10:15 am Apr. 19, 2012
J.R. Smith sat at a light wooden locker, unadorned by anything other than his bookbag, in the visitors' locker room of the Prudential Center in Newark following New York's 104-95 win over the soon-to-be ex-New Jersey Nets.
"The most important thing is that we got the win," Smith said, chuckling about his team's uneven performance. "It kind of had a funky little vibe to it. But we'll take it however we can get it."
In the second-to-last home game for a Nets franchise moving to Brooklyn, the New York enjoyed a resolutely partisan pro-Knicks crowd as they overcame an injury-riddled New Jersey team. The Nets were without star point guard Deron Williams, who had a sore calf, and center Brook Lopez.
That was a good thing for the Knicks, who are notably short-handed at the moment, too. Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin were still missing with back and knee injuries, respectively. Baron Davis, whose stomach flu hampered him on Tuesday night, couldn't play at all. And Jared Jeffries, who had been limited to a 15-minute maximum since returning from a knee injury, missed Wednesday night's game entirely as well. So New York was missing 40 percent of its rotation, and that 40 percent represented their starter and backup at the point guard and power-forward positions.
Fortunately, the Knicks are arguably employing the best player in the N.B.A. at the moment. Carmelo Anthony got off to a very fast start, scoring 18 points in the first eight minutes of the game, as the Knicks built a 33-15 lead, to the delight of the crowd, which was dominated by blue and orange, intermingled with white Knicks jerseys.
Anthony smiled his way through the half, basking in the love of the friendly fans. The difference between the way the road player was feted and the near-silence for a video tribute to Jason Kidd, one of the most important players in Nets history, was stark.
"I felt good," an exhausted Anthony told reporters around his locker following the game. "Especially that first quarter, felt good, shot was falling. It was good for me to get out to a fast start."
It was particularly good for the Knicks, because the rest of the team wasn't doing much. Smith's shot wasn't falling, with the combustible guard just 2-for-6 for the half. And the Nets were doing a solid job keeping three-point specialist Steve Novak from seeing any daylight, keeping him to a single three-pointer at the half. Instead, it was up to point guard Mike Bibby, whose limited mobility and diminished skills had kept him from playing extended minutes for most of the season, to help the rest of the team complement Anthony, who had 27 points at the break to give New York a 64-47 halftime advantage.
Bibby had played a maximum of 22 minutes in a game through the middle of last week, but without any other options, has played 23, 26 and last night, 36 minutes in three of the past four games.
"It's starting to feel like I play basketball," Bibby told a group of reporters. "I haven't played basketball in a long time."
In the third quarter, New York's threes still weren't falling, and Anthony began to tire under the pressure of his second game in two nights and an endless parade of New Jersey double-teams. The Knicks scored just 14 points in the quarter, and New Jersey closed to within 76-71.
But ultimately, the Knicks had enough in them to hold the Nets off. Smith scored nine in the fourth quarter, Novak chipped in with a pair of threes. Anthony contributed a pair of free throws with 4:22 left.
With the clock running out on New Jersey, Anthony pulled at the bottom of his jersey shorts, visibly winded, about to shoot his free throws. The crowd loudly chanted, "MVP! MVP!"
"It felt good to see all those Knicks jerseys in the stands," Anthony said afterward, smiling at the thought. "It was a great Knicks atmosphere."
Anthony sank his free throws and walked back up the court, conserving some of the energy he'll need to continue carrying the Knicks.