11:54 am Apr. 26, 20121
The New York Knicks entered Wednesday night's game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Madison Square Garden with conflicting motivations.
They knew that if they won, and Orlando lost, they would have kept alive the possibility of earning the Eastern Conference's sixth seed and avoiding the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, which start this weekend. But Orlando won, with their game starting a full hour prior to the Knicks game, so New York could and did monitor the action.
So the Knicks arguably had nothing to play for in terms of the standings, and in fact many observers believed they'd be better off losing out, possibly dropping them to eighth place. That would have given them a playoff match-up against the Bulls, with a still-hobbled Derrick Rose, rather than the full-strength Heat.
Then there was the related but still distinct question of how much coach Mike Woodson should play the players he'd be relying on in the playoffs. For Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, learning to co-exist in the same offense was an ongiong process. Balancing Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler in the paint was necessary work, too. But every minute they played, to say nothing of the minutes being given to injured Knicks such as Baron Davis, meant they'd be that much less fresh when the playoffs began.
Tyson Chandler, the team's defensive-titan center, has no interest in any of this.
"My whole thing is win," Chandler told the reporters assembled around his locker following New York's 99-93 victory over the Clippers. "We win out, and let the cards fall the way they do."
The Knicks played with urgency early on, even as the crowd at Madison Square Garden stayed unusually sedate. Anthony played the full first quarter, Stoudemire and Chandler nearly all of it. New York led 24-19.
As the first quarter ended in New York, Orlando was up over the Charlotte Bobcats, 45-29. It appeared to be time to call off the Big Three.
But the Knicks soldiered on, extended their lead to as many as 13 points (in front of a modestly appreciative M.S.G. crowd), and led 48-39 over the Clippers, who were without Chris Paul, but still had high-flying Blake Griffin, and seeding to play for.
As the Knicks prepared for the second half, the Charlotte Bobcats came back. Their deficit was cut to ten, then seven, the four as the third quarter began in New York. Their resurrection was noted on the Madison Square Garden scoreboard, and the crowd greeted the news in a way that indicated that most of them knew the playoff math by heart. Shortly thereafter, the Bobcats got to within one, and the Knicks beat reporters started discussing the prospect of having to travel not to Miami this weekend, but to Indianapolis.
The Knicks stars played on, with Anthony and Stoudemire joining Chandler for most of the third quarter. Keyed by Paul's understudy, Randy Foye, the Clippers drew to as close as one point. But New York responded, extended the lead back to six points. And shortly after, word came down that the Magic had held off Charlotte after all.
Carmelo Anthony went to the bench. He wouldn't return. There was officially nothing to play for anymore.
But the Knicks decided not to lose. Keyed by a lineup anchored by Stoudemire, but without Anthony or Chandler, New York extended its lead to 91-74 midway through the fourth quarter. Stoudemire came out to cheers, replaced by the recently signed Dan Gadzuric. A brief "Beat the Heat" chant began.
The five Knicks assigned to kill off the game were Gadzuric, Landry Fields, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Mike Bibby. Such an alignment has no clear scoring options, or even a clear path to scoring, outside of Smith taking it himself, or Novak finding a bit of space to shoot a three. And the resulting defensive assignments made the offense look organized.
The results, especially a Clippers team that still had motivation, was about what you'd expect. By the three-minute mark, New York's lead was down to 91-86. But was this a bad thing? A loss meant a much better chance of facing the Bulls rather than the Heat. Fans normally in a panic over such a fourth-quarter collapse instead reacted to the proceedings like dispassionate scientists.
Chandler wasn't having it, though.
"I told coach I wanted to go back in," he said, following the game. "We lost the courage a little bit defensively, and guys were just open, so I wanted to come in and just calm my guys a little bit."
Chandler re-entered the game to cheers. It was one thing to be comfortable with the loss in the abstract. That didn't mean the Garden crowd didn't love seeing New York's most consistent player coming back out to keep the Knicks on top.
The Clippers drew to within three. A Blake Griffin attempt to drive was forcibly rebuffed by a Chandler block. Griffin managed to get off an acrobatic shot to close the gap to a single point with under a minute left. But the easy baskets had disappeared, and the Clippers ran out of time.
As Chandler stood at the free throw line, the crowd began a much louder and longer-lasting "Beat the Heat!" chant. The Knicks center remained in the meaningless game to the final buzzer.