The Knicks almost overcame adversity in Thursday night’s prime time matchup with the Thunder, but ultimately it all proved to be too much in a 96-94 loss.
Already without MVP candidate Carmelo Anthony, who had fluid develop in his troubled right knee, the Knicks started a lineup that included lightly-used veterans Kurt Thomas and James White, and a still-recovering Iman Shumpert to battle the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed. The lineup gamble almost worked for the Knicks (37-22), as they battled until the end, but ultimately the Thunder (45-16) proved to be too much — especially when they had their go-to guy, Kevin Durant, able to close out the game.
Durant, who leads the league in scoring — percentage points ahead of Anthony — registered 34 points. He was aided by fellow All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook, who added 21 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals. Running mate Serge Ibaka, who forms their own version of the “Big 3,” added 12 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and countless other altered shots.
Despite not having Anthony in the lineup, the Knicks certainly had chances to pull off the upset due to the brilliance of J.R. Smith. The often-erratic shooting guard had arguably his best game of the season, as he tallied a game-high 36 points, including six 3-pointers. But it wasn’t just Smith’s hot hand that kept the Knicks in the ball game. He also contributed three steals and accounted for numerous “hockey assists” in which he made the smart pass that eventually lead to the actual assist. Smith was in such a zone that during one particular stretch spanning the second and third quarters, he accounted for 11 of the Knicks’ 15 made field goals. He had 18 first-half points to keep the Knicks within striking distance following a 16-0 Thunder run in the first quarter, and capped off a brilliant third quarter, in which he netted 13 points, with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Smith couldn’t duplicate such heroics at the final buzzer, however, as he missed what would’ve been the game-tying bucket.
“I really had the whole middle and didn’t have much room on the baseline,” Smith said, noting he decided to take the off-balance jumper at the buzzer so the Thunder wouldn’t have time to respond had he made it. “But the left side is my best side to get my shot up. I really should’ve went to the basket and taken a page out of LeBron’s book and just go to the basket. Worse comes to worst, I get the foul. But it didn’t work. My jumper was pretty much good all night, except for the fourth quarter and it just didn’t go in. … I waited a long time as well, [because] they got a good closer over there in KD [Kevin Durant], so I wanted to finish it off.”
The fact that Durant was in the back of Smith’s mind as the game was winding down, showed just how much respect — or maybe fear — the Knicks had for the three-time scoring champ.
“He’s so good. I didn’t want to make the shot too soon, so he could end up winning the game,” Smith said of Durant. “That’s a great team over there and we were a man down. If we play with that type of effort and intensity it’s going to be tough for a lot of teams to beat us.”
Head coach Mike Woodson said Anthony is “still day-to-day and we’ll know a little bit more tomorrow.” The coach added that Anthony “could play” on Saturday, at home against the Jazz. The Knicks are now 4-5 without Anthony.
Woodson didn’t sound like he was too thrilled with Smith’s final shot selection, but said the shot was ultimately up to Smith because he was riding the hot hand: “He could’ve ripped through and gone to the rim, but he didn’t and he settled.” Smith shot 2-of-9 in the fourth quarter, making just 1-of-5 from behind the arc.
Amar’e Stoudemire had a solid game with 16 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes of action, as Woodson made sure his power forward stayed close to the doctor-appointed 30-minute cap. Woodson, however, noted that Stoudemire’s minute restrictions could be lifted as he gets further along into the season: “Maybe his minutes will increase as we get closer to the playoffs, or get in a playoff series.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.