The maiden game of the Phil Jackson era was a rousing success for the Knicks as they toppled the Pacers, 92-86.
It wasn’t as if he really needed to, but Carmelo Anthony showed his worth to his new boss by scorching the Pacers with a game-high 34 points. Anthony shot 12-of-23 from the field, with either All-Star forward Paul George or rugged power forward David West draped all over him, and did all his damage inside the 3-point line as he failed to knock down a shot from behind the arc (0-of-4).
Amar’e Stoudemire more than complemented the All-Star forward by adding 21 points (8-of-15 shooting) in 29 minutes of action, as he bedeviled each Pacer big man assigned to him.
“Amar’e is healthy and playing more minutes now — almost 30 minutes a game — and because of that his stats have been off the chain in terms of how he’s been playing. It’s a major plus,” said Woodson. “It’d be nice to have Kenyon [Martin] and [Andrea] Bargnani back in there but they’re not here, so we gotta go with what we’ve got.”
“I think getting consistent playing time has been awesome,” said Stoudemire. “Being able to play those minutes has created confidence and I now know what to expect every night and it’s been working out well so far.”
The Knicks (28-40) even won the rebounding matchup, 45-40. Their stifling defense hampered a Pacers (50-18) squad that is already offensively deficient.
Indiana was held to just 14 points in the first quarter to set the tone, as the Knicks flashed back to last season’s defensive intensity – particularly by stifling the Pacers’ top player, George. The versatile wing was never in the game for Indiana, as he could only muster 17 points on a horrid 4-of-17 shooting from the field. He began the game 0-of-6 from the field and didn’t notch his first points until there were 21 seconds remaining in the first half. He entered the fourth quarter 1-of-11 from the field.
“The perimeter players did an excellent job on him — [Iman] Shumpert, Melo [Carmelo Anthony] and whoever else had their turn on him,” said Tyson Chandler. “They did an excellent job at taking it to him and taking away his first option.”
Woodson said it wasn’t just the perimeter players who played locked-down defense, as it was a total team effort.
“They are the best team defensively in the league and they held us right around where they hold most teams — 92 points for us — but our defense was a lot better,” said Woodson. “I thought when we played them a couple months ago that we were the more aggressive team but just couldn’t finish. It was a grind-out game [and] both teams were getting after it defensively. But this time I think we held our composure, even when they cut into the lead, and brought it home.”
By bringing home the win, the Knicks showed grit, but they also needed a little luck in knocking off the Eastern Conference’s top team. A broken play appeared to stem the tide for them when point guard Raymond Felton’s prayer of a 3-pointer banked in with 5:45 remaining in the game. The bucket gave the Knicks a nine-point lead — their largest of the quarter — while also igniting the crowd and seemingly taking the air out of the Pacers.
The collective energy of the team and Garden faithful were raised after that shot — hard to do considering the players and fanbase were already worked up with Jackson in attendance.
Woodson acknowledged the atmosphere has been different since Jackson’s arrival, but ultimately credited the team’s elevated play to the guys on the floor.
“We’ve had our struggles at home this year, but the energy is raised now,” Woodson said. “Bringing Phil back was huge and has energized the city and our fans, but the credit is mostly due to the guys in the locker room. They dug themselves into the hole and now are fighting hard to get out of the hole. … Our backs are against the wall and we gotta play like every game is our last game.”
Indiana’s other All-Star, center Roy Hibbert, had an aesthetically pleasing stat sheet as he registered 20 points on a stellar 8-of-10 shooting from the floor, but was a non-factor when his team needed him the most. The 7-foot-2 pivot, who tormented the Knicks in last season’s playoffs, played as if he was going through the motions for stretches of the game — save for a 12-point effort in the third quarter — and never really asserted himself down the stretch.
The Knicks currently own a seven-game winning streak. And while they’ve mostly fed off a weak schedule to get back into the playoff race, Woodson said he’ll take it. He also added that no matter who they played prior to the Pacers, he’s proud his team rose to the occasion and kept pace with the two teams directly ahead of them — the Bobcats and Hawks.
“Every game from here on out will be a test and Indiana was no different as they’re the best team record-wise in the conference,” said Woodson.
New York will look to notch its eighth win in a row against an historically bad Sixers (15-53) squad in the midst of a 22-game losing streak.
Knicks notes …
»The Knicks inched closer to the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference – and a possible first-round matchup with the top-seeded Pacers. New York’s win allowed them to gain a full game on the seventh-seeded Bobcats, who lost to the Nets on Wednesday, and a half game on the eighth-seeded Hawks, who were idle. The Bobcats (33-36) have six games remaining on their schedule against teams .500 or better, while the Hawks (31-35) have nine against teams .500 or better. The Knicks (28-40) are tied with the Hawks with nine games against winning teams.
»Woodson earned his 100th win as the Knicks coach, becoming just the sixth coach to do so in franchise history.
»Stoudemire said he’s noticed that cohesion has improved during this stretch:
“We definitely need to move the ball. It’s very contagious,” Stoudemire said. “Players get their confidence going if they’re involved early. The more that happens the better we are. … It’s brilliant [because] we’re playing great basketball on both ends of the court, getting stops, the ball is moving and we’re scoring at a high rate. And I think we’re keeping our composure more now and even when teams go on a run, we just gather ourselves and make our own runs.”
»Chandler said he likes the buzz that’s currently surrounding the team since Jackson was hired.
“He brings a championship mentality and we welcome him with open arms,” Chandler said.
Stoudemire agreed having Jackson as his new boss can only help.
“It’s great. With a guy like Phil it creates a winning mentality and it creates that winning atmosphere,” Stoudemire said. “It’s pretty golden and we need to capitalize on that.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.