The third quarter last season for the Knicks was, as Bill Pidto would put it, a toxic situation. So many games were lost in that quarter alone, it became a regular topic on the Ford Knicks Post Game Show.
The Knicks were the sixth-lowest scoring third-quarter team last season, at 22.7 points per third quarter. They often came out of the half flat on offense and it cost them. Who knows, it may have cost them enough wins to get the Atlantic Division and potential home-court advantage in the first round.
This season so far, the Knicks have reversed the trend. They’ve used the third quarter to take control of games, to hold off anticipated counter-attacks by opponents, and to take control of games before the fourth quarter begins. Statistically speaking, the difference so far stands out with their standing as the fifth-highest scoring team in the NBA in the third quarter (26.5) and second-best defensive team in the third quarter, allowing just 20.5 points per game in the third.
What’s the difference? Adjustments by the coaching staff, for one, but a notable difference is a mindset that starts in the locker room when the players talk before they head back out to the court. In Philadelphia, after the Knicks rallied from an early 10-point deficit, they talked at halftime about how great their potential is for a team that is still getting to know each other. Then on Friday, after taking a two-point deficit into the half, Tyson Chandler, one of the strongest voices in the room, laid down a challenge.
“We’re not going to come back into this locker room disappointed and feel like we let one get away,” he said.
“Tyson’s always vocal,” Carmelo Anthony said. “He was very vocal about not letting this one slip away.”
Jason Kidd then brought the group together into a huddle before the half started and implored them to “buckle down,get into the passing lanes” and “make it hard on them.” He then added, “No easy shots.”
Kidd then put his words to action, with a pair of steals and he also drew an offensive charge while scoring four points in 4:46 in the quarter. The Knicks outscored the Mavs, 29-21, took an 84-78 lead into the fourth quarter and never looked back.
“He was the guy that really stepped us up in the second half on defense,” Raymond Felton said. “He got a couple of steals there, he got to be more aggressive with O.J. Mayo, got them out of their offense. He’s the guy that got us going second half with our defense. Everybody just followed his lead from there.”
The Knicks eventually returned to that locker room and, as Chandler said, they were not disappointed.
“This was one of those set-up games, where you let a team stay around and they bite you in the end,” Chandler said of playing the upstart Mavs, who were having success despite playing without Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion.
Mike Woodson beamed with pride as he boasted that his team has held opponents under 40 points in the second half in each of the first four games.
“That’s locking in,” he said, “and taking pride in defending the ball.”
That’s a team that accepted a challenge at halftime.
THE START OF SOMETHING GOOD?
The win on Friday gave the Knicks (4-0) their third-best start in franchise history. A win over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday would match the second-best start at 5-0, set by Red Holzman’s 1969-70 team, which won the franchise’s first NBA title.
It will be a tough challenge to match the franchise’s best start, which was 7-0 by Pat Riley’s 1993-94 team. After the game in Orlando, the Knicks play a difficult back-to-back on the road at San Antonio (Thursday) and Memphis (Friday).
Impossible? No. But very difficult.
But this team has already done something those teams did not accomplish. By winning all four games by a double-digit margin, the Knicks became the fourth NBA team in the last 25 years — and first in franchise history — to win its first four games by double figures, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The other three teams are the Portland Trail Blazers (1999-2000), Utah Jazz (2004-05) and Phoenix Suns (2004-05).
Obviously there is no championship precedence set with that feat, but if the Knicks are looking short-term right now, it does bode well. That ’69-70 team went on to win the Atlantic Division in the first season of divisional play. The ’93-94 team also won the Atlantic and remains the last time the Knicks won the division.
RONNIE ON THE SPOT
J.R. Smith (22 points, 4 steals vs. Mavs) has been very impressive early on in his Sixth Man role and right now is looking like a bargain at the $2.8 million he re-signed at with the Knicks. But a player who is looking like an even bigger steal is Ronnie Brewer. At a cost of $854,389 against the cap, Brewer has provided solid defense and some surprising offense early on as the starting small forward.
