Nets beat Knicks, with good signs for both teams

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Amar'e Stoudemire drives. (NBA.com)
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The Brooklyn Nets' 88-85 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden was a meaningful one, for all the obvious reasons.

The Nets, thanks to an impressive fourth quarter from shooting guard Joe Johnson, managed to pull within a game of the Knicks in the Atlantic Division. The season series, now over, deadlocked at 2-2, keeping the Knicks from holding a tiebreaker over the Nets should the two be knotted at the end of the regular season. And the win further reinforced the new reality under P.J. Carlesimo, that the Nets can play with anyone, and are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.

But the game demonstrated a number of positives for both teams.

Let's start with how the Nets managed to earn this win. Joe Johnson was the primary reason. He set the tone early with a pair of three-pointers, and scored 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the opening quarter. He'd had fast starts before, even against the Knicks. But in the Carlesimo era, Johnson has also been a big finisher, and Monday was no different. Johnson scored 10 more in the fourth, including a jumper over J.R. Smith that gave the Nets an 85-84 lead with 22.3 seconds left.

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The big finishes are becoming routine for Johnson, who has three game-winners in the past few weeks. Since Carlesimo took over, Johnson has been every bit the player he was in Atlanta until the Nets acquired him this summer, shooting at or above his career norms overall and from three-point range, and operating as the go-to scorer for the Nets late in games.

That the Nets outrebounded the Knicks, 52-37, helped them to overcome a 19-5 deficit in turnovers.

All of which is part of the bigger picture for the Knicks on Monday. Locked within this loss was a guide to how the Knicks can regain their early-season dominance.

Start with Johnson, who, as mentioned, had a fast start and faster finish. In between those two periods, Johnson managed to play 22 minutes and shoot 0-for-8. The primary reason for his struggles was the defense of Iman Shumpert, back from a knee injury and playing in just his second game of the season. Accordingly, Shumpert was limited to just 20 minutes. Knicks coach Mike Woodson substituted for Shumpert with 7:58 to go in the game and the game tied at 75. There's no real question that a healthy Shumpert would have remained in the game down the stretch.

Immediately, Johnson made a three. He scored all of his fourth-quarter points after Shumpert left the game, and 10 of the 13 points the Nets scored over the final section of the game. If Shumpert's recovery continues as planned, the path the Nets took to victory Monday isn't going to exist in the playoffs.

There were reasons to be hopeful about the Knicks' offense too, when it's back to full strength. They are still without starting point guard Raymond Felton, and backup point guard Pablo Prigioni hurt himself after playing in just nine minutes.

That left Jason Kidd to log too many minutes (more than 35), while playing primarily point guard. In an effort to limit Kidd's exposure, point guard duties then fell to Carmelo Anthony.

Not only was Anthony up to the task, logging fully half of the team's 14 assists (no one else managed more than two), a key stretch late in the third quarter provided perhaps the best example since Anthony joined the Knicks that he and Amar'e Stoudemire can function in an effective offense with Tyson Chandler on the court, too (necessary to provide basic interior defensive protection).

With six minutes left in the third, and the Knicks trailing, 60-53, Stoudemire substituted for Shumpert. What followed was largely a two-man game between Anthony and Stoudemire. The final six minutes of the third, and first three of the fourth, saw the Knicks outscore the Nets, 22-12. Stoudemire and Anthony scored 15 of the 22 points, managing to draw significant defensive attention away from one another, and leveraging that attention by finding each other for open shots. Anthony had three assists in that span; all three went toward Stoudemire baskets. The spacing, so often lacking with the two stars playing at once, was at an equilibrium. And Stoudemire moved as if his knee injury was ancient history.

Anthony at power forward has already proven to be a dangerous weapon for the Knicks. Stoudemire scoring in a manner similar to past seasons will allow the Knicks to play him and rest Anthony, keeping him fresher. And the presence of both of them, if Monday is any indication, will mean good things for the Knicks' offense.

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