Today’s NBA requires at least two star players on a roster just to compete on a nightly basis, but to contend for a title, even that’s not enough.
As Shaquille O’Neal likes to say, true contenders not only need their stars to show up each night, but they need “the others” too. Those others are a team’s unsung heroes – a supporting cast that’s as courageous and effective as the stars they follow.
The Knicks (21-22) are currently on the outside looking in for playoff contention, as they’re sitting right behind the Celtics (22-20) for the eight seed. But with their recent surge of being winners in six of its last 10 games, the Celtics’ current slide (4-6 in their last 10), and ascending play from its supporting cast, New York is primed to take the next step in truly being a legitimate playoff contender.
New York’s two stars, Carmelo Anthony and rookie Kristaps Porzingis, have been consistently stellar on a nightly basis, but they need help if they’re to lead this squad into the playoffs. Help has now seemingly arrived with the recent play of guys like Arron Afflalo, Jose Calderon, Derrick Williams, Robin Lopez, rookie Jerian Grant, and Lance Thomas. None of the aforementioned will strike fear in opponents individually, but collectively, they’ve all raised their games lately to really give the Knicks some balance.
“I think guys are coming along,” said head coach Derek Fisher. “Guys are able to finish games out when they’re [Anthony or Porzingis] out.”
Monday’s matinee win over the 76ers was a great showcase for the unsung. Anthony had perhaps the biggest highlight when he knocked down the straight-away 3-pointer with three seconds remaining to send the game into overtime. But it was the others that truly cemented the thrilling double-overtime victory. Afflalo led all scorers with 25 points, including clutch shots in both regulation and the extra frames. Lopez broke out with a double-double (16 points and 10 rebounds) and two blocks, while Thomas notched 12 points and four rebounds. Every bit of those efforts were needed, especially when Porzingis exited the game with 2:40 remaining in regulation following a foot injury.
The previous time that the Knicks played at the Garden, Jan. 12, a 120-114 win over the Celtics, also featured the supporting cast picking up the slack following an injury to one of its stars. Anthony left the game with 1:16 remaining in the first half with an ankle injury and the Knicks owning a 12-point lead. And while New York almost let that margin dissolve, it was the reserves that stemmed the tide and brought home the win.
Fisher has been proud of the way his squad has come together lately, and how the relative unknowns are carrying their weight.
“It’s a big confidence boost that proves that we are really a team,” said Fisher. “Sometimes guys go down, whether injury or foul trouble, and you need those guys to step up, make plays, and win the game – and not be afraid of the moment … We’re having guys lately doing that.”
Fisher also highlighted the play of his bigs, namely Lopez and Williams – the latter being a pleasant surprise and really excelling at his role as a primary backup at both the small forward and power forward positions.
Williams’ home and road splits are striking, as he seems to enjoy away games more. He’s averaging 7.9 points on 41 percent from the field – including a paltry 10 percent on 3s. But away from the Garden, he’s averaging 9.4 points on 48 percent from the field, including 35 percent on 3s. Despite the disparity, Fisher has confidence in the former second-overall draft pick of the 2011 draft. Williams is second on the team in free throw attempts, despite being eighth in minutes, which shows how valuable his high-energy play is.
“He [Williams] has picked up his output lately, especially when Melo [Anthony] is out of the lineup or in foul trouble. He’s been great for us with his effort and energy,” said Fisher, adding Lopez has played above his means recently, despite the up-and-down nature of his minutes. “Robin has been great and he’s been helping us a lot with his defense and rebounding.”
Lopez, who only plays about 28 minutes a night, secured double-digit rebounds for the second time in three games, and his performance was his best since the last double-double he registered versus Atlanta on Jan. 3.
If the Knicks wish to get into the playoff bracket and actually make some noise in the postseason, they’ll need to get the others involved more to ease the burden on their two star players.
-Porzingis has a team-high 16 double-doubles this season.
-The rookie sensation, who may be listed as questionable, also noted he expects to play Wednesday, when the Knicks host the Jazz: “I’m sure I’ll be fine,” he said. “I expect to be back on Wednesday. I’m young, I recover quick.”
-Kevin Seraphin (bruised right rib) and Thomas (sore left knee) are also questionable for Wednesday's game.