six healthy, useful parts.
And when Anthony was fouled, he came up flexing his hand at an awkward angle, the fingers together and flexed out unnaturally. He spiked the ball in frustration; a ref from across the court called him for a technical foul, though he obviously wasn't disputing the call he benefited from.
New York's only viable offensive option hurting and the team about to go down by nine points thanks to the technical free throw, it appeared.
But like so much else in this Knicks season, both the highs and the lows have quickly turned.
Following a commercial timeout, Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings missed the technical foul shot. The Knicks erased that eight-point deficit that never became nine, and eventually defeated the Bucks, 111-107 to take control of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Consider just how bleak things looked at that moment with 8:52 left. Of the nine Knicks who played, Jared Jeffries was on a 15-minute max as he continues to recover from a knee injury. Baron Davis, suffering from knee, hamstring, back and neck injuries, had maxed out his 19 minutes, as the only Knicks point guard. Mike Bibby, in his nine ineffective minutes of action, reminded everyone of why Toney Douglas had received another shot at backing up Davis. (Douglas, coincidentally, usually does the same favor for Bibby.)
That left six usable players. Aside from Anthony, who looked injured, New York had J.R. Smith, who'd missed four of his last five shots, Tyson Chandler, who had four fouls already, Steve Novak, who had made just one of his last 12 shot attempts dating back three games, and the inconsistent offense, though steady defense, of Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields, both of whom play the same position, or would, on a team without so many injuries.
Five of the six, with the exception of Fields (who didn't play much down the stretch) would play key roles in the comeback.
The run that saved the Knicks' season began, appropriately enough, with a Chandler dunk. I didn't even include his injuries on the list of banged-up Knicks, but he's been playing with hand and wrist injuries that may or may not include a fracture, depending on whether you believe Carmelo Anthony. He's refused to detail them, and though there appear to be some effects--he doesn't seem to catch the ball as easily in the paint, and has compensated for a difficulty gripping rebounds by knocking loose balls out to the perimeter, volleyball-style, and his shooting percentage has dropped from around 70 percent before the injury to about 63 percent since--Chandler was utterly flawless on Wednesday night from the field, shooting 6-for-6, and from the line, shooting 7-for-7. 19 points, 11 rebounds, and even strong perimeter defense on Monta Ellis, Milwaukee's best scorer, late in the game, while battling foul trouble. It was the kind of game that should remind everyone just how great he has been for New York this year.
Anthony, though his season hasn't had the consistency of Chandler's, has provided the offense New York has desperately needed without Jeremy Lin or Amar'e Stoudemire. Fighting double-teams routinely, his shot percentage has perversely risen from just over 40 percent through the end of March, to 51.5 percent in his last five games. Anthony is averaging 32.5 points, so he's doing the delicate dance of producing without forcing. He scored seven points from the 8:52 mark on, grabbed four of his ten rebounds down the stretch, and blocked Mike Dunleavy's shot during a critical sequence with under a minute left and New York clinging to a 108-107 lead.
How New York got that lead, once Novak snapped his slump with a pair of long jumpers, and New York got a pair of steals from Shumpert to short-circuit a couple of Milwaukee possessions, had everything to do with J.R. Smith. He hit a long three-pointer with 4:39 left drew New York even at 99. A minute later, Smith grabbed an offensive rebound, drew the foul, and made two free throws to give New York the lead. Milwaukee fought back, matching Carmelo Anthony shot for shot, and took a 107-105 lead on a layup by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with 1:16 left. The sparse Bucks crowd roared, and New York needed to score.
So with Anthony blanketed, the ball kicked to Smith, and he drained a three to give the Knicks a lead they wouldn't relinquish. It may have been the biggest shot of the year. After a wild possession that followed for Milwaukee, including three missed shots that would have given the Bucks the lead, Smith also came away with the defensive rebound that helped New York seal the win.
All of which is to say, New York now holds both a two-game lead over Milwaukee for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, and, as of right now, the tiebreaker. (Since the two teams went 2-2 head-to-head, tiebreaker comes down to in-conference record, and the Knicks currently hold the edge there.)
The Knicks are going to need it. They host Washington Friday night, which should be an easier contest, but then face powerhouse Miami on Sunday and Boston, perhaps the league's hottest team right now, on Tuesday. The plus side is that all three are at home.
Milwaukee has an easier path just ahead, facing Detroit, Indiana and Washington. Only Indiana is a home game for the Bucks, but Detroit and Washington aren't good. It is easy to see Milwaukee winning the next three. Should the Knicks go 1-2, their lead will be gone, as would their tiebreaker advantage.
Really, though, it's foolish to try to predict what position the New York Knicks will do over the next three games. This team, down to only a few contributors, seems to thrive in season-threatening situations.