J.R. Smith closed out a disappointing season strong. Credit: Getty Images
The Knicks wrapped up their season as it began — undermanned — but that still didn’t deter them from ending it the right way, as they knocked off the Raptors, 95-92.
New York (37-45) was without All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who is suffering from a torn right labrum, but the scoring slack was ably picked up J.R. Smith, who notched a game-high 30 points. Smith, who has been on a hot streak since being inserted into the starting lineup over a month ago, continued his torrid stretch by shooting 13-of-19 from the field, including two 3-pointers.
Smith, who also added a game-high five steals, provided a pivotal theft and a subsequent free throw after getting fouled with 4.5 seconds remaining to salt away the game.
“We played harder. Our defense got us back into it [following a large deficit], and our offense executed and guys did their jobs,” said Smith, who then lamented the team’s early offseason. “The most difficult part was not getting in for the fans. They spend their hard-earned money to cheer us and they’re lights-out for us every night, so that’s the part that hurts the most. ... But I thought the turnout was great. They could’ve just packed it in and stayed home, but they’re hardcore Knicks fans and that’s what basketball is all about.”
Smith added that since the season is officially over, it’s time for the team to look within and see how they can avoid the pratfalls that plagued them this season.
“I’ll talk to my teammates, my coaches, [team president] Phil [Jackson], [general manager] Steve [Mills] and see what I need to do to get better for next year,” said Smith. “It’s time to regroup.”
Starting point guard Raymond Felton, who dressed but did not check into the game, got a head start on regrouping, as he gave way to Pablo Prigioni to finish out the string.
Prigioni tallied two points, three assists and two steals in 12 minutes of action.
Anthony’s spot in the starting lineup was filled by power forward Cole Aldrich, who started at center for Tyson Chandler. The former Defensive Player of the Year did not dress. Aldrich held his own against the veteran-laden Raptors frontline by outperforming every Toronto big man. Cole chipped in career highs in points (13) and rebounds (16), while adding a game-high five blocked shots. His 40 minutes were also a career high.
“It’s a tribute to the guys, the coaching staff, who work with him. He’s getting very persistent in terms of the work he’s putting in,” said head coach Mike Woodson. “He’s earned the right to play for somebody’s ball club next year, the way he’s played when given the chance.”
The Knicks ended their disappointing campaign on a high note, as they erased a 21-point deficit in the first half to finish the season on a four-game winning streak.
Woodson said it was promising to see how well his squad played down the stretch, even if it was too little, too late.
“When the injuries started to pile up, all we could do was try and relate to last year and plug in guys and get it done. But we were never really able to do that and it became a struggle early on,” Woodson said. “But the last two months was really Knicks basketball and how it should’ve been played all season.”
The loss was inconsequential for the Raptors (48-34) as they already wrapped up the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, thanks to an earlier loss by the Bulls.
Kyle Lowry led the way for the Atlantic Division champions with 22 points.
Knicks notes ...
» Knicks fans didn’t see Anthony, meaning there’s no telling if tonight was the last time the Garden faithful will see their hero on their bench. Anthony will most certainly opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent. The Knicks, however, can offer Anthony the maximum amount of dollars on a new deal — roughly $30 million more than any other team — which could make it very difficult for the scoring machine to bolt New York.
» Aldrich wasn’t the only relative unknown who acquitted himself nicely in front of the new Knicks regime, as point guard Toure Murry contributed 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including two 3-pointers. Murry saw few minutes this year, as he was essentially the third-string point guard. But he ably adapted to the extended playing time in going head-to-head with the Raptors stellar lead guard Kyle Lowry.
» Newly-minted team president Phil Jackson announced the signing of free agent forward Lamar Odom, who won two championships when Jackson was his head coach. Odom, a Queens native, has played 14 NBA seasons and has career averages of 13.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 33.4 minutes of action. The 6-foot-10 Odom can play multiple positions, including point-forward.
» Smith turned it on for the Knicks in the final five weeks when he was inserted into the starting lineup, as he averaged 18.2 points in 32.6 minutes and shot 48 percent from the field – including 44.4 percent in 3s. He averaged 3.7 made 3s per game.
» Woodson praised his two cornerstone players for their service all season: “Melo was there for us all year. He refused to buckle and kept us in the hunt. And the fact that Amar’e’s minutes grew really helped us make that final push. It was nice to see because I knew what he’s been through the past two seasons.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter@TBone8.