The Knicks aren’t used to winning gritty basketball games under the Mike D’Antoni regime, but they’ll certainly take it, as they knocked off a surging Sixers squad, 85-79.
New York (6-4), winners of its last four, ended a six-game winning streak for a Philadelphia (7-3) squad that was wrapping up its third leg of a back-to-back-to-back stretch. The Sixers were game, however, as they continually battled back from double-digit deficits including a 17-point margin in the fourth quarter. But it was the clutch play of Carmelo Anthony who managed to stave off the collapse. Anthony netted six of his game-high 27 points down the stretch to overcome an ugly fourth quarter in which the Knicks had 12 turnovers and, along with the Sixers, went the final 5:50 without a field goal.
The Knicks got help from an unusual source, rookie forward Josh Harrellson, who tallied seven of his 13 points in the first quarter. Harrellson also nailed three 3-pointers, including a trey as time expired in the third quarter, and a blocked shot to give the Knicks’ bench a boost of energy.
“Josh plays well a lot. It’s just that it’s usually some of the things you don’t see [in the box score] like playing strong defense,” said D’Antoni. “I think he’ll keep getting better and if he continues to knock down shots he’ll open up the floor for Melo and Amar’e.”
New York’s other rookie, Iman Shumpert, once again got the start at point guard and the swingman didn’t disappoint. Shumpert stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals. Shumpert was a key player in numerous Knicks’ runs whenever the Sixers tried to forge a comeback. His most versatile moment came in the midst of a key 11-1 fourth-quarter run, with Anthony on the bench, as he buried a mid-range jumper to raise the lead to 15 and then ignited a fastbreak after a sweet pick-pocket steal. He then found Amar’e Stoudemire with a thunderous dunk to raise the lead to 17, which would be the largest margin of the night.
The lead wouldn’t stick, however, as the Sixers managed to chip away in large part due to the Knicks’ inability to close out the game. It was a testament to the Sixers’ mettle, but also to the way the Knicks’ offense suddenly stalled. D’Antoni said that offensive ineptness can’t continue, no matter how well the defense is picking up the slack.
“We can’t keep games in the 70s and think that’s good enough. We need more and we will,” D’Antoni said. “We know [defense] is going to be a key down the stretch anyway. Tyson [Chandler] and Shumpert make a big difference, [but] our offense was stagnant and it needs to be better than that. … We’ll have to get through some days like that though.”
The Knicks rode their newfound defensive intensity to the win as they stifled the athletic Sixers. Although they had five players in double-figures scoring, none had more than Andre Iguodala’s 16 points. The Sixers finished 39.5 percent from the field, including an anemic 20 percent from behind the arc. Heading into the game, Philadelphia led the league with a plus-16 in points differential, but constantly found themselves on the wrong end of runs. The Knicks forged 13-0, 16-0 and 7-0 runs throughout the game to always keep the Sixers at arm’s length. Not even an 11-0 run in the waning minutes could help Philadelphia get over the hump, as the closest they’d get would be four points with 29.7 seconds remaining.
Chandler said it was great to have Anthony bail out the offense with his usual aggressive attacks to the rim that forced the defense to put him on the foul line, but added the offense still needs to match the efficiency of their defense.
“Ball movement stalled and Melo carried us for a stretch when he got hot. In the end he made enough to save us,” Chandler said. “It was definitely a physical game, but the offense will come. We struggled, but that’s how it’s going to be at times when you’re playing one of the top teams in the conference.”
Overall, Chandler, who was brought in to change the culture of the once-lackadaisical defense, said he’s more than happy to win this way — for now.
“We did a great job at communicating. We’re being smart about it now,” Chandler said. “Earlier in the season guys were attacking the glass, but not getting back on defense. But now we have one or two guys getting back at all times.”
The collective basketball IQ of the team has been raised this year, said D’Antoni.
“It’s been a rough couple of games, but we’ll take it. When you get good defensive players you play good defense, there’s no secret to it. Guys are buying in and Tyson and Iman are the catalyst. When guys see them do it they buy into it and it raises the intensity,” D’Antoni said, adding the game was very important to get considering how tight the Atlantic Division is. “This was a big game [because] it was in our division. It was almost like it counted twice, one good for us and one bad for them.”
» Harrellson said he’s been encouraged as much as Shumpert has by the veterans, as they’re constantly telling the soft-shooting big to fire away: “My teammates gave me confidence to keep shooting it, especially when they double-team either Melo, Amar’e or Tyson. Melo keeps telling me to shoot it from the corner because that’s where I’m usually open.
More so than his scoring tonight, Harrellson said he was most proud of the way he battled former all-star forward Elton Brand: “We’ve had a lot of good quarters because we’ve become a good defensive team. My mind was to keep him [Brand] out of the paint and thankfully his shots weren’t falling (four-of-11).”
» D’Antoni said people can sleep on his rookies all they want, but he’s not surprised with how much they’re already contributing: “I don’t think anything is a surprise. But [Shumpert’s] hands and strength on the defensive end is what is nice and what we noticed. And since he started we’ve won four in a row and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. We’ve added two really good pieces to go with the addition of Tyson.
»The Sixers shot a season-low 31 percent after the first quarter and also had a season-low in first-half points with 35. The Knicks forced seven turnovers in the opening quarter.
At one point the Knicks knocked down seven-straight threes, but cooled off considerably, finishing the game shooting 6-of-22 from behind the arc.
» Up next for the Knicks is a Thursday night nationally-televised game at Memphis.
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.