Wednesday, January 5, 2011

No Gallinari, no problem. Biggest Knicks win in a decade

Madison Square Garden was rocking last night as the 29-4 San Antonio Spurs came to town with the NBA's best record. And while they left still hanging onto the league's top mark, they came short in a big way against the upstart Knicks.

If you like defense then this wasn't the game for you. The Knicks led 36-35 after the first quarter and 72-69 at halftime and it looked like we had an old-fashioned 1980s NBA shootout on our hands. The pace slowed in the second half as both team fatigued; neither team shot over 55 percent for the game but both were above 60 percent in the first half and 70 percent in the first quarter.

The Spurs couldn't buy a stop for four quarters, while the Knicks were able to clamp down defensively in the second half, allowing 46 points and just 20 in the fourth quarter, as the third quarter ended in a 101-95 score that had a higher combined score than three of the other six games played last night.

The atmosphere at the Garden throughout the game was unreal. It was the first game I've been able to get to a game this season and it was awesome to see arguably the most meaningful New York victory in at least a decade. The excitement was palpable and, while it's taken a while, the energy has FINALLY returned to Madison Square Garden.

As someone who didn't get the privilege to go to many Knicks games when they were relevant (I was young, broke and without a ticket hookup) this was an indescribable experience. I've been to a few games since 2000 and it was like I was in an entirely different arena. I enjoyed going even when they were losing, but this game ranks among my best in-person sports experiences ever, along with the two World Series-clinching games I've seen (1999 and 2009).

It's amazing that the Knicks were able to outscore their league-leading 107-point average by 21 points without their fourth-leading scorer and best three-point shooter in Danilo Gallinari, who may miss a few weeks with a sprained left knee. Wilson Chandler more than picked up the slack with a season-high 31 points and 9 rebounds while Amar'e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton both added 28.

Chandler's play this season has been an absolute revelation. He's upped his scoring average by almost three points per game while taking less than one more shot per game than last season. He's cut his turnovers and almost doubled his blocks but the real improvement in his game has been his shooting.

Barely a 30 percent three-point shooter in his first three seasons, Chandler is hitting almost two three-pointers per game and is shooting a robust 38.6 percent from beyond the arc. His mid-range game has also improved and while in past seasons I hated when he would take bad shots early in the shot clock, I don't mind it now because he's become a knock-down shooter. His mechanics are much improved from his rookie season and his confidence is through the roof.

I don't think many Knicks fans or people around the NBA expected this kind of play from Chandler, who is my early favorite for the league's Most Improved Player this season. It's becoming increasingly obvious to anybody who watched the Knicks that with all the talk of Miami's Big 3, the Knicks have their own terrific trio in Stoudemire, Felton and Chandler.

Beating the Spurs last night showed me something about this Knicks team; more than they showed me in their close loss to Boston a few weeks ago. This team can beat ANYBODY on any given night, especially at home, and that will make for an extremely exciting playoff trip for these Knicks.

I'm still scared of the Heat because they are the only team in the league that can beat us at our own up-tempo game. The last thing you want is to allow Miami opportunities on the fast break and the way the Knicks play, that's a foregone conclusion. But if the seeds work out and the Knicks avoid the Heat in the first two rounds and Boston knocks them off, the Knicks seem like a team that can at least contend for an Eastern Conference title.

If you thought that was the case before the season, please come forward. And no, I won't believe you.

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