Stephen Jackson had just drilled an open three-pointer with 4:07 left in the third quarter to give the Spurs a 73-69 lead and Mike Woodson was hot. He quickly called a timeout and railed into his team about transition defense. The huddle was intense. Woodson did not want his team to give an inch.
But the Spurs kept coming and the Knicks defense just couldn’t do anything with Tony Parker, who continually got into the paint and found Tiago Splitter for easy baskets. The Brazilian big man ran off 13 straight points early in the fourth quarter and the Knicks deficit was now 89-77 with 7:14 left in the game. The Knicks were sunk. And Woodson called another timeout.
And once again, there was fire in the huddle. Intensity and anger spewed from all directions. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd saw signs of panic in the team for the first time this season. The leaders then spoke up and got the attention of their coach.
“That’s when we told him to calm down,” Chandler said with a chuckle.
“It was just like, ‘Everybody relax’,” Anthony said.
“Melo was the ringleader,” Chandler said of the moment. “Me and Melo said, ‘Listen, we have a chance here. We’re not out of this game.’ It seemed like everybody was getting a little frantic.”
Kidd told MSG Network’s Tina Cervasio, “That just shows our experience. We didn’t panic.”
After that timeout, Kidd brought the group together on the floor, as he’s done a few times already this season, for a quick pep talk. He saw something in the Spurs, despite their 12-point lead. He saw fatigue.
“They’re going to let us back in,” he told them.
Kidd also had it in his mind that he was going to lead his team back in, as well. It happened in 73 seconds. Raymond Felton attacked the rim for a drive to make it an 89-79 score with 7:02 left and then the Spurs started to miss. Patty Mills and Parker each missed jumpers, the second which came to Felton, who pushed the ball up the floor and fed Kidd for an open three. After Parker missed another shot, J.R. Smith grabbed the board and up the court the Knicks raced again. Smith hit Kidd for another three and just like that the deficit was four with 5:49 to go.
An eternity, especially for the exhausted Spurs.
“I think we ran out of gas,” Gregg Popovich admitted. “We got tired. Part of it was trying to guard those guys.”
San Antonio needed it to be a 41 minute game. Their energy plummeted in the final seven minutes, as the Knicks rode the momentum of Kidd’s threes into opportunistic, selfless offense (exemplified by Anthony’s smart decision to pass the ball on the break, which led to Smith’s go-ahead three-pointer with 1:48 to go) and an intense defensive clinic, which held the Spurs to just 8 points from Splitter’s three-point play with 7:14 to go until Kawhi Leonard hit a meaningless three-pointer with 5.4 seconds left and the game already decided. The Spurs left their home court stunned and spent.
“That’s a hell of a team,” Popovich said of the Knicks.
Woodson spoke with equal admiration for the 6-0 Knicks, who secured the first trademark win of the season and ended a nine-year drought in San Antonio. They also won him his first ever game at the AT&T Center after going winless in six visits with the Hawks.
“It shows me,” Woodson said, “that this team is for real.”
THE BEST ‘BAD’ GAME OF MELO’S CAREER
Afterward, Melo’s teammates were lauding his performance, and rightly so. While the boxscore shows he had just nine points on 3 of 12 shooting, there was no understating the impact he had on this win.
“A lot of people may say he had a bad game,” Felton said. “No, he had a great game. As far as he did his job for us, creating triple-teams, I’ve got to give him a lot of credit.”
Kidd added, “We knew [Popovich] wasn’t going to let him play tonight, so we tried to use him, I don’t want to say as a decoy, but he was getting triple- or double-teamed and we just tried to play off him and other guys had to step up and make plays. But Melo did a great job passing out of the double-team and defensively he was big for us.”
You might recall in the previous Fix we suggested this may be the case in this game. The Spurs were going to throw everything at Melo to limit his clean looks and see if the tactics that have worked in the past would work again. In previous years, Melo might have gotten frustrated, forced shots and broken plays just to get touches. He might have let the struggles on offense squelch his effort on defense. But none of that happened.
If this is a new Melo, this was his signature game.
“It was open, at that point in time, for me to find the open man, attack the offensive glass, rebound, play defense,” he said. “There was a lot of times where I was getting the ‘hockey assist’ rather than the actual assist. Guys were open. Any time you are triple-teamed, somebody is going to be open.”
Despite the low scoring total (which dropped him from the NBA scoring lead to sixth, not that such things should matter anymore to him), Melo helped out in an area the Knicks struggle: rebounding. He grabbed a team-high 12 boards and had five on the offensive glass. He also had three assists, but his passing – and deferring and willingness to play a decoy — also led to offense for others, especially Felton (25 points).
“He’s sacrificing everything for us,” Felton said. He then nodded towards Anthony in the locker room and said, “That’s a great teammate over there.”
Among Anthony’s “hockey assists” was the aforementioned pass to Felton on that critical fast break in the final two minutes. Kidd (who else?) picked off a bad pass from Manu Ginobili and found Anthony streaking down the right wing. Anthony had Ginobili dead in his tracks and probably could have overpowered him for a layup or foul, but Ginobili also could have slid under for an offensive charge. The Knicks were down one at the time.
Instead of forcing the shot, Anthony slipped it to Felton in the paint and Felton, with Tim Duncan looming over him, turned and kicked it out to a wide-open Smith for the go-ahead three with 1:48 to go.
At that moment, somewhere in Basketball Heaven, Red Holzman smiled.
“Tonight was a good way to show how together we are as a unit,” Anthony said. “We did it as one tonight.”
This wasn’t lost on the Spurs, who are the standard-bearers of the share-the-ball principle. These are not the same old Knicks.
“They went from two guys shooting all the balls,” Stephen Jackson said, “to a team that everybody has confidence in everybody else.”
• Not much time to enjoy this one, as the big, burly Grizzlies are up next in Memphis Friday night (Knicks Game Night begins at 9 p.m. on MSG Networks). Anthony suggested he may need a break from playing the power forward spot after battling Leonard, Jackson and DeJuan Blair in San Antonio and with Zach Randolph in Memphis on deck. But it doesn’t get any easier if he moves to the small forward position, where Rudy Gay is more than equipped to take him on.
• Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas were both DNPs in San Antonio, but will Woodson take advantage of their rested legs in the back-to-back against the Grizzlies’ big front line?
• Some terrific statistics after six games:
Knicks continue to take good care of the ball. They had just seven turnovers against the Spurs, which was the fourth straight game the team has maintained a single-digit turnover total. They lead the league in fewest turnovers per game (10.2) and also have an incredible turnovers-per-possessions rate of just 10.8 percent.
What also stands out is that despite playing very stingy, very aggressive defense and being among the tops in forcing turnovers and recording steals, the Knicks don’t foul a lot. They have the NBA’s third-lowest fouls-per-possession rate at 18.2 percent.
The Spurs remain the NBA’s highest-scoring fourth-quarter team, at 27.1 points per game, but the Knicks held them to 24 points (which includes that late three by Leonard). The Knicks remain the NBA’s toughest fourth-quarter defensive team, allowing just 18.7 points per game. They held the Spurs to 31.8 percent shooting in the final quarter.
• And one last amazing stat before we go:
Mike Woodson has now coached 30 regular season games with the Knicks. His record is 24-6. That stands as the best first 30-game record by a Knicks coach. Stu Jackson opened the 1989-90 season with a 21-9 record, while Pat Riley and Don Nelson were both 20-10 in their first 30 games with the Knicks. Holzman, by the way, was 19-11.