Once again, Brewer filled up the stat sheet on Friday against the Mavs, with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot. He hit 2-of-4 from three-point range, where he has been uncharacteristically reliable early on. Four games into the season, Brewer is a sizzling 7-for-13 (53.8 percent) from downtown. For his career, Brewer is a 25.7 percent shooter from three-point range.
DEFENSIVE IDENTITY SET
After four games, the Knicks have achieved the standard Mike Woodson set for them in training camp: to be the best defense in the NBA. Now they have to maintain it for another 78 games. The team ranks No. 1 in two key defensive categories: Opponent scoring (87.5 points per game against) and Opponent shooting (40.7%).
The Knicks are also tied for third in opponent turnovers (18.0 per game) and third in steals at 10.25 per game. They were ranked second in both categories last season.
Something else that points to the team’s tough defensive mindset is that they have held opponents to just 18.75 points per game in the fourth quarter this season.
• The coaching staff owed the players five “touches” at practice this weekend. The coaches and players have a challenge going this season, which was revealed on the Mike Woodson Show (which airs Friday’s at 6:30 p.m. on MSG Network). If the team has more than 13 turnovers, the players have to run the overage in touches (baseline-to-baseline sprints). If they are under 13, the coaches have the run the difference. An offensive charge eliminates one turnover, so with nine turnovers and a charge by Kidd, the team was five under following Friday’s win.
• The Knicks may not have to run extra in practice, but they will be shooting extra free throws after a 26-for-38 performance from the line against Dallas. This came a game after the team hit 19-for-19 from the line in Monday’s win over Philadelphia. Melo (9-for-14) was one of the main culprits, followed by Felton (2-for-5).
• Fun, but otherwise useless fact: The last time the Knicks were the last undefeated team in the NBA? 1958-59. Fuzzy Levane’s team was 2-0 in an eight-team league.
• Anyone else find it ironic that the Knicks, with the oldest roster in the NBA, are not playing on Veterans Day? (All kidding aside, a huge thank you those who have served or are currently serving in our country’s Armed Forces. I want you on that wall, I NEED you on that wall.)
• While the Knicks take aim at the franchise record for wins to start a season, some of you blissfully optimistic types may wonder what the NBA record is to start a season without a loss. OK, we’ll tell you. That belongs to the Houston Rockets, who exploded to a 15-0 start in that same 1993-94 season that the Knicks opened up at 7-0. In fact, well after the Knicks’ streak ended, the Rockets recorded their 15th straight win against, yes, the Knicks at The Garden on Dec. 2, 1993. The streak ended the very next night in Atlanta. (As you all know, the Knicks and Rockets met in the NBA Finals later that season).
• Oh and for another historic parallel: the Knicks’ 7-0 streak to start that season ended at San Antonio that season. Should the Knicks beat the Magic on Tuesday, they’d be 5-0 going into … San Antonio.
• Some have asked why Amar’e Stoudemire has been absent from the Knicks’ bench during games. It has to do with the fact that he had a surgical procedure on his left knee. Sitting on the bench is not an ideal place for anyone recovering from knee surgery (Iman Shumpert is much further along in his recovery and, therefore, chooses to sit there). Stoudemire, who is understandably frustrated by his latest medical issue, has been doing his rehabilitation work with the training staff behind the scenes. There are already plenty of questions about how effective he can be when he returns (sometime in late December) and how he will fit into Woodson’s rotation. There is still at least another month before this topic moves to the front burner. On Saturday, Stoudemire made a rare public appearance when he joined Brewer and Rasheed Wallace to assist in handing out supplies in Far Rockaway.
• Friday’s fundraiser by MSG Network and the Garden of Dreams Foundation was a great success, as we generated nearly $200,000 during our broadcast of the game. Net proceeds will be contributed to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, the American Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations, to assist those in the tri-state area who have been impacted by Hurricane Sandy. But we’re not finished with the effort. You can still donate to the cause and have a chance to win some outstanding one-of-a-kind experiences by going to CharityBuzz.com, where an online auction will continue until Nov. 19. Thanks to everyone who contributed!