The Knicks continued their torrid stretch by disposing of the cross-river rival Nets, 110-81.
New York (33-43) has now won 12 of their last 15 games and are nipping at the heels of the reeling Hawks, who are desperately clinging to the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks lost to the Bulls, which means mere percentage points separate New York and Atlanta in the standings.
“Yeah, we’re watching what Atlanta does, because that’s important. But at the end of the day we’ve got to worry about who we’re playing,” said head coach Mike Woodson. “We’re playing another tough team on Friday [the Wizards] and so now we’ve got to get ready for them.”
The Knicks were certainly ready for the Nets, as J.R. Smith led the way. The sometimes erratic shooting guard systematically took apart the Brooklyn defense on 9-of-16 shooting — including 6-of-12 from behind the arc — for a game-high 24 points. Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire added 23 points and 13 points, respectively.
Anthony also added 10 rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot, while Stoudemire chipped in six rebounds and two blocks.
“The good thing behind this [winning stretch] is that STAT has been unbelievable,” said Woodson of Stoudemire. “And ever since we stuck him in the [starting] lineup it’s helped us tremendously.”
Smith acknowledged Stoudemire’s increasing presence, but added that tonight belonged to the supporting cast.
“Tim [Hardaway Jr.] is a warrior and one of the toughest-working rookies I’ve ever had in my 10 years. And he can only get better,” Smith said, marveling at how well Hardaway Jr. played just days after suffering a sprained ankle. “Shump [Iman Shumpert] did a great job, too. He’s been working hard all season. And when he’s playing defense like that he’s tough. That’s the way we need him to play all the time. And he’s tougher when he starts making shots and being athletic.”
Intercity rival aside, it was a big contest for both teams, as the Knicks are within reach of the postseason, while the Nets (40-34) are still trying to wrest away the Atlantic Division lead from the Raptors, as they entered tonight’s game just a game out of first place.
Smith reasoned that when the Knicks are playing like this, they’ll be a tough out for anyone should they get into the postseason.
“Melo does a great job of making the extra pass and passing out of the double teams. When he does and I shoot it well, it’s tough,” said Smith. “And when I don’t have [an open look], I can start looking for Tim on the other side and he’ll start making them. ... That makes it tough for us to guard.”
Brooklyn failed to field a tough assignment, as Joe Johnson was the team’s high-man with just 16 points. Point guard Deron Williams added 12 points. Both were glued to the bench by the midway mark of the final quarter, as the Knicks jumped out to a 29-point lead.
New York’s bench didn’t disappoint, as Woodson was quick to praise the way they maintained the sizeable lead — something the reserves failed to do in recent late-game situations.
“Without a doubt I felt we played tremendously off the bench. I came into the game figuring I’d just use an eight-man rotation tonight and our bench was really good with Pablo [Prigioni] and Timmy, but I thought Iman set the tone with his defense – especially when we went with the small-ball second unit,” Woodson said, adding he’s appreciative of Hardaway gutting out the injury. “I was surprised he decided to play, but we needed him. We need everybody at this point. And the fact he stepped up and played well meant everything for us tonight.”
Knicks notes ...
»The Knicks started the game hot, shooting 67 percent from the field and 50 percent on 3-pointers in the opening quarter, and stayed that way for most of the game by finishing at 60 percent and 44 percent, respectively. The 67 percent shooting in the first half was a season high for New York.
»Stoudemire’s early season minutes cap has paid off the longer the campaign has gone on, as he’s up to a season-high 28 minutes per game.
»The Knicks have been rolling over the last 15 games — winning their last 12 — which may or may not have coincided with head coach Mike Woodson’s decision to insert usual reserves J.R. Smith and Stoudemire into the starting lineup.
»Hardaway Jr. led the bench with 17 points — including 10 in the first half. Hardaway Jr., who was in a bit of a shooting rut before he rolled his ankle in the Warriors game, touched the Nets for 7-of-10 shooting, including three 3-pointers.
“They need my energy,” Hardaway Jr. said. “I’m not worried about anything that happened the last game or the game before that. I’m not worried about any shooting [slumps]. I just want to give energy and coming out and staying aggressive.”
»Iman Shumpert registered just 10 points, but his real contribution was on the defensive end where he had five steals — four in the first half. Smith said when Shumpert plays defense like that, it sets the tone.
“It starts with our defense,” Smith said. “When we got stops, then we start pushing the ball and then guys can make shots.”
»As bad as the Nets looked, they actually entered the game with the NBA’s best record since Jan. 1.
»Former Knicks point guard Jason Kidd endured a rough return to the Garden as the Nets’ head coach when he was hit with a technical foul in the first half — just as his former team was racing to a 26-point lead.
»Paul Pierce has been on a roll ever since head coach Jason Kidd inserted the small forward into the power forward spot out of necessity to aid the injury-riddled Nets. But his matchup against the Knicks’ big lineup didn’t go as planned as he was overmatched by New York’s frontline of Tyson Chandler, Stoudemire and Anthony. He could only muster a sluggish eight points on just 2-of-7 shooting.
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.